Snowmobiling in Iron County’s backcountry was enjoyable and not overly challenging for Dave Morton, Charlie Sandstrom and Chad Reed, all from Crystal Falls. The unplowed gravel roads of the Ottawa National Forest in northwest Iron County had been somewhat packed down by other snowmobilers. The only trail-breaking needed for the group was on some of the side trails. See story in this week’s Outdoors section.
IRON COUNTY—Recently I was invited to go along with a group of older Iron County snowmobilers on one of their backcountry rides.
We are fortunate to have some extensive natural areas in the UP and snowmobiling them during the winter is a great way to see beautiful country in a completely different setting from summer. Although this group of old friends ride the groomed Iron County snowmobile trails, what they enjoy most is putting together a ride in the backcountry for a day to a series of sites by riding cross country. Getting out into some wilder country is their way of dealing with “cabin fever” during our long snowy winters.
The primary group is made up of Dave Morton, Charlie Sandstrom and Jerry Aho all from Crystal Falls. This group makes up the “Old Geezers East Side Snowmobile Club.” These three are boyhood friends and all enjoy snowmobiling as a winter hobby. They use the rides to take a few adventures around Iron County and enjoy the long winters in the UP. My main experience with backcountry snowmobiling was working for the Ottawa National Forest in Fisheries. We spent time in the late winter in the remote parts of northwest Iron County investigating potential trout lakes during the record winter of the 1978 when the snow depths were over 4 feet deep in the woods.
This type of adventure takes considerably more planning and logistics than riding on the organized snowmobile trails in the area. The first issue that must be considered is where you park a couple of vehicles and snowmobile trailers when you are not traveling from an established trail head. A good possibility is to start from a public boat landing, as some times they are partially plowed out by the county or ice anglers. It is a good idea to bring a Yooper Scooper with you so you can quickly dig out a parking area to get your truck and trailer out of the way so you are not blocking traffic. When you are travelling cross country or down unplowed roads in the back country having several snowmachines along on the trip provides added security if you have a breakdown.
If you are going to make a large part of your trip breaking trail, you should have at least one long track snowmobile to lead your group. If snow depths are not excessive you can follow that machine with normal full track snowmachines. I like to have a pair of snowshoes bungee chorded on to my long track snowmobile in case I bog down. I also attach a scoop shovel to dig out if we are stuck so I can get going again. Charlie Sandstrom, who was a commercial diver before he retired, is very attuned to safety and self rescue. Sandstrom carries several more safety items including, a first aid kit, space blanket, fire making material, folding saw, emergency food and small come along in his storage area of his snowmobile. You should also have a rope in case you need to pull a snowmobile that it stuck or throw it to someone if they fall through the ice.
As you are planning out a route you should think carefully about potential problem spots you might encounter like unsafe ice conditions, deep slush, or private land areas that you don’t have permission to cross. It is a good idea to review maps and even scout part of the area from your vehicle if plowed roads make it possible. This group knows from experience to avoid flowing rivers as a short cut on your snowmobile trip. You always have to remember if you get into trouble your group will have to rescue themselves.
One of their favorite rides is to travel cross country to Michigamme Reservoir and then out to a new area from the many different sections of the reservoir. Another large area of unplowed roads is in the Ottawa National Forest. According to Steve Drake,US Forest Service Law Enforcement, “Snowmobiles can be driven on unplowed roads. All those signs that are up (ATVs only, Closed – no motorized vehicles) do not apply to snowmobiles. Cross-country travel with snowmobiles is also allowed”. There are prohibited areas like Wilderness Areas and Tree Nurseries; if you have questions you should contact the US Forest Service Ranger Station in Watersmeet at 906-358-4551. If you stay on the main gravel roads in the Ottawa National Forest there have often been other snowmobilers packing down a trail previously. There are a large number of lakes and streams in the Ottawa Forest that make interesting sites along the way. The status of plowed road can change from year to year depending on where major logging operations are being carried out.
We saw a number of lakes, trout streams, and remnants of an old logging camp and log driving dam along with beautiful large timber. We also stopped for their other tradition of a hot pasty in aluminum foil heated on the exhaust system of the snowmobile during the ride. This is a great way to spend a day in our beautiful north woods.