ROSEMOUNT, Minn. (AP) — Jake Hildebrandt was skimming across a field on a near-perfect snowmobile trail in Dakota County on a recent Friday when he was stopped by a conservation officer and deputy sheriff, who also were using snowmobiles.
Tony Salzer, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officer and Thomas Jacobson, a Dakota County deputy sheriff, were staking out a major snowmobile intersection. They were using a radar gun to check for speeders. They also were looking for other violations.
In a scene reminiscent of highway patrolmen hiding behind a billboard, Salzer and Jacobson were well-positioned behind a large sign for UMore Park, the sprawling University of Minnesota property.
They looked like sledders taking a break.
After a friendly chat with the officers, Hildebrandt, 27, of Hastings, was issued a warning about improper registration display, a common infraction.
Like thousands of other Minnesota snowmobilers this winter, he was just happy to be back on his sled and enjoying the record snowfall.
“It’s my second time out,” he said smiling as he stood next to his 1998 Ski-Doo. “I’ve already put on 60 to 70 miles today. Friday is a good day to be out. There aren’t a lot of people out, at least not yet.”
The winter of 2010-11 has put smiles on the faces of snowmobilers after years of brown Decembers and inconsistent snowfalls.
The season started quickly after a record December snowfall in the Twin Cities, prompting snowmobile clubs to quickly groom trails.
This winter has contrasted with those of the recent past because no part of the state has received the bulk of the snow. Thick snowdrifts and groomed trails can be found from border to border.
“If anything, snowmobile activity has decreased up north because we’ve had more snow down here,” Salzer said. “This year, we’ve had consistent snowmobile activity in the Twin Cities since before Christmas. There’s been a lot more traffic.”
The winter has been reminiscent of my childhood in the 1970s, when everyone in my hometown of Deer River, Minn., had a snowmobile parked in his yard. Kids rode them to school, and parents rode them to work.
If you didn’t have a snowmobile, you felt a bit out of touch with winter. If you had an old clunker, you envied the guy with a shiny new one.
“This year, everybody’s got snowmobile envy,” Salzer said.
Ron Potter, a policy and program manger for the DNR Parks and Trails Division, said Minnesotans haven’t seen snow conditions this good across the whole state since the 1980s.
It has been a rare winter when the DNR’s snowmobile reports have described trail conditions as “excellent!” and “great” and “well groomed.” That was the case last week.
“For folks who love winter, it’s been a great year,” Potter said.
For Salzer and Thomas, the season has a serious side.
They make sure sledders comply with the 50-mph speed limit on trails, don’t trespass on private property and have proper registration and trail stickers.
During a winter like this, Salzer spends half of his time on his Polaris 600 checking ice fishermen or sledders. Most of the snowmobile traffic occurs during late afternoon and early evening, when sledders take a ride after work and maybe get dinner.
Riding while intoxicated isn’t common, Salzer said, though the DNR and local sheriffs conduct “Safe and Sober” work details that focus on drunken riders.
Dakota County has 190 miles of trails and seven clubs that help maintain them, creating a local map and placing trail markers.
Salzer said trespassing is the biggest problem between landowners and snowmobilers. One trespassing sledder might prompt a landowner to close his land to all sledders, forcing local clubs to reroute a trail.
“It reflects poorly on all snowmobilers,” he said.
When three more sledders came into view, Salzer raised his radar gun, but all were riding under the speed limit.
Salzer and Jacobson often roam together, making their presence known on local trails. They know where the busy intersections are and when traffic is heaviest (Saturdays, typically).
“Sundays are definitely the slowest day of the week,” Salzer said, “whenever football is on TV.”
By CHRIS NISKANEN
St. Paul Pioneer Press
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