Looking for an exciting winter sport? You're not the only one. As Michiganders anxiously anticipate our first real snowfall, snowmobilers across the region are prepping their gear for long rides in crisp, winter air.
Looking for an exciting winter sport? You're not the only one. As Michiganders anxiously anticipate our first real snowfall, snowmobilers across the region are prepping their gear for long rides in crisp, winter air. Trekking through the wilderness, West Michigan snowmobilers have the unique advantage of rail trails designated specifically for the sport, welcoming the vehicles to the small towns that dot their paths. One particular trail, the Pere Marquette State Trail, is a haven for snowmobilers, attracting groups from across the state to Baldwin, Evart and Clare.
"The scenery is quite spectacular in the winter," says Paul Jernberg, president of the Trailriders Snowmobile Club, an organization that is responsible for the grooming of 122 miles of trails, including the Pere Marquette.
Five to six times per week after the trail has accumulated six to eight inches of snow, a volunteer from the club travels the trails on a tractor, pulling a special "groomer drag" that weighs approximately 8,000 pounds. Compressing, aerating and cutting through the snow with three sets of blades, groomers prepare the trail specifically for snowmobile use.
"That's the only reason for our existence," jokes Jernberg, noting that the club also maintains the equipment.
"Both the Pere Marquette Snowmobile Club and the Trailriders Club do a fantastic job of making sure the signage is correct, trees are off the trails and groom the trail to reduce bumps in the trail," says Todd Neiss. Recreation Specialist at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR). Funded by annual state grants that are generated through the sales of snowmobile permits, these clubs allow for other riders to enjoy the snow-covered trails.
"The DNR's partnerships with the grant-sponsored snowmobile clubs bring valuable volunteers and labor to the state trail network," says Annamarie Bauer, MDNR regional field planner of Northwest Lower Peninsula and West Michigan Trails and Greenways (WMTGC) board member.
An avid volunteer and trail grooming enthusiast, Jernberg agrees.
"Without the dedication of those drivers, the spot would not be what it is," he says.
But it's not all work and no play for these club members. Throughout the year, Jernberg's crew also hosts fundraisers, holiday parties and cookouts, socializing and celebrating the sport with other snowmobilers.
The massive machinery that maintains the snowmobile trails.The Pere Marquette is a favorite of Jernberg's, and the trail contains a Baldwin-to-Reed-City section that opened in July of 2014. Completed with crushed limestone, the surface of the trail is ideal for multi-use, attracting bicyclists in the summer and snowmobilers in the winter. Specially designated for the sport by the MDNR between December 1st and March 31st, snowmobilers have free reign to utilize the paths, alongside cross country skiers and snowshoers.
After the trail's first snowy season in the winter of 2014, the Pere Marquette has held up under heavy traffic.
"The trail is just fine after the first winter," says Pam Simmons, owner of Pamela Tripp Gallery in Baldwin, who was involved in the trail completion efforts. "What they're doing is compatible with the trail's intended use," she notes, of the snowmobilers.
In addition to a sturdy, groomed surface, the Pere Marquette also provides a one-of-a-kind route through the region.
"The Pere Marquette is rather unique in that it runs east/west across the state—whereas many trails run north/south," says Neiss. "The Pere Marquette is a vital connector route for those who want to start in mid-Michigan (Clare) and then head north on the trail systems in
Lake, Wexford, Benzie and Manistee Counties." This connection is particularly useful for snowmobilers, who travel north for colder temperatures and more snow.
"It's quite a beautiful trail," says Jernberg, who himself prefers the winter scenery from the seat of his snowmobile. "There's no comparison."
Rail trails such as the Pere Marquette also provide a flat surface for beginners in the sport.
"Riding on a rail grade is also a great way to learn how to better ride a snowmobile, as the trails are relatively flat and wide compared to woods riding," says Neiss.
The trails also allow for clear paths to and from small northern towns that pride themselves on year round tourism, such as Baldwin, home of the Trailriders club. The trail also touches Evart, MI, home of the Pere Marquette Snowmobile Club, an organization founded in 1988 that maintains 102 miles of trails, including the White Pine and the Pere Marquette.
If you're searching for a unique point of view this winter, these snowmobile enthusiasts would agree that West Michigan's snow-covered trails are the way to go. With carefully groomed paths that run for miles, unique winter scenery and charming small towns along the way, braving the cold in the seat of a snowmobile is starting to look a whole lot better.
"Snowmobiling rounds out Michigan’s four seasons, bringing recreation and economic benefits to residents, visitors and businesses year round," says Bauer.
The path laid out by dedicated volunteers, veteran and newbie snowmobilers alike take to the trails. Now, if it would only snow…
This article is part of an ongoing series, Moments on the Trails, and was made possible by the West Michigan Trails & Greenways Coalition. For more information about the WMTGC, visit wmtrails.org.
Photography by Adam Bird