Some call snowmobiling the “last free sport.” Riders travel through the woods and across area lakes along trails with few restrictions. A 55-mile-per-hour speed limit is imposed and certain trails, especially along roadways, do have a posted speed limit for sledders, but for the most part, riders are left to their own devices to travel along the snow-covered land.
Some, however, when left to their own devices, create issues and concerns for others. Such has been the case this year with some private land owners. Snowmobile clubs have worked diligently to create and maintain relationships with private land owners across whose property the trails run. Trails in the Northwoods, and across the snow belt, would not have the connectivity riders enjoy today without the consent of these landowners for strangers to ride across their property.
“Some of the land owners are just fed up with people riding off trail,” said Department of Natural Resources warden Chris Bartelt. “Some of these trails have been open for decades, but now they are in danger of being shut down.” While “boondocking,” as it is called is seen on television commercials and across all media advertising, the reality is, it is not legal in most places, especially on private land. It is trespassing, Bartelt said, and can be cited as such.
Recently, the Cross Country Cruisers snowmobile club in Minocqua said, on their website, off-trail riding is the cause for steps being put into place to close a section of their snowmobile trails. That closure would lose access to Stacks’ bay from the 47 trail. This would greatly impact snowmobiling in the Minocqua, Woodruff and Arbor Vitae area. While Cruisers are working to keep the trails open, the future of that section of trail, and others, are at risk due to this behavior.
Two weeks ago, Vilas County parks and recreation supervisor Tod Bierman put out a press release speaking to the same issue. Trails in Vilas County, he said “will — not may, but will,” be shut down if off-trail riding continues. This has been an increasing issue, he said, not only in the Northwoods, but across the entire snow belt.

Last weekend, there were four snowmobile fatalities in Oneida and Vilas Counties, as well as many other non-fatal accidents, according to Bartelt. Of those who died in accidents, at least one was on a snowmobile for the first time. 
“These accidents get more coverage after an unfortunate weekend like last weekend, where you have four fatalities in four days,” he said. Rider inexperience is, and has historically been, one of the top three reasons for snowmobile accidents. The other two are alcohol and speed. With snowmobiles getting bigger and faster each year, he said, it can be even more dangerous.
“Even though the speed limit at night is 55 on the trails, if you’re riding over 40 miles per hour, you’re over riding your headlights in most cases,” Bartelt said.
Even with having several deaths in the same weekend, he said, the state is about on course with previous years with the number of deaths from snowmobile accidents. This year the total sits at seven and last year at this time the total was six. There have been as many as 36 deaths in one year and as little as 19 at season’s end, he said. 
Bartlet said every rider should take a snowmobile safety course, this was echoed in a recent statement from the Oneida County Forestry Department. By law, anyone born before January 1, 1985 does not need to complete a snowmobile safety course to operate a snowmobile in the state. However, he said, it is a good idea for everyone to do so. Many accidents, according to Bartelt, could be avoided if riders were to have taken a course and better understood the regulations and how to ride safely. 
Recently, the Department of Natural Resources ran a Think Smart Before you Start campaign, focused on snowmobile safety. The campaign reminded riders to do things such as “ride right,” always staying on the right side of the trail, watch their speed, and to not drink and drive a snowmobile. Bartelt said he had every available warden on the trails the weekend of that campaign, but with the hundreds of miles of trails just in the Northwoods, it is likely that most snowmobilers did not encounter a warden, even with increased patrols.
Lastly, Bartelt reminded riders that no ice is safe ice. Even in colder weather, there could be places where the ice is thin and will not support a snowmobile.
“If they are not familiar with a lake, they just shouldn’t go,” he said. “Or they should take someone with them who is familiar with the area.” Ice conditions can change rapidly, especially on rivers and flowages, he said. There have been several drownings in the last year in the state. He said if the state could just get one year with no snomobilers drowning from falling through the ice, he felt even that would be a win. 
Beckie Gaskill may be reached via email at [email protected]