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Grooming snowmobile trails kicks into high gear in southern Wisconsin

Wisconsin State Journal

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    TOWN OF DANE, Wisconsin (Wisconsin State Journal ) — Vaughn Watzke was clearly in his element.

He has been snowmobiling for over 50 years, but on this day he was behind the wheel of a Tucker 2000 Sno-Cat less than 24 hours after the biggest snowfall of the season.

Powered by a Cummins diesel engine, the Sno-Cat, owned by the Waunakee Winter Wanderers Snowmobile Club, is a beast of a machine. It has tracks that gripped the snow and easily pulled the heavy grooming sled across the dormant corn, hay and soybean fields of northern Dane County.

Not all weeks are like this in southern Wisconsin’s temperamental snow zone, but Watzke relished the opportunity to help ready the club’s 42 miles of marked trail for eager riders ready to break out their Polaris, Yamaha and Ski-Doo snow machines.

“They got hit pretty hard last night, so we’ve got to get out and make them all smooth,” Watzke said as he maneuvered the Sno-Cat between Lavina and Stevenson roads. “If you have a really rutted trail you can smooth her right down like this, and then when it’s cold it just sets up and it’s like a highway.”

With 25,000 miles of trail winding through Wisconsin, trail systems around Boulder Junction, Eagle River, Hayward and Hurley grab much of the attention and attract thousands of tourists each season to the snow-covered North Woods. But southern Wisconsin also has an impressive network of trails, although they’re usually not open as many days as those in the state’s far northern reaches.

But this season, the trails in the southern part of the state are in just as good shape as those up north. The void is in the middle and northeastern part of the state, where trails are either closed, only partially open or in poor condition, according to Travel Wisconsin’s snow report.

In Jefferson County, where there are 299 miles of trail, traffic is running high, according to Jason Lenz, the county’s trail coordinator and a member of the Twin River Riders out of Lake Mills.

“The farther south you go, the better it gets,” Lenz said “They’re tearing up trails as fast we can put them down, which is great because that’s what they’re there for.”

Trails opened this season in Jefferson County on New Year’s Eve but were forced to close Jan. 3. They reopened Tuesday, and, with more snow in the forecast, things could be looking good for the riders in the county’s 18 snowmobile clubs and those that will visit the county to get in a ride or two.

Last season, snowmobile trails in Jefferson County didn’t open until Jan. 19 but then went through a series of closing, opening and closing. In all, the county’s trail system was open just 13 days. With the price of a new snowmobile costing between $13,000 and $17,000, with some soaring much higher, getting as much trail time in as possible is a seasonal goal for most riders.

“It’s not something you want to park in the garage and not enjoy and stare at,” Lenz said. “It’s really amazing what has happened with our trail system the last two days. We have a little snow on the way and that should push it up to the great mark.”

Wisconsin — where there are over 200,000 registered machines, according to the state Department of Natural Resources — has a storied history with snowmobiling.

Even before 1900, Wisconsinites experimented with bicycles on runners with gripping fins, steam-propelled sleighs and later Model T Fords converted with rear tractor treads and skis in the front, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society. Carl Eliason, of Sayner, developed the prototype of the modern snowmobile in 1924 when he mounted a small gasoline-powered marine engine on a long toboggan, steered with skis under the front and driven by a rear, single, endless track.

Eagle River is the self-proclaimed “Snowmobile Capital of the World” and lives up to that name each season by hosting a series of races at the World Champion Derby Complex on the city’s north side. The World Series of Snowmobiling is set for Feb. 20-21, with the Arctic Derby Dash the next weekend.

But one of the biggest reasons for the growth in recreational snowmobiling can be traced to 1969. That’s when a small group of enthusiasts concerned about the future of the activity created the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs. The organization, today with 612 clubs that have over 40,000 members, is designed to preserve and grow snowmobiling throughout the state and lobbies lawmakers about proposed legislation concerning the sport that pumps millions of dollars into the state’s economy each winter.

Sam Landes bought his first snowmobile for $500 in 1975 when he was 15 years old and living in Cross Plains. It was a 1969 Mercury 250e and helped propel him to decades of enjoyment on the trails. Landes lives in the town of Springfield just east of Highway 12 and can see a trail from his garage, where he has five sleds at the ready.

“You can hop on this trail and you can either head to Superior, Iron Mountain, Michigan, or to Dubuque (Iowa) on the Wisconsin side. The trail right now to Warrens, Illinois, is beautiful. They’re all interconnected,” said Landes, the former executive director of the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs and Dane County’s rep for the organization. “Snowmobiling in Wisconsin is extremely strong.”

The Dane County Council of Snowmobile Clubs, of which Landes is a member, is also asking the DNR to include a snowmobile trail through an eastern portion of Blue Mounds State Park so the Military Ridge Trail could connect with snowmobile trails north of the park. The request has created controversy from those who don’t want machines roaring through the park. Changes to the park’s master plan are currently under review.

The Dane County trail system totals 500 miles with about 75% of the trails using seasonal easements over private property. The county’s 17 snowmobile clubs hold organized rides and radar runs, set up the trail markers, groom the trails and hold chili suppers, pancake breakfasts and other events to raise funds. Clubs also receive funds from trail passes and state registration fees.

In southwestern Dane County, clubs such as Oregon Sno-Blazers, Belleville Sno Cats and Mt. Vernon Valley Riders maintain the trails, while in the southeastern part of the county the clubs include the Brooklyn Sno Hornets, Viking Snowdrifters out of Stoughton and the Utica-Nora Trailblazers. There’s the Marshall Sno-Drifters and Prairie Riders in Sun Prairie in the northeast, and the Ashton Ridge Runners and CP Riders in Cross Plains in the county’s northwestern quadrant.

The Waunakee Winter Wanderers maintain trails from the village of Dane that skirt around Waunakee and end in the town of Westport. That gives groomers like Watzke plenty of time behind the wheel of the Sno-Cat that pulls the groomer. When he first joined the club in 1970, the grooming machinery wasn’t as sophisticated or effective.

“We had a Ski-Doo Alpine. It was about the size of a snowmobile with two tracks on it, and we pulled a 4-foot drag that looked like a 50-gallon barrel drum cut in half and that’s what we dragged,” Watzke said. “We weren’t as solvent as we are now to have machinery like this. You want to have nice trails. It’s a lot of money but we have fundraisers and we enjoy doing it.”

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