I’m not exactly sure how or why but at some point I began writing down the experiences my riding buddies and myself were having trail riding vintage snowmobiles. I suppose it had something to do with the words that just kept rolling around in my head waiting to be told. I found that once I wrote them down the urge to “tell someone how much fun we were having” would subside. It was then that the strangest thing started to happen; I realized my stories/tales were in some small way helping to encourage others to get out and ride these machines that many had only been collecting over the years. Who would have ever thought that the “riding” of vintage snowmobiles would become the fastest growing niche in our sport?
The Ride with the Champs hosted by the Snowmobile Hall of Fame located in St Germain WI has been a favorite event of mine since the first time I participated. I’m sure it sounds rather silly to others, but honestly, to me it’s like going to summer camp each year. Each year there are all the familiar faces plus lots of new ones attending for the first time. Planning for next year starts during the 8 hour trip back home on Sunday. Each time we say our good-byes for the year it feels exactly like camp is ending, and we all know that although most of us will cross paths during the off season, it will be 362 days until we can ride together again. There aren’t many things in life that a person gets to have more fun doing, with each passing year; this is surely one of them. I will tell you that my profound appreciation for the event grows every year as well as for those that make it possible for me to participate. To those dedicated folks, from the heart I say “Thank You”.
ON THE ROAD
Four hours, man oh man I wanted those 240 minutes back I had promised myself in the days leading up to the event, I was gonna’ be loaded, packed and ready early this time. Gone were the days of packing at midnight because that’s when all the necessary outside stuff had finally been completed. My new plan was flawless right up till the point I decided to finish just “one last project” on my Moto Ski. The brake/tail light had not worked correctly since completely updating the sled with a newer Rotax engine (the sled now had CDI ignition and oil injection). I had bought a mostly complete donor 1986 Ski Doo Stratos, removed the engine and complete wiring harness and installed them into my 1980 Moto Ski chassis. It had seemed so simple on paper, almost a cut and paste operation if you will. My mistake (other than not hastily selling the Moto Ski to begin with) was failing to anticipate all of the wiring “alterations” that the Stratos had seen during its life. After almost four hours of “tinkering” I finally determined my problem was a short in the tail light socket. Over the years, the socket had degraded enough so when the bulb was pushed in and turned, the internal wires would touch each other. Discovery of the exact cause was an interesting story, but it had cost me almost four hours and I still wasn’t packed. I had so hoped to be in bed by 10:00 and here it was 1:15am. I’ve found the two best times to pass through the 100 mile gauntlet known as Chicago are very early in the morning or very late at night. It’s best to leave my home before 5am or wait till after 9am. With only 3 hours of sleep, I was up and out the door grinding out the miles really wishing I could get those lost four lost hours back.
Starting your travels at that hour in the morning is always a little nerve wracking; in that you just have to trust that everything on the trailer is staying where you put it. The first 3 full hours are driving in the pitch black pre dawn darkness using only headlights from other vehicles to make sure your sled and equipment are still on the trailer where they belong. Should a strap holding the cover on break during this leg of the trip, it’s doubtful it would be noticed before tearing itself to shreds. Same goes for dropping one of the fuel cans or spare tire in the middle of Hwy 294. It’s not very likely to happen, but it’s enough to keep worriers like myself on full alert till daybreak.
I divide my trip to St Germain into 3 segments. The first leg is the 175 mile trip from home to the Belvedere IL Oasis. I filled up with fuel, hit the restroom and got right back on the road. The second leg is almost 150 miles to Coloma WI. My truck broke down there once several years ago and since it splits the remaining distance to St Germain, I almost always stop there, again for fuel and bathroom break.
Ross and Kevin sent me a text just as I was clearing Chicago. I thought his return message to call him (if I was going to) before 10am because they would be “riding on the lake near Bergland” was odd. I found out later that they had decided to stop near Lake Gogebic to get a little riding in on the way to the Hall. I would find out later how lucky that decision was. I continued to grind out the miles after stopping in Coloma. My GPS showed 80 miles to the Whitetail Lodge so I decided to call and check on Keith and John who were making the trip from North Dakota. They were just leaving Grand Rapids MN which would put them a couple of hours behind me.
