Dashing through the snow around River FallsMany people see them zipping through the snow, hear them in the distance or know people who enjoy riding them. Snowmobiles dominate Wisconsin’s winter recreation much the way motorcycles saturate the state’s summertime.
By: Debbie Griffin, River Falls Journal
Many people see them zipping through the snow, hear them in the distance or know people who enjoy riding them. Snowmobiles dominate Wisconsin’s winter recreation much the way motorcycles saturate the state’s summertime.
Snowmobilers cheer for heavy snow, knowing that’s the first important step to hitting the trails.
Before the fun begins, members of the River Falls County Liners work hard making sure local snowmobiling stays fun, fair and safe. The club formed in 1967, making the sport its business.
Local resident Jerry Van Heukelom helped found the club and still serves not only it but also the Pierce County Snowmobile Association. The County Liners club just elected his son-in-law, Randy Zellmer, its president.
The club meets at 7:30 p.m. the first and third Tuesday of each month at the River Falls Sportsmen’s Club, 1130 Rifle Range Road, starting in October and ending in March.
Zellmer said the club gets together for trail work, long and short rides, fundraising, a picnic and other events. Memberships, good for a season, cost $20 for individuals and $25 per family.
The club has about 40 memberships but Zellmer said the number of members is hard to gauge since family memberships include multiple people. He welcomes anyone interested in joining to call, e-mail or attend a meeting to learn more.
Let the sledding begin
“It’s kind of a unique situation with us,” Zellmer says about the club’s two-county area.
Van Heukelom says the County Liners coordinate with about 82 landowners to create a trail system that’s grown from four miles around the city (at club’s inception) to about 50 miles today.
He and Zellmer agree that their most important task is taking care of the gracious landowners who allow snowmobilers to make trails cutting through their property. Van Heukelom says he figures about 80% of the trail system goes through crop fields.
“Without them, we wouldn’t have a trail system in River Falls,” said Zellmer about landowners.
The club checks with each landowner every year to make sure they’re still OK with having a trail on their property. Sometimes the owners need to reroute or discontinue the trail.
The club must get permission paperwork signed and keep it on file so that landowners run no risk of liability and have protection from any damage their land sustains from the mechanized sleds. Members sometimes raise money so they can get landowners a gift of appreciation.
The club also goes out each season to put up and then take down, the snowmobile trail signs, which include trail indicators, stops, intersection/bridge ahead, dangers and more. Members clear brush and tree branches and keep track of their hours for the counties’ records.
They also build, maintain and repair snowmobile bridges. Zellmer recalls repairing one this year because it wouldn’t bear the weight of the big trail-grooming machine.
“Last year we put up five new ones in Pierce County,” said Van Heukelom about bridges.
Once they finish the work, members wait for enough snow and that magical call from the county saying: “It’s OK to hit the trails.”
Van Heukelom says that usually requires a good snow pack plus four-six inches on top of that, but, “The type of snow is a big factor.”
Club fees help the counties pay for the trail grooming, a job that takes two big machines about 80 hours. Grants help pay for things like new bridges.
Club members experience some frustration with renegade riders who don’t follow the rules. Their disregard causes problems for all snowmobilers. Zellmer said though riding in the right-of-way of a public roadway is legal, “ditch riding” is dangerous.
He stopped just last week to remove a huge rock that had made its way onto a trail.
River Falls’ rules allow riders to leave from their homes to access the nearest trail, but the legal route isn’t always convenient so riders cut across yards and ride on sidewalks or paths.
Zellmer has no trailer and said his home is less than a half mile from Kwik Trip, where he could gas up his snowmobile. However, to stay on the legal trails, he travels 10 miles to get fuel.
Zellmer gets the complaint calls and says he feels badly that rule breakers affect the city.
“I believe anybody who owns a snowmobile should support a club,” said Zellmer. “It doesn’t have to be our club…”
Van Heukelom said, “If you stay on the trail where you belong, you’ll be fine.”
Late resident Ron Wunrow started snowmobile safety training in River Falls. Some club members continue his tradition. Each year they help teach classes that end in a trail test.
Any person born after 1984 must take the classes. Van Heukelom said riders can learn a lot just by looking at the section of the club’s Web site that tells how to sign a trail.
“The bottom line is to get them (riders) education,” he said.
The men say snowmobiles can cost anywhere from $3,500 to $35,000. Most ride one person, some accommodate two. Some have hand warmers, others don’t.
Van Heukelom remembers the early models and declares today’s machines much more dependable and low maintenance. He says in the “old days,” he’d work on his sled for a week to ride it for two hours.
He said his longest ride was 300 miles. Zellmer says his spanned 180 miles.
Zellmer often rides with wife Melinda and daughter Tia Harris. He said the County Liners do at least two family friendly rides each year plus might make trips to a restaurant for dinner.
One thing is sure: This family knows its snowmobiling and wants others to responsibly experience and enjoy the sport, too.
Learn more about the River Falls County Liners at www.riverfallssnowmobileclub.com or contact Zellmer at 426-5881 or email@example.com.