Necessity initially powered snowmobiling

Old Man Winter has long produced obstacles for travel. But resourceful humans have not only developed machines to traverse snow-covered fields for practical purposes, they've created recreational vehicles to make tundra living downright fun. In t...

Old Man Winter has long produced obstacles for travel.

But resourceful humans have not only developed machines to traverse snow-covered fields for practical purposes, they've created recreational vehicles to make tundra living downright fun.

In today's world, Minnesota snowmobilers have more than 20,000 miles of trails to travel, groomed by sophisticated machinery on a weekly basis.

Akeley icon and snowmobile pioneer Frank Brean would be proud -- and likely astounded.

In the early 1920s, Brean was among the first to build a vehicle that would move over snow on runners. He had the distinction of creating the first licensed snowmobile in the state, bearing the number one.


Brean, who'd arrived in the lumber village in 1902, used a Model T to develop his first machine, tracks in the back and skis on the front.

He used his machine to transport physicians to remote areas when a baby was about to make its debut. Mail carriers, who'd found their mission impossible when snow fell in abundance, were among the first customers.

And daughter Fran Brean Lamb (91, and a resident of Akeley) was transported to her piano lessons via the contraption.

By the late 1920s, the Ford mechanic employed parts from a Model A to develop a school bus, transporting students from Williams Lake into Akeley after the country school closed.

"The kids were thrilled," Lamb said of the merry morning chauffeured rides to school. The alternative was to bunk in town during winter months.

(Brean would live to be three weeks shy of 100 years old, deer hunting and tending a massive garden until he was 90-plus.)

It was in the late 1950s, with the development of smaller gasoline engines, that snowmobiling as a recreational activity was born.

A decade later, dozens of manufacturers were producing snowmobiles that sold for a few hundred dollars apiece.


Snowmobiles were gaining wide consumer attention in the mid to late '60s, but designated trails didn't exist.

Snowmobile clubs formed for purely social reasons, said Kelley Cirks, one of the original members of the Nevis Trailblazers Snowmobile Club, established in 1967. Come the weekend, 35 to 40 members headed out for winter adventure.

"Trail grooming" began in 1970, he recalled, a Polaris wide-track hauling a bedspring.

"It took four guys to groom because we were stuck all the time," he said.

The first actual groomer purchased by the club in 1972 was a Cushman Trackster, member Ted Luetgers recalled. The Trailblazers graduated to a Bombardier, "but it didn't have enough power to level out the bumps."

And snowmobiling at the time was not a sport for the mechanically challenged. "The old philosophy was you ride one day and fix it the next," Cirks said.

"Now you can ride forever," he said of the machines heading down the finely groomed trails.

The Nevis Trailblazers recently purchased a $140,000 Tucker SnoCat, featuring quad rubber tracks (as opposed to metal cleats) to head down the trail, a Cummins turbo diesel engine pulling the 18-foot drag.


Six angled blades cut the hard-packed snow, moving it back and forth. Once the drag has passed over the surface, the trail has been transformed to smooth, packed snow. Ideally, the groomed trail should sit three to four hours before use.

The Trailblazers spend five days a week grooming, two days in the Paul Bunyan State Forest, two on the Heartland Trail and heading down to Huntersville.

Weekends, club president Karl Dierkhising tends to the machine's mechanical needs.

"I see some beautiful country," Luetgers said of his weekly task (for which he earns $9 per hour). "It's especially nice in the Paul Bunyan."

Snowmobilers meeting Luetgers on the trail greet him with a thumbs-up for the effort.

The advantage of the rubber track is that it doesn't stir up gravel, unlike the previous machine's metal cleats, he explained. The trail tends to hold up better between groomings.

His eyes move from the trail ahead to the side mirrors, monitoring progress. "There's no time to daydream," he said. The new machine's a little wider, which he admits took a bit of getting used to.

The old groomer moved at about 5 miles an hour. This one travels from 10 to 12 mph.


Funding for grooming is now "performance based," he explained, calculations based on the number of trail miles, not the number of times the trails are groomed within a season.

Snowless winters produced minimal funding, "and we had payments to make" on the groomers, Luetgers said.

Baby boomers, who grew up with "sleds," continue to be the largest market for the recreational machines, Cirks said.

But the 15- to 30-year-old market may expand. An average snowmobile comes with an $8,000 to $11,000 price tag. But a less expensive machine -- in the $4,000 price range -- may draw the younger crowd.

"We may get a new generation back," Cirks said.

"Everything has changed except the name," he said of the snowmobile's evolution. With the new sleds, you can ride them and put them away. Even the bumpiest trails provide smooth rides. And thumb warmers prevent freezing fingers.

"I hope snowmobiling continues when us baby boomers tip over," he said.

(Jean Ruzicka writes for the Park Rapids Enterprise, a Forum Communications Co. newspaper)

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