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Having braved the frozen tundra of NW Wisconsin to try ice fishing last year, I couldn’t help but take the opportunity to revisit… and maybe try something different.  Last year, as I sat on my bucket on the ice, holding a short fishing pole and a beer, I couldn’t help but notice the number of people zooming past on snowmobiles.  When there is snow everywhere, and the lake freezes to over 12” thick…  sure, why not?  Never mind that I’ve never driven a motorcycle and only done a jet-ski once.   But…  “Hey, Bob.  What would you  think of snowmobiling this year?”

Fast forward.  The alarm goes off and it’s –22oF.  Yeah, not including the wind chill advisory.  But, it’s kind of like “There’s no crying in baseball.”  Well, my northern bred host might be looking for signs of weakness, and I signed up for this – literally with a pre-paid rental fee.

I researched WI weather, snowmobile operation and safety rules, and, significantly, product reviews on clothing to keep me warm.  Temperate Georgia did me a favor by putting insulated boots, rated to –25oF, on sale.  I have wool socks, bought years ago as a manufacturer irregular and worn maybe twice.  I listened to a sales person explain the differences in the warming qualities of different materials for thermal underwear, sorry, “layered under-garments.” The marketing language probably costs me double, but in retrospect, I have no regrets buying Merino wool. I also bought a balaclava – a robber’s mask but intended for good (I should have bought a more expensive one…) And, Bob has the rest, insulated and windproof bibs, gloves and ski jacket.  Bob loaned boots to me last year, but… we agreed I didn’t need to ride a snowmobile with Frankenstein sized boots.

So, –22oF in Wisconsin.  It’s like the desert.  It’s a dry cold.  It’s not like the bone numbing, penetrating cold that we get in the south, where the humidity gathers in wait for the summer.  And I’m well wrapped.  Confident.

The rental has been paid for over a month, and it’s not cheap.  But it’s for 24 hours.  That means we’re up early and arriving at Hayward Power Sports before they open at 9:00 a.m., to find that they’re already open.  Operating a snowmobile is pretty dang simple.  Start, accelerate, brake, and the gas goes here.  The check-in instruction was as succinct with obligatory pointing, including to sign the waiver that I have been trained (and am liable for anything that precludes the return of an
undamaged snowmobile).

Even less helpful was the rental helmet process.  There are different sizes, and I got one that fit.  Now, it’s time to put up or shut up.  I start the “sled,” accelerate and whee!…. 100 yards later, my visor is fogged and the moisture is forming ice crystals on the inside.  I’m wearing the balaclava, and it’s supposed to help redirect my breath down the neck and away from the visor.  Supposed to.

That would be the main story of the day, driving while peering through a sliver of non-iced visor, or with it open fully.  I had also chosen a balaclava that would allow wearing my glasses.  They iced also, so instead, I was left with an exposed face.  The 600 miles of trails are undeveloped, meaning there are pine trees and evergreens covered with a fresh 4”–6” of snow everywhere.  Sledding, though, is not a scenery sport.  Never mind the lack of eyeglasses.  Sure, the visor is frozen, or my eyes are tearing and freezing as I zip along, but it’s more than a little important to focus on the trail.  That’s a good thing.  Who would want to sled down an interstate? 

So… sledding.  A jet-ski on snow, right?  Pretty much.  And just like a jet ski, you take breaks.  It seems the area businesses are primarily open during the winter (for those who ice fish and/or sled) or the summer (fishing/boating or ATV riding, but not both seasons.  Maybe all the employees shuffle between employers?  In the winter, those businesses located at the various end points of the trails are open, offering bar food, beverages and heat to thaw your frozen visor.  Each stop was interesting in its way, with most bars/taverns decorating not just the walls but the ceilings with deer and moose racks and other bric-a-brac. 

At our second or third stop, as both Bob and I were frustrated with our visors, I asked a guy who had zipped past us – and slightly above as he jumped a driveway - I.e. “PRO” - about the helmet fogging issue.  “There’s vents.”   Oh.  “Let’s see, the top one is open, and, here, now the bottom is open, and I’d recommend you keep the visor open about a fingernail width.”  So I did that, and it worked for a good number of hours until it didn’t.  There’s a systematic “thing” going on there with the fit of the helmet, the balaclava, the tucking of collars, perhaps, and the pernicious nature of chance.   Or, maybe this method worked when the sun brought the ambient to 8oF, before humbling my optimism when the temps dipped again below zero.

