Snowmobile lovers want more snow
Minnesota is famous for a few things -- that Nordic accent, ice fishing and extreme cold -- as well as snowmobiling.
The past decade hasn't been kind to the snowmobiling industry, not factoring in the recession that began in 2008.
Becker County Park and Recreation Administrator Chip Lohmeier said a season of consistent snow just hasn't happened in quite a while.
"Last year was as good as we've had in about 10 or so years," he said.
The latest snowstorm during Christmas dumped about a foot of snow in Becker County.
"We probably got the least of it," Okeson Offtrail Sales owner Charlie Okeson said of Becker County's snowfall total compared to the areas west and south of the region.
And with relatively warm weather the past week, with highs approaching or above the freezing mark, the trail system has been battered.
Lohmeier said crews haven't been out grooming the trails for about a week.
"It takes multiple storms with volumes of snow to bring it back," Okeson said.
Becker County has four seasonal workers that groom 258 miles of trails using two grooming machines.
"If we have sufficient snow, we can groom five days per week," Lohmeier said.
The trail system is funded through snowmobile registrations and designated gasoline taxes. A portion of the gasoline tax is set aside for maintaining off-road trails.
"The funding has been pretty stable," Lohmeier said.
The 2008-09 snowmobile season was busy for Becker County's trail groomer. Grooming lasted for three months. Lohmeier said grooming started Dec. 8, 2008, and went up until mid-March.
Late-season snows, while nice for a few days, really don't do much for the season, Lohmeier said.
"Those late-season snows are tough to deal with, " Lohmeier said.
He said that there is a line between grooming or not grooming when you can get only a few days of use on the trail.
"If you don't, you hear from the resorts," Lohmeier said.
He said more damage could be done on the trails if they are groomed with a minimal amount of snow.
Besides snowfall being a factor in snowmobile use, Lohmeier just isn't seeing the same number of people out there on the trails.
He said some people don't see the point of having a sled if you just get a few weeks of use at most during the year.
Going back 20 years or so, Lohmeier said a resort in the northern part of the county used to be extremely busy from the snowmobile traffic, with as many as 1,500 sleds parked in front.
"They had to bring in a pizza truck every day, two gas trucks and a beer truck," he said.
Okeson said the best season he's seen in recent years was the winter of 1996-97.
"That was the peak of the industry," he said. "There was 3-4 feet of snow on the ground."
Recently, in the same area, Lohmeier said only a couple of snowmobiles might pass through a trail within a few days' span.
"The one key ingredient you need is snow," Okeson said.
Snowmobile business coming back slowly
Snowmobile dealers have felt the pinch of the recession and the lack of snow.
Business is starting to come back, thanks to last year and snow during Christmas.
Rich Liebelt, sales manager at Seaberg Power Sports, said that 2-up sleds -- two-seaters -- are hard to keep in stock.
"Mostly it's 2-up sleds," he said.
He said that people like to ride with their family.
Service, parts and accessories are also doing better.
While the latest models aren't selling as well as older models, Liebelt said that older inventory is being cleared out.
Most customers are also paying in cash, Liebelt said, instead of financing.
"It's been better this year," Liebelt said.
Okeson said the December storm helped the business with service and part sales.
"We've sold everything we could get our hands on," he said.