For Brian Jaster, president of the Nicollet County Trail Association Snowmobile Club, there is no such thing as too much snow.
“It’s exciting to see the snow come down,” Jaster said. “What does the association do when there isn’t any snow? Nothing. We do nothing.”
But despite last year’s notoriously mild winter, the Trails Association has been hard at work this month, preparing the county’s snowmobile trails and working with local farmers to put up signs and smooth out bumps caused by lumps of dirt tilled up at the end of the growing season.
“We have to work with local farmers,” Jaster said. “They give us permission to do this. Almost all our trails are on farmland. The farmers rip up the soil in the fall and then we come in with the tractor and a disk and a roller and make it all smooth again.”
Now that the county has gotten some snow, the trails are officially open. The season will continue as long as the snow stays on the ground.
Each section of the county’s snowmobile trail system is maintained by a different trail boss or section leader. They are responsible for recruiting volunteers, talking to local farmers, making sure they have contracts to use their land for trails and putting up signs to mark the trail.
The association has two tractors or groomers, kept on each side of the county, that are used to groom the trails twice a week. Jaster said the association stays off the trails on the weekends and devotes weeknights to cleanup and maintenance.
In addition to picking up logs and clearing debris out of the way, the association clips tree branches and repairs bridges. The trail is at least 8.5 feet wide in all places and wider when it’s possible.
“We have almost 140 miles of trail to maintain and 70 members,” Jaster said. “We’re all volunteers. We don’t get paid to do this.”
The Nicollet County Trails Association is funded by the Minnesota Snowmobile Trails Assistance Program. In 1973, the Minnesota Legislature delegated the responsibility of administering a cost-sharing program for the development and maintenance of snowmobile trails to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
The goal of this program was the creation and maintenance of locally initiated trails that were financially assisted by the state and ensure that all the trails are prepared and ready for use at specific times. The program awards money upon the completion of certain benchmarks and mostly pays for ascertainment and grooming.
To get the grant money, trail associations must prove that they have completed the trail and then consistently groom it throughout the season.
Jaster said the association must raise money for any additional costs by holding fundraisers. The club’s most popular events are its annual Radar Runs.
During Radar Runs, snowmobiles line up on either Swan Lake or Washington Lake and are clocked to see which is the fastest.
“We give out trophies,” Jaster said. “We like to keep it family oriented and have runs for kids, too. “
Jaster said the association also likes to stress safety as much as possible and usually offers safety training classes the Saturday after Thanksgiving. A certified trainer, Jaster said he likes to remind riders to wear helmets, dress warmly and to never ride alone.
“Know your conditions,” Jaster said. “Know where you’re riding. You just never know what’s waiting for you in the ditches. That’s why we provide the trail.”
Another important part of safe snowmobile riding, is the proper upkeep and maintenance of your sled.
Lee Gansen, owner of Dranttel Sales and Services in St. Peter, said it’s important to bring sleds in for a safety check before hitting the trails.
“It’s no different than a car,” Gansen said. “Just on a different scale. The biggest maintenance item is carburetor cleaning. Clutches should be serviced. Your suspension should be checked.”
Gansen said it’s important to get a safety check done, but recommended waiting until just before the season starts.
“The die-hard guys, the guys that are going to go out west, are the guys that come in the fall,” Gansen said. “Pre-season checks are recommended but not before November. Once you bring your sled in, you’re pretty much set for the year. “
Gansen said last year’s mild weather had an effect on snowmobile dealers as well as snowmobile riders, but he’s hopeful more snow will drive sales back up.
“If you look out your window and see brown grass, it’s tough to get enthused,” Gansen said. “But we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Connecting north and south
According to Jaster, the trail association, once known at the Traverse des Sioux Trail Association has been developing the county’s trail system since the late 1970s. The trail acts as a corridor, connecting the northern and southern parts of the state through Le Sueur County.
LuAnn Linn, a member of the Le Sueur County Snowmobile Trails Association, said that its members, organized into smaller clubs like the New Prague Snow Drifters, are also working to get the trails ready for snowmobile riders eager to sled up to northern Minnesota.
“Now that it has snowed, we’ve gotten all the trail markers out,” Linn said. “We don’t have a date set for the trails to open, but ask people to use common sense.”
Both trail systems, which offer a combined total of 290 miles of snowmobiling trails, are the results of decades of labor and volunteer work, said Jaster.
“It’s taken many, many years to get where we are today,” Jaster said. “I’d say we have a nice diverse county for trails. Some areas are really beautiful.”
Reach reporter Jessica Bies at 507-931-8568 or follow her on Twitter.com @sphjessicabies