The last 40 or 50 miles seemed to fly by. Isn’t it amazing how quickly the last segment of the trip goes when you’re on the way somewhere? The road seems to effortlessly transition from “when will I get there” to “I’m just down the road from the Hall of Fame”. Continuing past the Whitetail, I headed for St Germain Rentals to pick up the new tail light assembly they were holding for me. Seventeen dollars later I was on my way looking for somewhere to grab a bite for lunch. I was sitting in Subway when Ross called. He wanted to know if I had Jon Bertilino’s cell phone number, uh-oh I thought, this can’t be good. The chain had broken in Ross’ hot rod 1979 SRX (the one with the Yamaha 700cc Viper engine in it) and they needed one ASAP.
After checking in at the Whitetail Lodge, I parked at the edge of the lot and started the unloading process. The sun was shining brightly as I hauled my gear bags inside. My objective was to replace the taillight assembly on the Moto Ski quickly, and get on with having fun. The swap went quicker than I thought so I used the extra time to give the hood a nice clean-up and polish job. I was just finishing up when the Ambers arrived. I parked the Moto Ski in front of the lodge then got busy socializing. Ross and Kevin soon arrived to tell the good luck story of the weekend and the reason they were looking for Jon’s number. They had been on a shakedown ride near Bergland MI, when the drive chain on Ross’ SRX had failed. In most any other instance, that chain would have wadded itself up around either the top or bottom sprocket and shattered the aluminum case. Luckily this time, it had missed everything. All he would need was a new chain.
Troy and Amy Miley arrived not much afterward. This was the first time I had met her and I could tell from the start, she was gonna fit right in with us. The Brad Wheelock crew had arrived much earlier and were just back from their trail ride……it hadn’t taken long and there was crowd gathering….the fun was beginning. Keith and John arrived just as the laughs were really beginning but darkness was looming. I helped them unload the pair of Liquifires they’d ride for the weekend and moved their gear bags into the room at the lodge.
We were starting to get pretty hungry so John, Keith and I decided to head to Pitlik’s for dinner. The lodge would be one of our destinations for the poker run tomorrow, but tonight we were taking the truck. On the drive there, we passed the time chatting and catching up on life events since we last rode together. After ordering dinner we called Dan (at home) just to let him know we were thinking about him, and to rub it in about how much fun he was missing. I was really surprised how few people were there, it sure wasn’t hard to see the impact of such a low snow winter.
The reunion continued in the lobby of the Whitetail when we got back. Our cast of characters seems to keep growing with each year. It’s amazing how reconnected you feel after even just a few minutes when you see people in the same place year after year. We made a quick trip to the hot tub to unwind with some malt beverages after a long day of traveling and made our plans for the poker run in the morning. It had been a great first day.
The three of us were up, out the door and in the lobby before the continental breakfast was served, but we didn’t care. Don Amber and Nick (from New York) were also in the lobby chatting. As the breakfast items were set out for us, the crowd was becoming larger but there was a single re-occurring theme to our conversations; would we ride on the Poker Run? I think it was Bob Amber’s who said “lets drive down to the Hall and see if anyone is there to ask.” Off we went. Jeff Zeller (the poker run coordinator) was there with the one definitive statement, that said all we needed to know’ “we are riding, the poker run is a go and we are leaving at 10:00.” It would be up to each person how they got their machines down to the Hall. Great! Everything was a GO!
Keith, John and I decided that even given a few bare spots in the trail, we came to ride and that is exactly how we were going to get to the Hall. I’m always surprised that thoughts of thin snow, snirt or even snowless road crossings disappear almost as soon as you’re on the trial going somewhere…….funny how that works out.