We trekked roughly from 9:15 to 8:00 p.m.  And, thanks to Bob and his trusty paper map, we pretty much had an idea where we were, as cell phones were dead in the area.  I downloaded an app for tracking where we traveled, as cell phones include a GPS enabled chip that does not rely on cell towers.  The only problem is that the app drains the battery.  I was able to capture most of Saturday afternoon’s travel as well as returning the sled the following morning.

About the sled itself, kudos to the designers.  The Ski-Doos had super soft seats, extremely forgiving shock absorbers, and heated handlebar grips (This really makes a difference.  Try periodically accidentally turning them off and you have the proof).   So, it was surprising the following day to find my hands, forearms and back muscles were tired.  Sledding is not strenuous, at least as we did it, but it does require a constant exertion.

At times the trails were wide and flat, but there were (happily) many areas that were narrow, twisting, and hilly, particularly approaching Clam Lake.  The pacing was slow and fast depending on the trail and lasted just shy of 120 miles.  It doesn’t seem like much, but in snowmobile miles, I think it’s decent.  On the trails, it’s not hard to average 20, so that gives an idea of how frequently we stopped for breaks (which included three bargain priced meals.)… or stopped to consult the map.

The sleds are fitted with skis for groomed trails.  I didn’t know that there were options, but I figured something was up when I intentionally put one ski in the powdery snow that had been plowed to the side and had to fight to pull it back on the trail.  Once learned, I didn’t do that again… until I accidentally did it coming over a curved hill, and in one of those “time slows down” moments, applied the hitherto almost unused brakes.  That left me and the sled about 6’ off the trail, sitting in about a foot of snow.  Meanwhile, Bob, who had been leading the way, continued to lead the way without me, unaware of my little side trip.   Two guys following not too far behind me came along and helped free the sled, which isn’t a small chore, it turned out.  It wasn’t a big deal, per se, but it would be if I was alone, enough so that it provided an appreciation for staying off the moors.

At night, with my visor fogged again (and Bob’s as it turned out), and having decided to go “that way” at an unmarked intersection, we went into a peninsula with some sort of campground that was closed.  Uh oh.  Dead end.  Only, there goes Bob, right over the edge and… duh.. onto the lake.  Seemingly obvious, right?  But, it wasn’t until that point that we rode across a lake.   It turns out we were still in the right county (which doesn’t say much), but as the first bar we came to wasn’t the one we were expecting (and apparently understaffed and not serving food), I trusted Bob the Navigator as we ventured one way and the other, hopeful for a warm meal and short ride home. Note:  Bob boats this lake frequently and knows it well to find all of his favorite fishing holes.  Put ice on it and turn out the lights and not so much.  

So, about those sledders zipping by the prior year.  At night, there are reflectors on the ice about every 75 yards to guide you across the ice to stay on the “trail,” specifically where it picks up again at the next land mass.  Very helpful.  It had snowed just a couple days prior to my arrival, and the winds had shifted the snow to form moguls.  So, it’s dark, getting colder, the visor is unhelpfully frozen, we’re tired and hungry, lacking certainty on our exact location, and bouncing around on the lake at 42 mph…  It’s kind of fun.  Sure, I’m wondering if my exposed skin will freeze and blister, but my mind was focused on how to turn the grip warmers back on, because the sled doesn’t have “cab lights” to see the controls, or at least that I was told.  Brrr.

We arrived without incident at the (backup) place Bob intended to go, and it was a fitting end to a fun day.  Good food, a couple of beers, and a short distance to his house.   The next morning’s return trip was fine, but not enjoyable as the trails had been more heavily used and were thin on snow.

The next highlight was the drive back to civilization, where Bob stopped in Roberts, WI at Bobtown Brewhouse and Grill.  Small, warm, good food, good beer, and good friend.

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