Snowmobile groups promote safe riding
Some Minnesotans yearn for spring while others hope only for snow to utilize their favorite winter toys.
Snowmobiles have long been a staple of these cold Minnesota winter months, and proper safety, maintenance, and understanding of rules and regulations go hand in hand with snowmobile operation.
This past Saturday, the Steele County Trail Association, in partnership with the Steele County Sno-Blazers Snowmobile Club, held an annual safety course for both old and young alike. There was an indoor classroom session followed by an outdoor hands-on testing portion.
Kristi Fiebiger, who has been participating at the event for 23 years, explains that the age range of students typically spans between 11 to 14 years, although adults and older riders are welcome to attend and earn their certification.
The youngest one can be when attending the class is 11 years old, and those who are over the age of 16 are only required to complete the written portion. They will then receive a certified endorsement on their driver’s license. Those below the age of 16 receive a safety certificate when they reach the age of 12.
Fiebiger joked that, although most people go through the proper channels when it’s time to learn safety and earn their certification, there are still those who wait until they get fined to do so.
Additional options are available for those looking to learn about snowmobile safety and become certified to operate a sled in the state of Minnesota. These include online certification, which also requires two hours of in-person training. Aside from this, there are other statewide training courses offered.
When it comes to the importance of proper safety techniques and training for potential Minnesota snowmobilers, Fiebiger believes that understanding, and adhering to the rules and regulations is just as paramount as a new driver learning how to properly operate a car.
Fiebiger recalled that when she first started, they used to hold the course over a period of two days. Now, with people becoming busier and busier, the course and its exam are spaced out over the period of a single day. She notes that “having it be an all-day event helps to reward the kids.”
This year there were between 50 and 60 participants, including adults. In past years there have been over 100. The volunteers, who help to explain and teach proper techniques and safety measures, as well as aid in the event and its outdoor course, numbered around a dozen or so.
Earlier in the day a few guest speakers were invited, including a representative from the DNR, a father who lost his son in a snowmobile accident, an emergency medical transponder, and a police officer. These guest speakers helped to bring real world experience to the program, which in turn can inspire better safety measures by the students.
During the class the students learn many aspects of proper snowmobile usage, including information on how weather conditioning can change, where and how most fatalities occur, as well as how to properly read trail signs, and what precautions to take during nighttime hours or inclement weather. These are vital details every Minnesota snowmobiler should understand before going for a ride.
Ed Nelson has been involved in the Steele County Trail Association since 1985. Back then it was known as the Steele County Trail Council. Nelson thankfully notes that he’s only seen three fatalities within the county in the 40 odd years since he’s been participating in the trail association.
Although Nelson feels that “three deaths is still too many,” this relatively low figure may be due in large part to the work that the Sno-Blazers Club, and the Trail Association do in educating future snowmobilers at events like this one.
He recalls that back when he started, in 1985, there was only around 25 miles of trails, and the Trail Council received a $4,700 grant from the state. Today this has evolved to include 250 miles of trails and an increased grant of $55,000. Back in the 80s, before there was a Steele County Trail Association, or a building to house its operation, Nelson remembers that they would teach the course in public buildings, including schools and other venues.
The trail association moved into its current building around 2001. Nelson estimates that they’ve certified over 3,000 people in all the years he’s been working there, which is quite an achievement.
According to Nelson, snowmobiling is a great outdoor sport to participate in during winter months, when there are typically less activities available to Minnesotans. He has even met snowmobilers who travel from the southern border all the way up to the boundary waters and back again.
Chris Stangl, president of the Steele County Sno-Blazers Club, said that they will be hosting a free ride event on Feb. 10. The event will begin in Hope around 11 a.m. and proceed to New Richland, then to Manchester, and once again back to Hope. They will have free dinner including pop and chips. Events like this one help to bring together Steele County’s snowmobile community, and emphasize the importance of proper riding.
Stangl says that he loves snowmobiling, as well participating in the different events that they hold, but that he’s “wishing we had more snow.” This might sound rather antithetical to most Minnesotans, but Stangl and his fellow snowmobilers know that good snow cover, and a high volume of it allows the trails to be open, and means a safe and fun year of riding.
Typically the trails will open when there is sufficient snow cover on the ground, usually around a foot or more, and can close again in the following weeks due to melting, weather conditions, or a lack of snow. In order to groom the trails the team utilizes a fleet of seven snow cats, large vehicles used to create and flatten the snow covered trails for sled usage.
The trails also need to be properly marked and mapped, guaranteeing that the conditions for riding will be safe and well plotted out. Stangl reiterates that young, inexperienced riders should always have an updated trail map, plan their trip, and let a family member or friend know the location and time of their ride. For safety reasons, young riders should also keep their rides local.
Stangl has been riding since he was around 13, and recommends that young riders stick more towards private property and utilize proper supervision. When noting all of the participants in the day’s class, Stangl thinks its “great to see so many young kids still involved.”
Once the written portion of the exam is finished, those below the age of 16 are required to complete the hands-on exam, which requires students to properly perform safety checks, hand signals, and driving techniques in a small, circular route that loops around the trail house.
Two of the volunteers who aided with this portion, brothers Tanner and Dakota Thiele, helped the students through their safety checks and monitored them as they completed the route. Dakota explained that he too was hoping for more snow, but that the weather was otherwise pretty decent.
Snowmobiles are used across the country for different reasons, some for practical concerns including people’s livelihoods, and others just for fun and recreation. There are 300,000 registered sleds in Minnesota, and 22,000 miles of trail which extend across the state and connect to Canada, as well as our neighboring states.
For Minnesotans interested in a fun, outdoor activity, a snowmobile ride is a terrific idea. Just remember to receive your state certification, and always ride safely and in groups.
A prayer or two for some snow couldn’t hurt either.