We got to the Hall and signed up for the days events then started checking out the sled displays that had been changed since our last visit. One of the neat display features used by the Hall of Fame is video players located near machines that help tell the story of a particular sled or the era that the machine represents. There is a fantastic John Deere display just as you walk in the front door that includes machines, riding gear and other mementos from the glory years of Deere sponsored cross country racing. John Deere had a video produced after the 1976 racing season to celebrate their success called “2000 miles to the Checkered Flag.” It plays as part of the display also. Wondering why I bring this up now? It’ll make sense later.
Outside in the parking lot, the action was picking up. Vehicles pulling loaded trailers were filling up the parking space and riders that had opted to come by trail were steadily filling the back parking areas. More and more machines were starting to form into lines awaiting the signal to depart. Just after 10am Jeff walked out, circled his hand above his head (to start our machines), pulled his helmet on and we were off.
Departing for a ride with 25 or so other machines is an amazing experience for snowmobile geeks like me. There really is no secret except to keep up with the machine in front of you and make sure there is a machine behind you at all times. Essentially the caboose stops the train. We wound our way from the Hall heading toward St Germain where most of the trails were well snow covered, but it was older snow….almost like the icy stuff a snow cone is made from. The Moto Ski was definitely suffering from the lack of idler wheels in the more marginal snow areas. I could feel the hyfax trying to “glue” itself to the track clips if I didn’t duck off into some of the deeper snow fairly often. Keith came up to me when we stopped on the lake and said “boy, somebody’s hyfax is really getting hot, I can smell it pretty strong.” I just laughed and told him I knew exactly what machine it was from.
Our first stop was Pitlik’s Resort (the same place we had eaten supper at last night) where we all drew our first card, then we headed back to St Germain for lunch and our second card at Knocker’s. Our group had picked up riders during our tour so far swelling to over 30. I think the kitchen staff was a little overwhelmed by how many riders we had in our group. In some settings, slow service would be viewed as a negative, but for me it meant more time to sit and chat with everyone. I saw Brian Linder and his wife (still suited up) walk in later during lunch, but didn’t realize he hadn’t been with us the whole time till I read his weekend story. When we walked outside, much to our surprise, it was starting to snow!
We fired our machines and headed for Fibber’s, our next destination. This leg of the trip was the only time our group got a little separated. It appeared one of the sleds had fouled a plug upon restart and with a gaggle of sleds this large (remember several riders had joined us throughout the day), part of the group had taken last years route while the rest of us circled around from the opposite direction. Things ended up fine as we pretty much all arrived at the same time.
Making it to Fibber’s under my own power was a point of pride for me as the last time I was there, the Moto Ski had died on the trail and I’d ridden two-up with Jerry Bettin. This time was different and I was really enjoying myself. We didn’t stay as long as I would have liked (time to chit-chat always seems to short) but it was time to head toward the Hall as it was our last stop of the day. There was a very pleasant surprise waiting for us as we walked back to our machines. The Tom Rowland group from Minnesota was just arriving on their fleet of Cats. I got to say hello to Tom, Eric Bergstrom, Nick & Angie Stafford and a couple of others as our group was leaving. I wanted to stay longer and chat with them but, it was time for us to go.
The Poker Run concluded at the Hall of Fame with an end of the day hot dog roast hosted by Tom White and a couple of others (I’m sorry I cant remember their names). What a great way to end the day…bonfire, cold refreshments, good food and lots of laughs with everyone just enjoying each others company. I drew my last two cards and like others participants, quickly figured out I hadn’t won. It didn’t matter, the fun was in the people after all, I had just spent the day riding snowmobiles with a legend of the oval racing world Wayne Nicholson! A very big Thank You goes out to Jeff Zeller and his helpers for organizing this all day activity. As a result of their hard work $880.00 was raised for the Hall. Thanks Jeff!
ENCOUNTER WITH AN ICON
We were all milling about after the Poker Run awards had been given and not wanting the day to end. Remembering that earlier, when I paid my Ride with the Champs entry fee that morning, I hadn’t filled out an entry form. As I walked through the entry door to the Hall, I was struck by two things. First, it was so quiet. Earlier in the day the Hall was alive with the voices of visitors as multiple conversations filled the air. The second thing that struck me was the gentleman standing by the John Deere display.
