BELTRAMI ISLAND STATE FOREST, Minn. -- I'd almost forgotten how much fun this is.
We're somewhere in the forest now, immersed in a winter wonderland of pine and spruce trees laden with snow. The forest canopy nearly blots out the sky, even though it's the middle of the day.
We've come here by snowmobile, 10 of us, to ride through the forest, and we're winding through the trees at 35 mph on a trail groomed so smooth it's like a highway of snow. On this day, at least, the trip isn't so much about reaching a destination as it is about enjoying the ride, and there's a lot to enjoy here in one of northern Minnesota's great forests. At more than 700,000 acres, Beltrami is Minnesota's second-largest state forest behind adjacent 900,000-acre Pine Island State Forest.
It's wintertime and the living's easy on this perfect February afternoon.
Most of the riders on this winter adventure either work in the industry or are active members of snowmobile and sportsmen's clubs that groom and maintain nearly 1,000 miles of grant-in-aid trails in this part of northwestern Minnesota.
There's Jack Nelson, Thief River Falls, who works for Arctic Cat and is president of the Fourtown-Grygla Sportsmen's Club. The club maintains some 240 miles of trails through southern portions of the forest east to Waskish, Minn.
There's Mark Karl, director of operations at Polaris in Roseau, Minn., and member of the Roseau County Trailblazers, which grooms about 300 miles of trails in the county.
And Carter Hontvet, Williams, Minn., a farmer and avid snowmobiler, who is president of the Lake of the Woods Drifters snowmobile club. The Drifters support the grooming and maintenance of more than 400 miles of land and lake trails in Lake of the Woods and Koochiching counties.
Before day's end, we'll enjoy the benefits of all three clubs' labors. And with ample snowfall this year, riding conditions are nearly perfect.
"It's a good snow winter," Nelson said. "It's good all over the place."
The work of the clubs has a lot to do with that. Nelson said the Fourtown-Grygla club receives about $350 per mile from the state each winter for the trails it signs and maintains. Other clubs in northwestern Minnesota receive a similar amount. The Department of Natural Resources allocates the money through its grant-in-aid program, which is mostly funded by snowmobile registration fees.
Statewide, Minnesota offers more than 20,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, DNR statistics show, with local club volunteers maintaining more than 18,000 miles of those trails.
Without the efforts of club volunteers, whether it's in northwestern Minnesota, northeastern North Dakota or anywhere else in snowmobile country, most trail systems wouldn't exist.
"It's invaluable what it does for the industry," Karl said. "The grassroots clubs like that make such a huge difference. You could go ditch banging or what have you, but how would you know where you can ride?
"The trail system importance and what the clubs bring to the table is just that whole network and ability. It gives you connectivity to everywhere you want to go."
And it's the clubs, Karl said, that offer most of the training courses that are required of young riders and make the sport safer.
"That's hugely important," he said.
The ride begins
We hit the trail at the front door of the Polaris plant in Roseau, traveling south on a groomed trail adjacent to state Highway 89 about 15 miles to Wannaska, Minn. There's no sun to start the morning, no contrast, and here in open country that's about as flat as prairie gets, everything looks the same buried under a blanket of white.
I keep close watch on Karl, who rides in front of me and gives the occasional hand signal alerting me to field crossings or other rough spots on the trail that are difficult to see.
It will get easier when we hit the forest, I'm assured.
I grew up on snowmobiles, but there's still a feeling-out period as I acquaint myself with the sleek package of power I ride to start the trip. The Polaris Switchback has an 800 cc engine and looks as if it could take me into orbit. I resist the temptation to hit the throttle and find out for myself.
Still, 50 mph is nothing on this sled, and we're soon at the D&S Store east of Wannaska, the western gateway to Beltrami Forest near Hayes Lake State Park. There are lots of miles between gas stations in the forest, so most of the crew opts to top off their tanks.
Besides reacquainting myself with Beltrami Forest, I get to experience how far snowmobiles have come since I rode my first sled in the 1970s. During the course of the ride, I also drive a Polaris Rush, an aptly named sled that looks like a cross between a snowmobile and a dirt bike, and Nelson's four-stroke Arctic Cat Z1, an 1,100 cc powerhouse that is every bit as fast as it is quiet.
To say snowmobiles have changed a bit since the early days would be like saying there's quite a difference between a paper airplane and a rocket. Today's sleds, Karl said, offer suspensions that can be fine-tuned to the size of the rider.
"It's really about changing up the suspension and the geometry of the machine for a smoother ride," he said.
I don't know much about suspensions and geometry, but I'll attest to the smooth ride.
Ask just about anyone who rides in Beltrami Forest, and they'll say the attraction, besides the miles of groomed and tree-lined trails, is the lack of traffic that's the norm closer to major population centers.
"You'll rarely see another person," said Tony Moe of Grygla, a sportsmen's club member and Polaris employee along for the ride. "Even when it's busy, you won't have trouble on the trails."
By the time we reach the Nite Hawk in Roosevelt, Minn., for a late afternoon lunch, we've seen maybe four other snowmobiles. The sun has also peeked out from behind the clouds, making the forest appear even more stunning.
"It doesn't get any better than this," Nelson, the Fourtown-Grygla club president, said. "We've got our own little paradise here."
Karl has to be back for a late afternoon meeting so he skips lunch and hits the trail for Roseau. Hontvet, who's planning another ride later in the weekend, heads for his home near Long Point on Lake of the Woods after lunch. He has only been a member of the Lake of the Woods club for a year, and already he's president, a lofty position he didn't necessarily seek.
"I missed a meeting and got voted president," Hontvet said. "You've got to watch that stuff."
For the rest of us, more scenery awaits as we steer the sleds back through the forest for the return trip to Roseau. At times, it seems as if the sleds are driving us instead of the other way around.
"We couldn't have picked a nicer day," Nelson said.
It's nearly dark when we pull up to the front doors of the Polaris plant in Roseau. We've ridden 150 miles through some of the prettiest country northwestern Minnesota has to offer.
I feel as if I could ride another 150 miles. Easy.