Early season snowfalls had snowmobilers anxiously awaiting an opportunity to hit the trails, but state and local officials were cautioning prior to this week that because snow levels had varied greatly across the state they were urging residents and visitors to stay off the trails until local officials declared the season open.
Up until this week, it had become a waiting game as businesses, visitors and residents continued their look to the skies for the significant snow that was bound to fall at some point.
That snow was expected to fall late this week, but as this story was finished Wednesday, it wasn’t clear exactly how much snow would fall locally. Projections were anywhere between 3-9 inches, but it depended on the exact track of the storm. The central and southern parts of the state were expected to feel the brunt of this week’s storm.
Here in Vilas and Oneida counties, the slow start to the season has had officials frustrated but hopeful that Old Man Winter would surely raise his head sometime soon to kickstart the season.
This week’s winter storm, Draco, was expected to hit the southern two-thirds of Wisconsin Thursday, but leave most of the Northwoods wanting for more than was being expected. Area officials hoped the projections were off and that it would track a bit to the north to provide the white gold so badly needed to help the business and tourism-based communities during the week between Christmas and the New Year.
Conservation Warden Gary Eddy, the Department of Natural Resources snowmobile safety administrator, said the small amount of snow that had fallen over the past month had mostly disappeared, leaving no base. He also said that the ice that had formed on lakes was not safe nor strong enough to support humans or vehicles.
Snowmobiling enthusiasts must wait for the trail opening decision by the local units of government – usually counties. According to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism Snow conditions report, as of Tuesday, trails were only open or partially open in a few northern counties.
Vilas was one of those counties that officially opened.
“Snowmobilers who ride on trails before they are declared open may unintentionally cause problems,” Eddy said, adding he understands how the first snowfall is difficult to resist. But it is crucial to honor the local decision.
“There are land-use agreements between landowners and snowmobile clubs to consider. Riding on trails before they are legally open could cause property damage and ultimately could result in the trail being closed for all. Riders also put themselves in danger because some of these trails may not yet have been inspected for hazards such as low hanging branches or closed gates and cables.
“In addition to preparing their snowmobiles for winter, riders should prepare themselves as well. All operators at least age 12 and born on or after Jan. 1, 1985, are required to be certified in Snowmobile Safety Education. Operators turning age 27 this January must have a valid safety certificate.”
A list of the upcoming classes can be found on the DNR website. Go to dnr.wi.gov and search keyword, “snowmobile.”
Diane Conklin, snowmobile trails grant manager for the DNR, said most agreements allow for the trails to open by early December. However, there are other factors that are used.
“Snow, standing crops and weather conditions can dictate the actual opening date which is announced by county officials,” Conklin said.
Other factors used to determine the opening include frozen ground conditions, temperature, trail preparation and grooming by snowmobile club volunteers statewide.
Eddy said snowmobilers must have permission to ride on private property off the trails. “If you get the permission to ride, that’s fine. However, you’ll need to use a high degree of caution because the terrain may be rough and hazards such as ditches, farm equipment and rocks may be hidden under the snow.”
Snowmobile trail information can be found through county snowmobile coordinators, park and recreation officials, local snowmobile clubs, local chambers of commerce and on the Snow conditions report on the Wisconsin Department of Tourism Travel Wisconsin website.
Wisconsin ranks among the top states in providing snowmobile trails. DNR provides nearly $6 million in grants annually to maintain more than 18,700 miles of trails in the state, Conklin said.
Vilas County trails opened Dec. 10 and remain open, though as of Wednesday they were not in good shape.
“They’re open, but they’ve deteriorated to the point they’re not rideable,” Dale Mayo, Vilas County recreation administrator said Tuesday. “We need substantial snow.”
Conditions deteriorated after the opener, but the trails remain open in order to be immediately available.
“Vilas County elects to keep them open right now because, say you get a substantial snow on a Friday night, you don’t have to wait for us to come back on Monday and OK everything,” Mayo said.
“They’ve been inspected, the gates are all open, they’re ready to go. We just need snow.”
Mayo said the decision is made by an alliance of 11 Vilas County snowmobile clubs.
“If we close the trails, we have to go through the re-opening process, which means inspecting everything again, and right now everything’s been inspected.”
Sign issues have been corrected and all the gates have been open. Mayo said staying off until conditions improve was wise. Such would be the case if the Northwoods gets the significant snow from Thursday’s storm.
“I have seen a few tracks out there – the riding cannot be very pleasurable, that’s for sure,” he said about the poor conditions earlier this week.
Mayo reiterated his hope that the storm forecasted would take a more northerly track.
“We’ve gotta have it. This Christmas to New Year’s is critical.”
Oneida County recreation administrator Eric Rady expressed some frustration that the little snow received last weekend was a wet, slushy snow.
“Basically not only did we not get the minimum [forecasted] we basically lost everything,” he said.
Oneida County trails remained closed as of Wednesday morning.
“The clubs are ready. The clubs were out. They’ve inspected [the trails], they’ve signed them, they’ve brushed ... they got a good base that all melted ... but it’s a good frozen base now,” Rady said. “Realistically, we’re just waiting on the storm to come.”
Rady was also hopeful the snow in the forecast would track north.
“We always like to get open before Christmas, but unfortunately, all these years in a row it just seems like we’re really questioning what’s coming and when,” he said.
It’s all or none for Oneida County trail opening.
“We open up as a whole. We’re either all open or pretty much all closed ... there’s a difference always from our southern side to our north side as far as snow depths, but really, it’s not a lot,” Rady said.
Rady said the county works with 10 snowmobile clubs on trail opening times and reach a decision as a group.
“If we get towards the latter part of four to six inches, or something like that I would presume we would open,” he said.
He added that the trails are ready to go except for opening 500-1,000 gates and getting the right weather conditions.
For updated information about the opening of trails, visit www.lakelandtimes.