In this large and now mostly silent room filled with all matter of iconic snowmobile history, I could only see two people; Jamie Zeller was standing by the cashier’s counter and a guy wearing an Arctic Cat jacket watching the John Deere film that I mentioned earlier. The John Deere produced video (2000 miles to the checkered flag) is one of my favorites and I rarely pass-up the opportunity to watch it, even though I can almost quote the dialogue from memory. Glancing over as I’m about to walk by, the video is just beginning the 1976 Winnipeg to St Paul I-500 footage. Better stop and watch this part I think silently to myself; after all, I’m really in no particular hurry to be anywhere.
So, as I’m standing there watching this video for a few minutes, just kind of minding my own business, when I finally look over at the guy that I’ve been standing next to…….. Holy crap, it’s none other than Brian Nelson himself!
Now let me set the stage for you. I’m standing next to the legend himself, Brian Nelson, watching him racing in a video (filmed in 1976) where he performs one of the greatest feats in cross country racing. In making up a 13 minute deficit on the last stage of a 500 mile cross country race, he accomplished a come from behind victory unheralded in snowmobile racing history. If that’s not coincidence enough, immediately to his right is the very machine he was riding (in the video) when he won the race! This is the snowmobile nerd equilivant to hanging with Mark McGuire watching the replay of him hitting the homer surpassing the single season home run record, Joe Montana as he completes “the pass”, David Pearson as he crashes and passes Richard Petty in the Daytona 500 or maybe Lance Armstrong as he wins his 7th Tour de France. There is just no possible way I’m letting this experience pass without getting his thoughts, and I knew right then that I had to write this experience into my story.
So now I’ve got to come up with a good conversation starter. I don’t want to sound like a total sled nerd (even thought that’s exactly what I am). This is a kick-ass experience and I’m still trying to play it a little cool because like I said, I’m a total snowmobile nerd, however it’s OK with me if he doesn’t see me as that (lol).
Here’s a little background; I’ve attended two previous Hall of Fame events when Brian was in attendance. In 2009 Dan and I were invited by the John Deere group to join the Friday night fish fry where Jon Carlson and Brian Nelson kept everyone captivated with racing stories from the past. The next day Brian (and his wife) was part of our Vintage Challenge group that wandered around lost in the dark Wisconsin woods until eventually finding our way back to the Hall. Earlier that day at lunch, Brian told us stories about helping with development of the Arctic Cat ZR consumer machines. Again in 2010 Brian rode in the Vintage Challenge, this time on Don Amber’s 340/S. Essentially what I’m saying is that I knew exactly who Brian Nelson was, but I doubted he had even the slightest memory of me. Either way, it was time to pick the brain of a legend.
Putting this all into proper perspective, what’s taken me three paragraphs to write all occurred in about 25 seconds. By the time I got my wits about myself, the video was just coming to the conclusion of the race. Now was my chance to ask my first question “how long was it after the race before you got to see this footage for the first time?” He looked over almost as if he hadn’t noticed anyone standing there, and said there had been an end of the season team gathering where the Deere folks had presented it for initial viewing. As the awards ceremony footage ran, he mentioned a few names of the different drivers, mechanics, officials and dignitaries as we were seeing them in the film. When the subsequent races of the season were featured he provided a little commentary about each of them; such as if it was really cold the day of that race or drivers that he felt were especially good on that type of terrain. I was getting the personal narration of maybe the most iconic cross country racing season ever; by the very driver who dominated at those races. I looked around, and there still wasn’t anyone else in the hall; this was to cool to be true.
We talked about his moving to Cat the following season and about some of his many successes while riding for the Thief River gang. After a few more minutes he said the single thing that most struck me during our visit. He told me that he hadn’t seen this video since he was up at the Hall in 2010. This guy is so down to earth, he doesn’t even own a copy of the video, and he’s one of its stars. I was really impressed by what a humble guy Brian is, and was extremely thankful I had forgot to fill out my registration forms earlier. I finally got around to introduce myself and thanked him for his time. This day had been amazing and it wasn’t even dark yet.
