Efforts continue to keep riders on the trail to prevent closures
Common sense and a seemingly simple initiative by the Itasca Driftskippers Snowmobile Club is quickly becoming a state model.
The 68 miles of trail the club maintains includes an impressive number of intersections. Last year, the club celebrated 50 years.
“While the trail systems grew and got better - wider, straighter and with safer road crossings - the signage kind of fell by the wayside maybe because most [signs] were wood or old plastic,” explained Driftskippers President Rusty Eichorn who developed an idea to create highway-grade map signs guiding riders through the trail system.
In the past, riders could find basic yellow arrow trail markers simply stating main destinations such as “Pokegama Lake,” or “Grand Rapids,” or “Remer,” for example without giving the rider any indication of the mileage to such destinations. Now there are 44 new 18 by 24-inch reflective signs on the trail at every intersection and direction on the trail. The signs were stalled on galvanized posts and feature full-color GIS-accurate maps of the area with ‘you are here,’ markings to give place direction, mileage and mile marker information as well as trail names and local businesses along the trails. The signs also list information about the snowmobile club.
“Augmenting the reflective ‘you are here’ signs with the yellow direction signs leaves little chance of confusion as to where you are or where you want to go,” said Eichorn. “You are now no more than five miles from a ‘you are here’ sign on the Itasca Driftskippers Snowmobile Club trail network.”
As a 100% volunteer-run organization, the Driftskippers sought grant funds to support their signage project. Eichorn explained, they were granted $2,500 from the Itasca County Trails Task Force. To date, the Driftskippers have put in $2,800 toward the project plus hours upon hours of in-kind work.
“You can’t just put up a sign by yourself, it takes at least two people - it’s very labor intensive,” he said.
The Itasca County Land Department was especially helpful by working with the club on the maps of trails.
“Kudos to Sara Thompson (Itasca County Forest Recreation Specialist), who helped us put the icons on the map,” said Eichorn.
Although it took seven revisions to make sure the maps were completely accurate, this was extremely important. Now, if there is an accident on the trail those calling 9-1-1 can correctly identify exactly where rescue crews should respond.
Eichorn encourages other clubs to access grant funding available for public safety projects such as the Driftskippers signage improvements. He said there are various opportunities to get support - some from other clubs throughout the state.
“If you get lost on our trail system now, you’re probably meant to get lost,” joked Eichorn who told of a friend from the Cities who recently got mixed up on the trail but later “wanted to kiss the first sign he saw.”
As club president, Eichorn said, “If I could get lost on those 68 miles after riding the trails for more than 30 years, anyone could.”
An experienced pilot, Eichorn related it to flying.
“When I learned to fly, you had to read a map, figure out where you were on the map, put your finger on it and pay attention to where you were going,” he explained. “This kind of solves all of that. The maps are the one constant place and an arrow points to where you are at!”
According to Eichorn, groups like the Minnesota United Snowmobile Association are paying close attention to what the Driftskippers doing to improve signage for something that could be unified across the state.
“It’s the start of something big - people are taking notice all over,” says Eichorn. “The Driftskippers grabbed the bull by the horns and corrected something that needed to be corrected.”
Keeping riders on the trail
The new detailed signs installed by the Driftskippers Snowmobile Club will not only help riders find their way through the twists and turns of the trails but will also keep them from straying off designated corridors.
As Driftskippers founding member Ken Stangland explained, the club has had troubles this year with riders wandering off an important section of the club’s trail system that crosses Wendigo Golf Course. Stangland said riders have been known to travel all over the golf course property rather than sticking to the allowed trail. In fact, the new owners of the golf course property have talked about closing this portion of the trail if riders continue to disregard the designated trail.
“We’re grasping at straws at what to do next to keep the trail,” commented Stangland who said the club has been working with the state conservation officers and the Itasca County Sheriff’s Department to monitor traffic through this area.
“We put snow fence out and ‘no trespassing’ signs and it was OK for two to three days and then they started going around it again,” Stangland explained. “The club has a great reputation and we don’t want to lose the trails.”
The portion that crosses Wendigo Golf Course is significant as it connects Pokegama Lake to trails leading into Grand Rapids.
“I’m sure Grand Rapids would like to keep the trails open as well to benefit from all the business,” he added.
When it comes to the groomed trails, local clubs post the warnings on Facebook; the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources sends out news releases about it; and there are signs all over the thousands of miles of trail in Minnesota.
It’s not a hard concept to understand, explained Outdoor Columnist Jesse White in a recent article on how “Irresponsible riders need a wake up call” (Grand Rapids Herald-Review, Jan. 26, 2020, page 4B).
“Some people are either too stupid or they just don’t care and take every chance they can to run off trail through somebody’s field or yard or whatever and ruin it for everyone else,” wrote White. “Apparently, the temptation to feel the thrill of a three second braaaaaap in fresh powder is just too much to handle for some.”
Minnesota state rules require snowmobilers to remain on trails and off private property. For more information on snowmobile regulations, visit https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/snowmobiling.