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Snowmobile club offers adventure, training and trail-busting

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“You bet I drive my own snowmobile! What fun would it be otherwise?” was the spunky reply from 91-year-old Cecelia Leon, a member of the Wood City Riders since the late ’60s.

Leon still remembers that when she joined the club around 1966 the president of the club didn't even own a snowmobile. Her first snowmobile was a 1969 Scorpion. The company was sold to Arctic Cat later on, so now Leon drives an Arctic Cat.

She has driven about 35,000 miles over the years on her snowmobile.

While she has accumulated many stories over the years of her riding, the one that stands out happened Jan. 18, 1996.

Leon and her husband were snowmobiling on Amnicon Lake in Wisconsin when they got stuck in the slush on the lake. They were not able to get the snowmobile out and ended up spending the night in the nearby woods.

When they were rescued by the park service, they were informed the temperature had dipped down to -50 degrees that night.

She still chuckles over the media attention the couple attracted for that adventure.

Leon says the snowmobile club enjoys taking their time on the trails and taking in the natural surroundings.

“We’re kind of old school, not hot rodders,” said Tim Carle, fellow club member and past president. Carle has also helped groom the trail over the years and currently teaches a snowmobile safety class.

According to Carle, the faster a snowmobiler drives, the more the peripheral vision disappears, which is called vision narrowing.

“We like to go our own speed and see what we see,” Leon said. “Sometimes it’s deer or a porcupine on the trail, who knows.”

With a big grin, the spry woman added that she still rides an all terrain vehicle, and that the secret to living a long healthy life is to get outside and stay active.

The Wood City Riders help promote that outdoor lifestyle.

The snowmobile club of 100-plus members — who are mainly from Cloquet, Esko and Scanlon — participates in several fundraisers and group activities in addition to grooming the trails and teaching snowmobile safety.

“We’re very active in the community as far as making sure the trails are maintained and open and ready for use,” said member Tony Gist. “We groom them during the winter as long as we have snow available [or until] the trails close on April 1.”

The club members volunteer in a variety of ways. Some of them work with landowners to get permission to work on trails on their properties. Other club members work with the state legislature on issues such as riders rights, trail access, funding and emissions controls.

Gist was practically brought up on a snowmobile. His parents, Art and Carol, were members and brought him with when he was a youngster. The 32-year-old now brings his young daughters, ages 5 and 3, with him and his wife when they snowmobile.

Enthusiasm radiates off of the 6-foot-5 Gist as he talks about working on the snowmobile trail north of Cloquet, and all that it entails.

Minnesota snowmobile trails are taken care of by many different clubs scattered throughout the state, as well as several by the state.

The Wood City Riders members groom and care for about 50 miles of trails that span from Brookston, then south to Atkinson.

“We are currently doing a trail reroute where we are going to be cutting eight miles of new trail in the Brookston area to accommodate some land sales by the Potlatch Corporation,” Gist said.

The first step in the process is getting permission, whether the land is owned by private landowners, the state, corporations like Potlatch, or private loggers. The club has to present a proposal outlining their plan to the landowner, saying “this is what we would like to do, can we have permission to do this on your property?”

“This reroute was a little more difficult than cutting some new trails because it was so close to the river in some places,” Gist said. “We had to get special permitting from the DNR to run within so many feet from the river. The land we are using is primarily state land so they needed to come out and walk the trails with us and approve the route we wanted to take.”

The DNR goes out to check on the trail once in awhile to make sure the club is sticking to the plan and the project is going smoothly.

Club members began cutting for the rerouted trail about 18 months ago and have been working on the new trail year round. They hired an excavator at the cost of $10,000 to come in and clear stumps, push rocks out of the way and do some trail terracing, which makes the trail safer for riders, and grooming equipment.

The club owns its own equipment, including three groomers, an all-season-vehicle and trail cutting equipment.

“We are pretty much organized to make this happen,” Gist said.

The trail, which is open to the public as long as riders have a Minnesota registration and a trail sticker, is 14 feet wide.

Snowmobile trails that are kept up by snowmobile clubs are called grant-in-aid trail systems.

They receive state funding from the sale of trail stickers to help with fuel costs, equipment maintenance and new trail work. The club also receives a large amount of its funds through selling pull tabs at several locations, part of which they give back to the community in the form of sponsoring rides and donating to nonprofits.

The club advocates snowmobile safety and teaches a youth safety class through Cloquet Community Education for a nominal fee. The class, which is for ages 11 and up, is taught once a year and averages 20 students. The class is four nights with a practical snowmobile ride test, if there is enough snow. Anybody who was born after 1976 is required to take a snowmobile safety class.

Gist is currently an instructor-in-training under the tutelage of Carle.

“We encourage anybody who has not been through it to come,” Gist said.

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