When I was walking out the door, I met Keith. I told him that I’d just had the neatest experience but he would have to wait to read my story to find out what it was. He just laughed and said it was time to head back to the hotel. I walked over to snap a couple quick photos of the Team Arctic trailer and it was time to point the Moto Ski toward the Whitetail. As we rode back, my thoughts turned toward tomorrows ride and that I really didn’t want to ride all the way up to Lake Gogebic on these marginal conditions. I knew Keith and John didn’t want to do a short ride…oh well, I told myself either way it’s gonna be fun.
We got back to the Whitetail in plenty of time to enjoy the hot tub and clean up before heading to the Whitetail INN for the fish fry. I honestly think one of the best parts of the Hall of Fame weekend is how one fun event transitions into another. I’m not certain how the tradition of the Friday Night Fish Fry started, but I believe it sprang from the Deere guys just looking for a place to gather back in 2008. Dan Cunningham and I (two dyed in the wool Polaris guys) broke the Deere brand barrier by being invited in 2009 and it’s been a “must” for us ever since. Now it’s a pretty big event open to all those who wish to join.
Keith, John and I took a seat at the table and almost immediately the infectious laughing started. I can’t honestly imagine how an unhappy person could cope with an event like this as it seems we spend so much time laughing at each other’s stories. Ross and Kevin slid another smaller table against the end of ours and joined in. As even more people arrived we just kept adding to the length of the table. At one point during dinner I looked around and there must have been 125 people all sitting in our general area. I kept silently thinking to myself WOW, almost everyone here is a vintage snowmobiler. What a great time to be involved in this segment of the sport. For the past few years Don Amber has taken on the duties of making the Friday arrangements for all of us. Thank You Don for all your hard work and making this possible!
One subject I kept avoiding during the evening was which Saturday ride to go on. John told us during dinner that he had felt OK riding during the day (he had just had a minor out patient procedure done earlier in the week), but felt it best if he skipped the Saturday ride and drove one of the support trucks. I knew that Keith wanted to do the longer ride (Vintage Challenge). Kevin and Ross had both said they were going on the shorter Keith Warning local vintage ride. I wasn’t at all worried the Moto Ski would make the 170 mile run up to Fishtails and back, but I did know it needed more clutching and carburetion work for me to be content riding it all day….especially given the current trail conditions. Thus far, the entire day had been a blast so I simply decided to make my mind up in the morning.
First thing in the morning I told the guys what was on my mind and that I’d rather go on the shorter Keith Warning vintage ride and the two basic reasons why. Keith told me that he was fine with that, but almost changed my mind when he offered for me the use of his1982 Liquifire for the Vintage Challenge. Side note….. that offer from Keith is exactly what makes this vintage group so special. The willingness to help each other or lend tools/parts is unmatched by any other snowmobile group I’ve been a part of. It was a tempting offer and I thanked him, but I was still in for the shorter ride.
Things were very busy at the Whitetail when we arrived for breakfast. The Vintage Challenge participants had either driven or unloaded their machines on site, as they would depart immediately after breakfast. Saturday morning has an almost electric energy as you chat with old friends and make new ones. I was relieved to not have the unmistakable race day “pit in your stomach” feeling like I had the two previous times I’d ridden the Vintage Challenge. Today had a much more laidback feel to it and I was enjoying every moment.
After breakfast we were told that our ride would also leave from the Whitetail and if our machines weren’t on site, we should go get them and return. On our way back to the hotel, I asked Keith if I could take him up on his offer of riding his Liquifire for the day. Without a moments hesitation he said “sure”. Kick ass, after all these years of reading about them in magazines, I was getting my first ride on a Deere! We put on our riding gear and started making our way back to the Whitetail to meet the rest of our group.
