Snowmobile officers patrol Hubbard County's trails throughout winter season
As the snowmobile season begins a gradual end, hastened by unseasonably warm temperatures and melting snow, Hubbard County's snowmobile officers remain on the job patrolling the trails.
"We're out here primarily for safety, to keep the sport for everybody," said Dep. Jeff Stacey. "There's always some that ruin it for others."
Dep. Jarod Andersen is the county's snowmobile/ATV officer.
He is assisted both weekdays and weekends by deputies that can be diverted to snowmobile patrol, funded by forestry grants.
During the weekend of the Eelpout Festival in Walker, three deputies were out on the trails. Normally it's two, sometimes three officers.
Nice weather and weekend activities in neighboring towns have increased the snowmobile population exponentially. Saturday, during a brief checkpoint on the Heartland Trail, at least 50 sleds sped through Nevis in a 15-minute period.
Officers check for registration and trail stickers.
"Most people are very understanding and cooperative," Andersen said. "This year we haven't had much of an accident problem" although two accidents occurred over Eelpout weekend.
"Traffic really depends on the snow conditions," Stacey said. "This year people didn't start riding until January."
And although the majority of weekend riders are from out of town, Stacey said because the southern part of the state has experienced abundant snowfall, unlike last year, fewer tourists are coming from the south part of Minnesota this season.
Andersen, Stacey and Dep. Adam Williams, who was patrolling Saturday, said their presence on the trails usually surprises weekend guests. But they nonetheless get a warm reception.
"Many people out there have never heard of cops being out on snowmobiles because they don't have them in their areas," Stacey said.
The deputies give directions, accident help and assistance to stranded riders.
But it's the educational component of their jobs they say is most invaluable.
"We have a lot of new riders out there," Andersen said. "We want to make the sport safe, fun and enjoyable for everyone out here."
Stacey teaches young riders the snowmobile and trail requirements. This winter he conducted two classes with around 30 youngsters.
One of the thorniest issues they confront is trespassing. Many snowmobilers either aren't aware they are on private property or ignore warning signs they've left a designated trail.
And that's where the patrol will pull riders over.
"We talk to them about how the trail systems work, and not going through peoples' property," Stacey said.
Property damage can earn errant riders a citation. So can reckless driving or intentionally damaging trails and ditches.
"Going through farm fields..." Stacey added. "Hay ground will not come back the same if it's been matted down in winter."
The patrol writes anywhere from a minimum of 10 citations a season up to "100-200," Stacey said.
They're inclined to cut riders some slack if they aren't aware of the regulations, are lost on trails and trying to get back to a familiar spot or admit their mistakes.
"This is not a money-making thing," Stacey said of the citations. "We want the trails to stay open and tourists to come back."
Stacey said if riders tear up the trails and are destructive to neighboring property, state trail grants could dry up. Officers keep a close eye on ditches not designated as trails, to prevent damage there, too.
Andersen and Sheriff Frank Homer said alcohol use on the trails has been markedly down this year, a fact they're grateful for.
Andersen hopes the education and presence of the officers on the trails has lessened the alcohol use.
He advocates riding in groups as the safest way to operate. That way, someone injured in an accident can get help quickly, a breakdown doesn't mean the rider is stranded somewhere alone and someone unfamiliar with the trails isn't lost with little information to guide rescue crews.
"The more presence you show the less of a free-for-all it is," Stacey said. "People know we're here to help and protect."