In snowmobiling’s earliest days, there was no such thing as trails in the Northwoods.
That is, until snowmobile clubs were formed.
And for one of the Lakeland area snowmobile clubs, the Cross Country Cruisers, “providing safe trails for the local people and visitors, and providing tourism for the Minocqua-Arbor Vitae-Woodruff area” are two of the organization’s most important functions, as described by trail boss Steve Wolfe.
“All the clubs have established a good history of great trails, so even if there is snow down south, people still tend to travel north a couple times a year because they know what we provide for them,” Wolfe said. “The scenic beauty up here still overrules. You ride up here after a fresh snowfall and ... it just doesn’t get any prettier. It’s just gorgeous.”
Cruisers revving up
Fall of 1969 marked the Cross Country Cruisers unofficial start.
“The club was established in ... 1969 as the Arbor Vitae/Woodruff Snowmobile Club when local outdoor enthusiasts saw the potential in our lovely Northwoods for a snowmobile trail system,” Valerie Kuechler reported in a Jan. 29, 2010, Lakeland Times article celebrating the Cross Country Cruisers’ 40th anniversary. “How fortunate the club was to have had them.”
The organization’s first meeting followed in September 1969 with 67 original members. Only a few short months later – by the end of the year – there were about 90 members.
Come 1970, the Arbor Vitae/Woodruff Snowmobile Club incorporated with a new name – the Cross Country Cruisers. Marvin Neff was the first Cruiser president; Eugene Spears, vice president; Vera Neff, secretary; and Phyllis Harding, treasurer.
And first on the club’s agenda, and arguably one of its most significant contributions: Designate snowmobile trails.
“I think the biggest contribution [of the Cross Country Cruisers] is first of all, when snowmobiling first started out, there were no trails. People just were ditch-banging around,” Rocky Caffarella, Cruiser board member and past trail boss, said.
Eventually some trails were established, and old snowmobiles with bed springs were used to groom them.
“Then they had to get organized because there was a lot of legislation coming down the pipe about snowmobiling. They started clubs so they could lobby for reasonable laws,” Caffarella said.
Miles and miles of trails
Just three years after the Cross Country Cruisers was formed, there were 42 miles of trails to be maintained and groomed. Not only that, but the club also created all the trail signage, which was first made using aluminum fascia.
“A group of volunteers cut the fascia, pounded the edges flat, and then painted colored arrows on them for directions on the trails,” Kuechler reported.
But after two years of driving through the woods with four-wheel drive vehicles and motorcycles, countless meetings with the DNR at Woodruff, Rhinelander, Trout Lake and the Vilas County forester of Eagle River, they finally completed the trail system for state funding.
“The largest project at that time was the construction of five miles of new trail adjacent to County Highway M. This trail connected U.S. Highway 51 to the Vandercook Trail to the Northern Highland Trail,” Kuechler reported. “This construction took many voluntary man-hours of brushing, bridge construction, leveling and signing.”
But the newly-established trail system required grooming. Again, the Cross Country Cruisers stepped up and to this day continues to take care of trail upkeep.
“The club’s first groomer was a 1971 Polaris twin track snowmobile that pulled a handmade drag. This drag consisted of an iron pipe frame with six blades. These blades had to be manually raised and lowered, as needed, such as when crossing a road,” Kuechler reported. “They soon discovered that by adding a few bricks, it would weigh down the blades for better cutting and shaping of the trails.”
With this original groomer, it would take an entire day to groom the Vandercook Trail.
Fortunately that isn’t the story today. But with a motto of “Every mile, every day, gets groomed,” the Cross Country Cruisers are still kept busy.
“We’ve got four groomers, and all groomers go out basically every night with the exception of one: It goes out in the morning and at night,” Fred Suchy, trail boss, said. “So seven times four – that’s how many people you need just to operate the groomers.”
“These groomer operators are all volunteers. This club doesn’t pay our drivers,” Caffarella added.
Though technology has advanced leaps and bounds for grooming machines, it still takes upwards of 32 hours to groom the entire trail system – and that’s using all four of the club’s machines.
Volunteers also played a significant role in the construction of the new Cross Country Cruiser building on Arbor Vitae town property.
“The electors of this town and the town board allowed us [to build here]. That little brown building over there? That’s where our groomers used to be, but we outgrew it,” Caffarella said. “We initially broke ground on this building in November 2007 and it wasn’t until the end of this year ... where you could actually say the building is complete, so it was actually a long time. The whole building was built by volunteers and paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis.”
The trails today
Since the Cruisers’ inception, the club has helped build approximately 104 miles of snowmobile trails in the Northwoods.
And the club is constantly looking for ways to improve the trail system, starting with the intersection numbering system at every snowmobile trail intersection in Vilas County.
“We started it here, and it took three years before we got the whole county to do it,” Caffarella said. “Now, if someone gets hurt or they need help, they call 911 and tell them, ‘I’m at intersection 335,’ and it immediately pulls up on the Vilas County dispatch exactly where it is and the EMTs know exactly the fastest way to get there.”
“What’s nice about it, too, is if you come to an intersection and are confused, you can look at a map,” Wolfe said. “Vilas County is GPSed totally, and there’s other counties following suit.
Not only that, but the Cruisers also helped establish a safety committee in April 2009 that sends out snowmobile public safety announcements.
“We had a serious accident where three people died on the Vandercook Trail a few years ago. After that, we got together with the county and started a safety committee, and that safety committee meets eight times a year,” Caffarella said. “It’s done a lot of good.”
Supporting Lakeland tourism
Since the snowmobile industry boom in the 70s, it has become an integral part of Northwoods tourism.
“When I used to come up here in the mid-60s, you literally could roll the sidewalks up in this town before snowmobiling. After 7 o’clock at night, you couldn’t get anything to eat unless you wanted a Tombstone pizza in a bar. Everything was closed in the winter time up here,” Caffarella said. “So snowmobiling has kept these businesses going all winter long. You can tell when there’s poor snow conditions and people are not coming up – businesses are suffering big time.”
As Suchy put it, “The more heads you have, the more beds you’re going to have. It definitely contributes to the hotel and restaurant and gas businesses in the local economy. It’s huge.”
The Cross Country Cruisers support the community in other ways, as well.
“Currently we give money to the community, we’re members of the chamber, we give money to the Pink Ribbon Riders, and the Lakeland Pantry is another that we give money to,” Wolfe said.
The relationship between the Cross Country Cruisers and the communities it serves is symbiotic – volunteer community members make the club and its work possible, and the club in turn supports the surrounding area with its work.
“We’re very appreciative of people that come and join the club, and we’re very appreciative for the towns of Minocqua, Arbor Vitae and Woodruff for their contributions and what they do for us. We do get a lot of support from this area,” Wolfe said.
“This community here really supports snowmobiling, big time,” Caffarella agreed.
For more information or to join the Cross Country Cruisers, visit www.snowmobilewi.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or send correspondence to Cross Country Cruisers, P.O. Box 733, Woodruff, WI 54568.
Sarah Hirsch may be reached at email@example.com.