The trip from the hotel was my first ever ride on a John Deere. I was riding Keith’s 1982 440 Liquifire and my initial thoughts were that it was pretty darn snappy, lacking only a “cut down” windshield (sorry Keith lol). It’s a short hop to the Whitetail, barely enough time to get used to how the throttle and brake levers fit your hands, but so far, I liked it! We arrived back and parked our machines beside the others that were lined up and ready to go. Keith was riding his 1978 Cross Country Liquifire, and as we waited, he made a couple of comments about me taking it for a ride (which I REALLY wanted to do). He also said that he thought me being taller; I may fit that machine better than the 1982. Who was I to argue with reasoning like that?
The Warnings hadn’t arrived yet so this left us all some bonus time for more chit-chatting. I walked over to where Ross and Kevin were standing talking with Wayne Nicholsen. He was telling some of the coolest stories from the glory days of FIII racing like how busy it was driving a machine with adjustable timing, adjustable jetting and using the kick down lever that changed how the rear skid acted on holeshot vs. cornering. His story about going 114mph down the back straight in Valcourt and getting passed by Tim Bender on his 750 FIII machine stood the hair up on the back of my neck . I can’t imagine going 114mph on a 380lb machine and still being 4-5 mph too slow. Wow! Here is yet one more example of why the Ride with the Champs event is so much fun.
BEFORE WE CONTINUE
Being completely honest, I’ve struggled with writing this next part of my story. Not for the reasons of difficulty finding the correct words or making time to actually finish this project, no my problem was with letting go of the selfish feeling to NOT tell others (who weren’t there) how much fun we had on this ride. At times I wrestled with the thought that if everyone finds out just how much fun it was, large numbers will join and take away from the popularity of the longer Vintage Challenge ride, or even worse so many will join this excursion, and that it might detract from the uniqueness that it has. In the end, I decided that the only acceptable solution was to tell the story just how I remember it, and let everyone else decided if this ride is right for them. Here’s the story of the Warning Vintage Ride.
THE BEST KEPT SECRET IN VINTAGE SNOWMOBILING
Our guides had shown up, everyone was ready; it was time to go riding! Jerry Bettin would lead our group with Keith Warning and his sons bringing up the tail. Jerry’s professional snowmobile racer son Brad would also join us riding an amazingly clean 1980 Spitfire. We turned west from the parking lot and skirted Hwy 70 for a distance before turning into the woods. The overnight snow was plentiful enough to cover any bare spots in the trail plus provide a little cushion.
I was all smiles riding the 82 Liquifire. After all the years of reading about them and seeing them in magazines, I found it really fun to ride. Keith had the sled set up quite well with not much steering effort required, the weight transfer was just right; it didn’t take long at all to get comfortable. We had been riding for 15 or 20 minutes before it really set in how “brisk” of a pace we were maintaining…….this was really fun. Approximately ¾ of the way to our fist destination, the group stopped to make sure everyone was still together. Kevin and Ross’s resto-mod machines were getting all the attention they deserved along with Brad Wheelock’s original Liquidator. Everyone was already having such a great time, and we were just getting started.
When it was time to start our engines again, Keith walked over and said he really thought I’d be more comfortable on the Cross Country and that I should give it a try. Side note here; snowmobile nerds (like myself) don’t pass on an opportunity like this when it presents itself; of course I’d give it a try.
THE CROSS COUNTRY DEERE
John Deere’s 1978 Liquifire Cross Country is the rarest of all the Liquifires that were produced. Keith’s sled in particular, not only has documented race history, but through an odd set of circumstances, is essentially still in “as raced” condition. Outside of a few necessary replacement parts needed to maintain the sled over the years, by all accounts it appears as if the sled competed in the 1977 I-500 last weekend. Keith had offered to let me ride it last year during the Hall of Fame weekend, but limited snow prevented us from riding our machines, thus my opportunity would have to wait…..till today.
FIRST STOP OF THE DAY
During the first hour or two of our ride, the trails had twisted and turned through the scenic northwoods, down county roads and across the corner of a lake before we pulled into the parking lot. What a sight we must have been to the people looking out the window. John was there waiting for us to arrive. Even though I had no idea where we were, or how he beat us there, just seeing that truck and trailer gave me instant feeling of security, one that I had missed in previous years on the Vintage Challenge. This was one of the first striking differences between the two rides I noted.
