GRAND FORKS – All of the snow the region is getting this winter is good for something, and if you’re a snowmobile, ski, or snowshoe enthusiast, that something is obvious.
Whether it’s in Minnesota or North Dakota, it’s a good winter to be on the trails.
“It’s pretty crazy,” said Brian Brintell, president of the Ridge Runners Snowmobile Club in Fordville, ND. “They don’t usually get a ton of snow in western North Dakota. I don’t think they think about snowmobiling once you’re past Bismarck, but it’s definitely a state-wide change this year.”
The Ridge Runners, one of North Dakota’s largest snowmobile clubs, grooms and maintains approximately 165 miles of trails from Fordville to Grand Forks and across to Oslo, Minn.
“The trails were just excellent,” said Brintell. “We’ve groomed each other quite a bit and in general I think you can pretty much go anywhere.
“The snow is pretty cool.”
Based on a snow depth map maintained by the US Forest Service, much of the eastern two-thirds of North Dakota has between 10 and 20 inches of snow on the ground, with pockets greater than 20 inches north of Devils Lake and near Jamestown. Even the western part of the state is mostly snow-capped, although depths are generally shallower than further east.
This is also the case in much of Minnesota, where the deepest pockets are found along the North Shore. As in the eastern two-thirds of North Dakota, northwest Minnesota’s snow depth is generally in the 10 to 20 inch range.
For snowmobile trails in Northwest Minnesota, the biggest challenge has been achieving solid icing on trails that cut through swampy areas. It’s not that easy to start the groomer and smooth a track; Groomers are heavy and need a solid base underneath.
“It took a lot of work to get everything where it is, but the trails are beautiful right now,” said Myles Hogenson of the Roseau County Trailblazers, who groom 421 miles of trails in Roseau County and parts of the Beltrami Island State Forest. “They are all in top form.”
While the trails in the woods are good, the abundance of snow has presented challenges for clubs grooming at Lake of the Woods, says Hogenson.
“The boys from the lake have problems,” he said. “We have too much snow, the machines are too heavy and they have a lot to crack. Up on the Northwest Angle itself they did pretty well, but getting from here to there is a challenge.
On Tuesday morning, Hogenson drove a groomer on a land route from the Seven Clans Casino near Warroad, Minnesota, to Arnesens Rocky Point Resort on Lake of the Woods north of Roosevelt, Minnesota.
“The trail is getting crowded now because nobody wants to ride on the lake,” Hogenson said.
To groom in the Fordville area, the Ridge Runners Club runs a state groomer, says Brintnell, one of “13 or 14” groomers statewide. The club’s nurturing efforts provide a connection between several local communities, including Pisek, Lankin and Park River, he says.
“It’s been pretty smooth this year,” said Brintnell, adding that if it weren’t for the local snowmobile clubs, there wouldn’t be anyone maintaining the trails.
The clubs also work with landowners to secure leases for crossing private land.
The Ridge Runners Snowmobile Club, based in Fordville, North Dakota, operates a state snow groomer to maintain a 165-mile trail network in the northeastern part of the state.
Post/Ridge Runners Snowmobile Club
“We actually have to work with a lot of different people,” Brinnell said. “When we walk across a farmer’s field, we have to sign a lease and have everyone’s signature. So that becomes a problem later on because some people don’t want you to go over their land and they think it’s a burden. But the state of North Dakota has the insurance. If you’re on their trail system, it’s covered – the landowner is covered.
Despite northwest Minnesota’s general abundance of snow — most trails in the Roseau County area have a 6- to 7-inch base — Hogenson says some trails could use a little more white stuff, including the Ray Morrissette Trail north of Roseau in the Lost River State Forest.
“They groomed, but there isn’t enough snow to cover all the stumps,” Hogenson said. “We broke a couple of studs on the snow groomer that goes through there.”
This is just one example of the costs involved in running a groomer. In Grand Forks in November, the Red River Snowmobile Club had its groomer serviced, a job that included an oil change and filter, said Brian Chandler, the club’s vice president.
“It’ll be easily $1,000,” Chandler said. By some estimates, running a groomer costs $30 to $40 per mile every time it runs.
Hogenson says he’s been at the groomer almost every day lately, but needs to take it easy. In Minnesota, most of the state’s snowmobile trails are funded through the Department of Natural Resources’ grant-in-aid program through registration fees – $113.50 for three years – $53 for out-of-state snowmobiles and a small percentage of the unrecovered gas tax, levied by the state.
Grant-in-Aid funds are then distributed to local snowmobile clubs.
“We only have so much money,” Hogenson said. “That’s why I try to make the trails as wide as possible. You better stay.”
In North Dakota, the State Parks and Recreation Department has contracted with Snowmobile North Dakota to administer the state’s Snowmobile Trail Program and is working with 14 trail associations to provide funding through snowmobile registration proceeds and a portion of the gasoline tax . Registering a snowmobile in North Dakota costs $50 for two years, payable in odd years. Out-of-state snowmobilers must purchase a $25 Public Trail and Non-Resident Land Access Permit to ride on state trails.
According to Snowmobile North Dakota, the state snowmobile program covers 70% of the cost of trail maintenance equipment, 100% of trail insurance, and 90% of trail signage costs. All remaining funds are used to support trail associations with maintenance costs, a significant portion of which is funded through local club events and community grants.
According to Snowmobile North Dakota, it costs an average of more than $114,000 to maintain just one of North Dakota’s 14 trail systems.
“The state also only covers a limited portion of the cost before our local clubs actually have to come up with a lot of the monies to keep paying for the care and all that,” said Brintnell of the Ridge Runners, who also serves on the board of directors Snowmobile North Dakota. “It costs a lot of money to run these things on diesel prices and just have one operator running them.
“The state pays a little, but a lot is donated by local association members. It’s a big process getting these things done. Everyone kind of thinks, “Oh, the state does all the care.” ”
Snowmobile North Dakota offers an interactive map on its website that shows the status of trails in the state’s snowmobile trail system, including when they were last groomed and snow depth conditions.
“We’ve had such great snow over the last few years,” Brinnell said. “The conditions this year were just phenomenal.”
The Buena Vista ski resort north of Bemidji is a winter wonderland in this photo from January 2023.
Post/Michelle Thomas Moravec, Buena Vista Ski Area
Winter fun isn’t limited to snowmobiles, of course. The snow also offers many opportunities for skiing and snowshoeing. Hiking trails in some areas, like Turtle River State Park west of Grand Forks, could use a little more snow, park officials say, but overall hiking trails throughout the region range from good to excellent. The Grand Forks Greenway now has an online interactive map showing the grooming status of cross-country trails within the system.
Meanwhile, alpine skiing enthusiasts have benefited from snow conditions and favorable temperatures for a busy winter, said Suzanne Thomas of Buena Vista Ski Resort, north of Bemidji.
“We’ve been busy,” Thomas said this week. “Every day on vacation was so beautiful. We made quite a bit of snow and will make some more, but we are so thankful for this great weather.”