Wisconsin’s 25,000 miles of snowmobile trails depend on dedicated volunteers who work year-round to ensure safety and quality.
The blizzard hit Dane County at approximately 10 p.m. Some people slept through it. Chad Petersen did not.
He and another man set out earlier that night to groom a snowmobile trail using their 1994 groomer. Soon after, the groomer’s lights dimmed and the heat went out. The men realized they were losing power, so they tried to make it to the highway. Before they could get there, the groomer shut down.
The men were stranded halfway across a field, in a blizzard, at 2:30 a.m.
Petersen bundled up in his dark blue snowsuit. He and his partner abandoned the groomer and started to walk toward Liberty Corner Tavern—miles away—where they hoped to find help. The snow was getting deep, making it harder and harder to walk.
Almost 45 minutes after Petersen and his partner abandoned the broken groomer, two snowmobilers drove past it, noticing footprints, which they immediately realized belonged to the groomer operators. Soon they caught up to Petersen and his partner and drove them to Liberty Corner.
Somewhere between 3:15 and 4 a.m., Petersen’s brother-in-law picked them up at the tavern. The men went home, leaving the broken groomer parked in the field until the next morning.
That blizzard hit roughly a decade ago, but 44-year-old Petersen still stays out late grooming snowmobile trails each day. He is one of many volunteers who put in countless hours of effort each winter to maintain more than 25,000 miles of snowmobile trails in Wisconsin and ensure the state remains a top snowmobile destination.
For roughly 15 years, Petersen has volunteered as the Utica Nora Trailblazers snowmobile club trail boss, maintaining more than 40 miles of Dane County trails assigned to his club.
“When the snow flies, the phone rings daily. When the snow flies, I’ll have phone calls all day long,” says Petersen, a Deerfield, Wisconsin, native whose parents loved snowmobiling so much they taught him to drive a snowmobile when he was 5 years old. His siblings also learned, and Petersen vividly remembers watching his younger brother, then age 4, drive a mini-snowmobile across their family’s frozen in-ground pool.
Still enjoying snowmobiling years later, Petersen worked for 13 years at a Polaris dealership, selling snowmobiles and other products before beginning his current job at the Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant.
“Chad is a very devoted snowmobiler and coordinator of the trail system in our area,” says Tom Schoenmann, the Utica Nora grooming operations volunteer who schedules Petersen and other groomer drivers. “He takes that responsibility very seriously.” Schoenmann has known Petersen for 15 years and refers to him as a true steward of the sport of snowmobiling.
Petersen and his family enjoy the results of his hard work on the trails. His wife Heidi, 45, is a native of Cottage Grove, Wisconsin, who grew up racing snowmobiles, and their sons Kelby, 11, and Collin, 9, have snowmobiled since they could say they were cold.
Wisconsin snowmobile trails stretch from the bottom of the state to the top, so the Petersen family explores much more than their hometown of Marshall, Wisconsin, on their snowmobiles. They take special routes and find places in Wisconsin they could not normally see by car or hiking.
“Our cabin up north is on the south end of the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage and in order to go north of that [in the summer], you have to go way around it, around by Mercer or to the west around Park Falls,” Petersen says. “And in the winter you can go right up it.”
Petersen’s work as trail boss also allows him to teach his children a lesson in perseverance.
“I wanna show them that this stuff isn’t gonna do itself,” he says.
When his sons were in car seats, they would keep Petersen company while he groomed the trails, going with him for an hour until Heidi met up with them at a crossroad and took them home to bed. Now, Kelby and Collin mark trails, pound in stakes and take them out.
“People work to put those trails in, they don’t just appear,” says Heidi, hinting at a problem facing Wisconsin snowmobiling.
For every dedicated snowmobile volunteer, there seem to be many other snowmobilers who use the trails without helping to maintain them. The snowmobile clubs are tasked with trail maintenance, but many clubs face a lack of funding for it.
“We do fundraisers to make those trails happen,” Petersen says.
That may change starting July 1, 2015, when many problems plaguing Wisconsin snowmobiling disappear.
According to the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs, in addition to a $30 registration fee, all snowmobilers in Wisconsin will need to display a Wisconsin trail pass that will cost $10 for club members and $30 for nonmembers who can purchase the pass through the Department of Natural Resources.
“Revenue generated from the sale of snowmobile registrations and Wisconsin trail passes will be deposited into the state snowmobile segregated fund, which is used to pay snowmobile clubs to maintain and develop the trails,” according to an association flier. “[Wisconsin] trails are made possible by snowmobile club volunteers who provide the labor to brush, sign and groom the trails and the landowners who allow trails to cross their property.”
Petersen welcomes the changes.
“The way I understand it, it’s going to open up a little bigger door for funding,” Petersen says. “Some of these trails that we’ve been really busting butt on for the last however many years, and nobody even looks at funding, you know, maybe that will open the door to get those done.”
Sam Landes is director of the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs and a member of the Wisconsin Recreational Snowmobile Council. Last year, they had $9.7 million in requests from snowmobile clubs and county alliances, but only $5.8 million available, leaving them with a shortfall of $3.9 million.
As the system currently stands, club members are actually at a disadvantage, according to Landes. While he pays his $30 registration, he also pays club dues, donates his time, donates to raffles, sells raffle tickets, works various functions and works with landowners.
And yet others just pay their $30 registration and go on their way, enjoying the snowmobile trails that volunteers labored on for countless hours, according to Landes.
Despite the extra work involved, Petersen says, “I feel like I have this drive that tells me that I need to belong to the snowmobile club.”
The drive he and other snowmobile volunteers have is important to the Wisconsin economy. Snowmobilers bring business to Wisconsin stores, restaurants and gas stations that would otherwise not be there during the slow time of the year, according to Landes.
It is the people from areas where it may not snow as heavily who go up north and sustain the economy, according to Petersen.
“I know a little about northern Wisconsin, and most of those people are really living if they have a good winter,” he says.
There is no economic report on snowmobiling in Wisconsin, but snowmobiling is estimated to have a $1 billion impact in the state. A 2012 report on Cheese Country Trail in southwest Wisconsin found that on average, individual non-local users of the 47-mile trail spent between $175 and $220 per trip, which supported almost 190 local jobs. The total spending of trail users was more than $15 million dollars during the 12-month study period.
Much of the economic impact is dependent on the weather because snowmobile trails will not open if the conditions are bad, according to Petersen.
“We keep an eye on what the neighboring land conditions are, and we don’t run on farmers’ hayfields if the snow depth is to the point where we’re going to ruin something,” Petersen says.
Petersen works with Dane County and landowners to reimburse farmers for crop damage, but damage to crops is rare.
“I’ve had farmers say the greenest spot in the field is where the snowmobile trails went,” Petersen says.
The calls Petersen makes to landowners and the government are among the work he does that, “completely connects the grassroots work that our club does to the county and to the state level,” according to Schoenmann.
In October, Petersen’s role became even bigger when he was selected as the Dane County southeast quadrant leader. In his new position, Petersen is responsible for calling each club in his quadrant and reporting to the Dane County Council before the snowmobile trails can open or close.
His new position is additional work, but Petersen is more than committed to Wisconsin snowmobiling.
“There are a lot of dedicated, snowmobile enthusiasts that put a ton of time in, unpaid, just to make it beautiful for everybody to enjoy,” Petersen says. “I don’t care if I get paid…I live for snowmobiling, and I wouldn’t want it to go anywhere.”