Myself, John and a couple other guys helped load an amazingly clean Rupp onto the trailer. It had developed a misfire causing it only run on one cylinder from time to time. Rather than risk engine damage the owner wisely chose to park it for the day. Seeing that Rupp sitting on the trailer glistening in the sun, brought about another observation; this ride is for the “every-man” snowmobile. Sure, we were cutting through the woods at trail speeds quite comparable to those of the Vintage Challenge, but you don’t need some hot rod snowmobile to do it on. This Rupp and the Brad Bettin’s Spitfire were perfect examples of that. Our speeds were as quick to be sure, but gone was the sense of urgency that we HAD to get there, and HAD to get back. That lack of pressure was my third observation in just a matter of moments.
The lack of available fuel would dictate our afternoon route and limit our total mileage for the day. It was an unfortunate consequence that the route/snow condition flexibility this ride offered. While were able to alter our travels ensuring adequate snow cover, it simply wasn’t an option to coordinate a lunch location near a fuel station. Rather than express disappointment, the riders (that needed it) shared the fuel John had delivered to the restaurant and off we went again. We crossed the lake again but this time in a slightly different direction. Single file, everyone climbed onto an unplowed two-track and wound our way back to the trail system. The sun was now high in the sky highlighting the color contrast between our machines and the snow. We continued to travel at our brisk pace as we leaned into the corners and grabbed a handful of throttle shooting down the straight-aways. I felt very comfortable on the Cross Country by now and was really enjoying the performance it offered.
As our group of machines from a previous bygone era drew ever closer to the Whitetail, we found we were racing the diminishing snow conditions created by the brilliant sunshine. Small easy to dodge bare spots had morphed into much larger sections that continued to grow as the last miles passed. When we turned into the parking lot our odometers read just over 80 miles. Even though our target mileage was in the hundred mile range; given the weather related obstacles and limited conditions we had faced, I believe we all felt fortunate and fulfilled with the days results. Not wanting our ride to end, we stood and talked together for a short while gathered around our sleds. Finally, it was time to head back to the hotel, relax a little and get ready for the evenings inductions ceremony.
We celebrated the completion of our ride with icy cold malt beverages and the ritual of recounting events of the day. If you’ve never been on a group ride like this, it’s difficult to understand how many small events (blowing a corner, getting roosted on, etc) you miss depending on your position in the line of machines. Each adventure is recounted in exacting detail to the delight of the group where mutual laughs are shared and our bond strengthened. Keith mentioned several times how much more enjoyable the ride had been, and that any apprehension about not riding the Vintage Challenge was gone. I think we were all shocked and amazed that this ride could have been so much fun, and provide so many bonus opportunities, yet the “word” hadn’t gotten out to the rest of the sport. The temperature was supposed to drop quickly overnight so I slipped away just long enough to load and cover the Moto Ski preparing for the trip home. Every item on my “make sure it can’t fall off the trailer list” was completed, checked and then double checked. It was gonna be an early start in the morning and the last thing I needed after such a great ride were any screw-ups on the way home.
THE HALL OF FAME BANQUET
Our last hurrah for the weekend would be the banquet. I continue to be stunned each year, by the number of my childhood hero’s that attend this event. The names in attendance aren’t just a part of snowmobile racing history, they ARE snowmobile racing history. Names like Trapp, Hayes, Dimmerman, Nelson, Carlson, Aaen, Hullings,
Marchbank, Nicholsen, Karpik and Scheele haven’t just impacted our sport; they have each in their own way defined our sport. For this one night everyone comes together to honor the contributions made by our heroes, and to celebrate the work done by the Hall of Fame. The banquet also provides one last chance to connect with friends that participated in some of the different weekend activities in a casual environment. It’s a great opportunity to catch up and also get feedback on how some of the other rides of the day went.
