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No go: Lack of snow keeps Antigo-area snowmobile trails closed

January 18, 2024

Danny Spatchek

Antigo Daily Journal

Despite several inches of snow falling in the area late last week, snowmobile trails throughout Langlade County seem unlikely to open this week — and, given forecasts for warming temperatures, perhaps not even the next.

The Langlade County Snowmobile Council, comprised of delegates from all local snowmobile clubs whose members regularly survey trails to decide when to open them to the public, reported Monday morning that the snowfall from the previous week had yet to accumulate enough in large stretches of trails to allow for safe usage, according to Langlade County Forest Administrator Al Murray, whose department coordinates with the council to communicate trail news to the public.

“We were hoping that maybe we would have enough snow, but the indications from the clubs right now are that they don’t feel we have enough. That’s a pretty much unanimous decision in all of the clubs, that there’s not enough,” Murray said. “There are accidents that are created by people hitting a rock that throws the ski sideways and throws you off the trail. For the most part, clubs and landowners are protected, but there is some liability that can be attributed to opening a trail that is not safe. Lawsuits happen all the time with people that get hurt on trails.”

Snowmobile Council and Antigo Sno-Drifters Club President Tim Grall also said the trails were currently unsafe.

“It’s a safety concern because if you don’t have snow, the snowmobiles don’t turn and you just can’t control your machine,” he said. “It looks like there’s enough snow. But put a thousand machines on it and you’ll be down to dirt.”

Protecting equipment, fields: That trails could deteriorate “down to dirt” so quickly is another reason keeping the trails closed makes sense for now, according to Murray.

“If you open too early, they get torn up and rip up the base quickly. If we wait for a little more snow, they’ll hold up longer into the season,” he said. “And when you spend $15,000 on a snowmobile, you don’t necessarily want to come and ride on rock. It’s just not such a good experience for the riders. The same thing goes for the clubs with their grooming equipment. They’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on grooming equipment — to beat it on rocks all day is obviously not good for it.”

Protecting private farmland, on which by the estimate of Sno-Drifters Trail Boss Steve Neskowiak about 70 percent of the county’s over 500 miles of snowmobile trails are situated, was also mentioned as a reason not to open the trails at the moment.

“There are lots of farmers that allow trails across a lot of their properties,” Murray said. “The clubs don’t want to risk any of those relationships, because there’s a handful of farmers that if we lost, we would lose major segments of trail across the county.”

Grall explained that opening trails now would leave riders no choice but to leave trails and drive into farm fields.

“If we open at a bare minimum, we’re going to have trouble because people are going to be riding off the trail to try to get to more snow,” he said.

Contributing Factors: Though not as important as the lack of snow itself, several uncontrollable factors also contributed to the lack of accumulation.

“The wind didn’t help us at all. The wind blew the snow off the field. It put it in the ditches and up against the trees,” Grall said. “[Without it] it would have made it not OK, but it would have made us closer to opening without it.”

While Grall and others mentioned that trails have traditionally been more dependable in northern areas of the county shielded from the wind by trees, Jim Hoffman, president of the Lily Sno-Birds club, said this year he has encountered both natural and man-made problems preventing forest trails he’s attempted to groom from forming a base.

“The snow is fluffy — it’s light,” Hoffman said. “The other situation that happens in the woods is we get a lot of truck traffic during deer hunting season and they put ruts in the woods and the snow fills the ruts up. What we have on top is dirt. Where there is no truck traffic, and you got a grassy trail, we probably have a four-inch base. But it just won’t handle snowmobile traffic.”

Financial Losses: Murray said his department — which actually does not decide when trails will open, but just announces when the clubs make that decision — nonetheless receives pressure from businesses eager for the huge cash infusion the industry brings to the area.

“The businesses are pushing it all the time,” Murray said. “Once the ground is white, our department gets the calls constantly, ‘When are the trails opening? When are the trails opening?’ But it’s one of those we just have to play by ear and that’s why we rely on clubs to tell us when they feel they can maintain the trail to a safe condition.”

One business negatively impacted by the lack of snow has been the only snowmobile dealer in the city, Antigo Yamaha, according to Joe Yakey, the store’s general manager.

“Between Christmas and New Year’s, it cost us I’m guessing $25,000 to $35,000 in parts and clothing sales,” said Yakey. “People just weren’t buying clothing and parts. I would say in the 37 years I’ve been doing it, that’s the warmest week between Christmas and New Year’s that I can remember. It is definitely affecting us bad.”

Norm Thibaudeau, owner of Norm’s Hollow in Deerbrook and also a member of the Pickerel Snowmobile Board, said that though he still has business from regulars at his bar, usually at this time of the year his establishment would be full of snowmobilers, including many from outside the county staying at their cabins.

“It would be nice if the trails were open — absolutely,” he said. “We just cut back on workers and stuff because there’s not enough work for everybody when it’s slow like this.”

The groups perhaps most anxious to open trails, though, are those charged with the decision in the first place: members of the snowmobile clubs themselves, who devote extensive volunteer hours to maintaining the trail system, even outside of winter months. Without snow, likewise, the clubs stand to lose the substantial revenue sourcing from snowmobile registration fees, gas taxes, and trail pass sales redistributed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to clubs for grooming the trails.

“If the clubs can’t groom, the clubs aren’t generating the revenue that they need to pay their bills,” Murray said. “So when there’s no snow, it’s not like they get paid just because the trail’s there. They get paid based upon grooming. They get paid upon brushing and all they actually do. It’s tracked pretty detailed by a system called SNARS. The grooming itself is tracked — when that GPS is moving, it tracks how much time clubs are spending on grooming, and that’s the major portion of how clubs generate revenue that pays for their equipment.”

Grall, who said the Sno-Drifters own tractors with trail-grooming drags that can cost a combined $300,000, didn’t describe the low-snow year as a fatal problem for his club, but just one that puts it a year behind when it comes to building up funds to purchase new equipment.

“There are probably only a few of us that get more nervous than other ones do because there’s only two of us in the club that sign the notes to the bank saying that we’re going to repay for our big loans that we have on our equipment. Most club members think, ‘Oh, it happens,’” Grall said of years with little snow. “But me and my treasurer, we have to go to the bank and it’s like taking out a house loan. You say you’re going to be good for it — you have to repay it or make a good plan to go back to the bank with. But we try not to stretch ourselves.”

Hoffman said low-snow years are frustrating for all snowmobiling clubs.

“We count on revenue for future renovations. It always will affect what your plans are. A new tractor, a new shed — anything we’re going to be talking about doing in the future, it’s all going to be held back because of this year,” said Hoffman, adding that it doesn’t mean his club or others are in dire straits, nor that this year can’t still be salvaged if the weather turns. “We’ve got a little precip coming next week. If we get a little bit of that and then go back to cold weather and then some snow on top of it, then we would get a nice ice base.”

Holiday Inn Express and Suites General Manager Tori Kautza also expressed cautious optimism, saying several snowmobiling groups have still booked rooms at her hotel in February, but would likely cancel if the trails remain closed.

“If they don’t open, then I just lost 20 rooms that were supposed to be here for snowmobiling,” Kautza said. “My first weekend that I have snowmobilers booked is the first week of February. So we’ve got two weeks to go to hope for snow.”

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