Snowmobile riders throughout Lake County have had quite a run this season.
Although a rise in temperature has shut down trails for now, area fans of the sport enjoyed an unusually active season.
Feeling cooped up because of the COVID-19 pandemic, riders took full advantage of heavy snows. Sales of snowmobiles were up, and more people hit the trails.
“It has sparked that love for snowmobiling, the sport, and it’s been a good morale booster,” said Skip Schaefer of Lake Villa, president of Sno-Kommanders of Lake County, a club of about 12 members.
“We’ve had a few people interested in the club, a couple new members this year,” he said. “Other clubs have picked up new members, too.”
Those involved with area snowmobile clubs are hoping this season’s industry boost draws even more club members. The more members, the more help they have to maintain and improve trails.
They’ve also taken advantage of the increased interest in the sport to raise awareness of safety measures, especially the need for riders to stay on the trails.
Formed in 1989, the nonprofit Sno-Kommanders of Lake County belongs to the Illinois Association of Snowmobile Clubs, which is made up of 54 clubs throughout the state, all broken down by region. The region that includes Lake County has six snowmobile clubs.
Club membership is a passion for many who work to ensure the sport thrives. They’ve successfully lobbied for increased snowmobile registration fees – from $30 to $45 – to raise money for trail upkeep and to preserve land for winter recreation.
They also frequently plan events and outings to bring together riders, including this past weekend’s 10th annual Chili Dump Gathering hosted by the Sno-Kommanders at Grant Woods in Lake Villa.
During a typical season, many Illinois riders travel north to take advantage of snow-covered trails.
This year, the area’s trails remained snow-covered longer than usual, even drawing snowmobilers from Wisconsin and other northern states, where the snow came late. Out-of-state residents must buy a $25 trail pass to ride in Illinois.
“It was great to see so many people out riding,” said Rob Lang, the trail coordinator for the Island Lake-based Riverbend Benders Snowmobile Club, which has about 35 members.
As trail coordinator, Lang often works with private property owners, as well as the Lake County Forest Preserves, to prepare trails for the season. The Lake County Forest Preserve District at www.lcfpd.org offers 21 miles of designated snowmobile trails, many of which connect to other snowmobile trails. Riders are encouraged to check the status map on the district’s website before heading out on the trails.
Trails opened Dec. 10 and remain open when there is at least 4 inches of snowfall on frozen ground.
Partnering with the Lake County Forest Preserve, area club members work to make sure the trails are clear and contain signage.
“Snowmobiling is a tremendous family sport,” said Lang, who has been riding for about 32 years and is a snowmobile safety instructor.
Many families bring along their children, who can ride along as passengers. To become drivers, state law requires children between 12 and 16 take an approved safety course and obtain a snowmobile safety certificate. Similar to driving an automobile, snowmobile operators must have liability insurance. Until age 15, young riders must have an adult age 18 or older along with them.
Lang said he and his wife have spent weekends putting in nearly 30 miles on their snowmobiles.
“We just love the outdoors,” Lang said. “The animals you see and the nature and the beautiful views are just spectacular. ... Snowmobilers are a whole separate group of people. It’s people who love the outdoors and love nature and love being out in the fresh air.”
Involved in snowmobiling for nearly 35 years, Sue Giese of Johnsburg has served in various roles in the Illinois Association of Snowmobile Clubs and the Midwest chapter of the American Council of Snowmobile Associations.
As secretary for the McHenry County Snowmobile Association, as well as the Sno-Grovers Snowmobile Club in Spring Grove, she saw high demand for Illinois trail passes this winter. Snowmobilers not registered in Illinois are required to buy passes to take their sleds on Illinois trails.
“This year, the phone is off the hook. It’s ‘How can I buy a trail pass?’ We had a ton of sales going on,” Giese said.
A safety education instructor, Giese partners with the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office.
The biggest problem, she said, is riders not sticking to the trails.
“We get those who buy a sled and think they can ride and they don’t follow the rules,” she said. “They go off the trail and they end up losing a life over it or seriously hurting someone. It’s a shame because we work very hard at putting out safe trails. If you stay on the trails, you’ll be safe.”
The McHenry County Conservation District offers more than 17miles of snowmobile trails in Glacial Park and along the Prairie Trail that connect with numerous county trails, including those in Lake County.
Riders are encouraged to obtain trail maps available from the McHenry County Conservation District at www.mccdistrict.org and area businesses. Information and a list of those businesses can be found through the McHenry County Snowmobile Association’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/snowmobilemchenrycounty/. The McHenry County Snowmobile Hotline at 815-334-7669 provides information on trail updates and classes.
Aside from a few accidents, the snowmobiling season was relatively smooth.
“This winter has been phenomenal,” Giese said. “We’re seeing lots more people. We’re hoping that while they’re out riding, they maybe are thinking or considering joining a club because we could use the help. … We put in an awful lot of work.”
Originally from Minnesota, Giese loves winter and raised her children on the trails in McHenry County and Wisconsin. The family’s vacations revolved around snowmobiling.
“We’re not just riding along the ditch on the side of the road. We’re going into the woods. We are looking at nature from a whole different view,” she said. “We see foxes running. We see deer. We see nature.”