Most often I was asked was “what ride did you go on?” The next question came after answering the first “how was it?” By the sixth or seventh time I had my answer down pat. I’d tell them, we had the trail speeds nearly that of Vintage Challenge, but the shorter distance took off enough pressure that we were able to socialize throughout the entire day. I’d go on to remark that our guides kept us together all day. Gone were the worries of getting separated, lost or fending for ourselves. The favorable exchanges I was having were telling me something was really effervescing with this ride. Ultimately we’ll have to wait till next year to see if there’ll be increased involvement with the Keith Warning Middle Distance Challenge ride.
After dinner several of us continued to celebrate well into the evening. Slowly the large crowd at the Whitetail continued to shrink until it was just the Stephen MN Gang, Keith, John and I. Maynard, Anthony and Rick continued to dazzle me with their stories of upper Midwest hijinx. One of the most memorable was the flour filled harvesting combine driven in an annual town parade and how that flour was “accidently” lost during the parade route. These guys are master storytellers and only the clock nearing 2am was enough to end our fun for the evening.
We headed back to our hotel one last time. After spending a few minutes packing my gear bags and setting them all in one place, we said our good byes before calling it an end of a unbelievably fun, exhausting day full of memories that were uniquely our own. Tomorrow we would each travel home, but tonight as we slept, I’m sure we all reflected on the events of memories we had created and friendships we had built.
My eyes felt like they were full of sand as I struggled to turn the alarm off. It was 5:25am and I wanted to do anything in the world except wake up. There was no choice however; eight hours of forward progress separated me from home. The weekend was over and the sooner I got on the road, the sooner I’d be back with my family.
I dropped my luggage next to the front door of the empty lobby and headed for the truck. The temperature had dropped during the night; it was cold, really cold. I could feel my nostrils freeze with each breath as I walked across the lot. The truck seat felt like I was sitting on a cement block as I pulled up under the awning to load my bags. The lobby was warm and very quiet, quite a contrast to the two previous mornings. I took one last look at the gas fireplace and the still decorated and lighted Christmas tree (a touch that I enjoy seeing every year). I stalled time for a few more minutes, hoping silently someone would come along to chat with, but to no avail, it was time to hit the road. The thermometer read five degrees as I turned on to Hwy 70 and the farther south I went, the more it dropped. The temperature continued to fall as I traveled through the pre-dawn hours eventually bottoming out at minus four.
These are the hardest drives, the ones after the event is over. The excitement and anticipation that help pass the road miles are gone now, nothing but the radio (which I constantly flip channels on) to occupy my thoughts while impatiently watching the odometer roll another mile closer to home. As the sun rose higher in the eastern sky, snow covered Northern Wisconsin morphed into the cold snowless central and southern plains. The hours disappeared in a series of fuel stops, gas station snacks, diet Mt Dew and quiet reflection.
REFLECTING ON OUR GROUP
Just what was it that so captivated the participants of this event? The more I tried to pigeon-hole each of us into a group, the harder it became to assign us a definition. We all had such different lives, occupations and educations, yet we all converse and share meals as equals. The machines we ride are as varied as we are as individuals, yet there’s an uncanny appreciation for each machine out on the trail. Loading/unloading machines or routine maintenance become community projects and a fouled sparkplug leads to a race to see who can get a replacement out of their pocket fastest (and never ask it to be replaced, just pay it forward). What could it be I wondered, what draws us together year after year? What makes us confirm hotel reservations for next year as we walk out the door?
And then it finally hit me and at last I understood. Regardless of how your business is doing, regardless the state of your marriage, no matter if your child gets into that exclusive college, no matter if you have $5 in your pocket or $5000, no matter if your tow vehicle has rust or if your riding gear is from a garage sale; for this one weekend a year, we are all just innocent kids on the playground at recess. Gone are the day to day struggles, gone are the pressures of career advancement, gone are phone calls from telemarketers; it’s just us, the friendships we’ve built and our snowmobiles. It’s our very own recess completely ours, to make of it what we wish.
Our playground time was over for the year, but just like every day when we were in school, the one thing we could all be sure of as we drove home, the recess bell would ring again next winter, and we would all meet again, back on the playground.
Roger Jordan, AKA Jekyll.