They groom more than 140 miles of designated snowmobile trails every week; a service they took over from Becker County about 10 years ago.

It can be boring, like cutting grass, one groomer said, but, parts of these trails also feature some of the most serene winter landscapes in all of Becker County.

Now, with their new $255,000 PistenBully snow groomer, the United Lakes and Trails Riders Association, or ULTRA, for short, snowmobile club is prepared to continue their county grooming services for years to come.

The club began in 1988 and has since become a nonprofit organization with more than 85 members, including three, full-time volunteer trail groomers.

Members of the ULTRA snowmobile club stand in front of their new $255,000 PistenBully snow groomer. ULTRA grooms more than 140 miles of snowmobile trails throughout Becker County. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)
Members of the ULTRA snowmobile club stand in front of their new $255,000 PistenBully snow groomer. ULTRA grooms more than 140 miles of snowmobile trails throughout Becker County. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)

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"I do it because I love the sport and I love to help the community," said Mike Williams, 62, president of ULTRA snowmobile club.

Williams is a retired Becker County sheriff's deputy and has been an active member of the club for the last 12 years. He was elected club president last year.

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About 10 years ago, Becker County handed trail grooming ownership of the county snowmobile trails over to three-area snowmobile clubs, including ULTRA. A club in Lake Park manages trails on the western side of the county, while a group near Ice Cracking Lake by Ponsford handles the eastern side. ULTRA is responsible for 107 miles of designated trails through the county, but they have also been managing additional trails in the area, which brings their area of responsibility to more than 140 miles.

"(Grooming) usually starts in early fall," said Williams. "We go out and visually inspect all of the trails that we groom and we're looking for downed trees, brush that has grown up over the summer, all that needs to be cleaned, and all of that needs to be taken care of before we can get through there with the groomer."

The groomer needs about 6 inches of snow to be effective, he said. The first step is to pack down the snowfall with a roller attachment on the groomer and, once the snow is packed tightly, then the groomers manicure the trails so they look nice and give snowmobilers a smooth ride.

"Every trail gets groomed weekly," said Williams. "That's our goal. Sometimes we do the heavier traveled trails twice per week."

Mike Williams, president of the ULTRA snowmobile club. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)
Mike Williams, president of the ULTRA snowmobile club. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)

He said the trails the group is responsible for are a combination of ditches, minimum maintenance roads and designated trails setup by Becker County. Additionally, some trails overlap with area-bicycle trails, Williams said.

One of the club's full-time trail grooming volunteers, Mike Nodsle, has been grooming for the last five years.

"It's very pretty out in the woods," said Nodsle. "Vergas trails, the 300-trail from here to Pickerel Lake, Cotton Lake, very pretty in there."

He said some trails get large snow drifts, which can get the groomer stuck in the thick powder.

"If you're not out there every day packing it down, then you've got 3 to 4 feet of loose snow, and you're pulling the drag, it takes a lot of power to pull the that drag . . . and all of a sudden, the drag fills up with snow and down you go," he said.

Nodsle said, last year, he nearly rolled the tractor after missing one of the trail turns and the snow was so heavy that it prevented the groomer from rolling over completely, but he couldn't open the tractor door.

He also said these large groomers keep them busy because they need to watch for tight areas, tree branches and guide wires. If any of those obstacles get struck in the groomer, they could severely damage the equipment.

Becker County pays the clubs $348 per mile of groomed trail, but, Williams said, the amount doesn't cover all the expenses associated with the grooming, such as maintenance and repairs, which can run up to $16,000 each time a groomer heads into the repair garage.

"We have multiple ways of getting additional funds to fund this brand new groomer," said Williams.

He said the club started a partnership with the Audubon liquor store which offers charitable gaming and the snowmobile club receives a percentage. The club also raises money by offering trail sponsorship signs along the trail routes and sponsors can get a spot on the grooming equipment itself.

These fundraising mechanisms allowed the organization to pay $100,000 of the $255,000 cost for their new snow groomer up front and they were able to finance the rest through a loan with a local bank, he said.

"Without the group support, and the businesses in the community, it would've never happened," said Williams. "We do great supporting the community of this town because many people come up here just to snowmobile."

Howard Olson, a past president of ULTRA, said it's important for lakes area snowmobilers to stay on the designated snowmobile trails because many of the routes pass through private land. The group has agreements with the landowners to maintain the trails on their land, but the landowners get upset when rogue drivers disregard the trails and continue their treks onto private property.

"Riders are looking for fresh snow and they are pulling out into fields wherever they want to go," said Olson. "In Minnesota, any agricultural land is automatically posted, there doesn't have to be a no trespassing sign, so by law, it's posted and they are trespassing."

Olson said the landowners could take the club's trail rights away from them at any time if the problems with rogue drivers continue.

"We just have to be really respectful of the landowners and respectful of trespassing on private property," he said. "Snowmobilers can ride in any of the road ditches, that's legal, the highway right-of-ways and on the lakes, they just can't be going on private property unless it's a marked trail."

The group also fundraises during their annual vintage snowmobile rally; to be held this year on Feb. 20 between Zorbaz and Lakeside Tavern on West Lake Drive in Detroit Lakes.

The outdoor event has approval from Becker County and the group has a COVID-19 action plan in place to follow current health guidelines during the pandemic, said Williams. The group has had as many as 150 different sleds on display in past years.

One of the group's members, Wayne Schlauderaff, has spearheaded organizing the vintage event for many years.

ULTRA is looking for new group members who have an interest in snowmobiles to join the organization and encourage anyone interested to contact the group through its website, https://www.ultradl.org/, or Facebook page. Current snowmobile trail conditions can also be found on the group's website.

"If you're an avid snowmobiler, you should probably get in the club," Williams said.