DNR, partnering club make snowmobile trail improvements in Gogebic County

Contact: John Pepin, 906-226-1352
Agency: Natural Resources

April 11, 2018

Substantial cooperative efforts re-open valuable interstate trails

Snowmobilers move along Trail No. 11 South on a sunny day in Gogebic County.Even before the curtain lifted on this past winter’s fabulous snowmobile season in the Upper Peninsula, months of groundwork, planning and volunteer effort had been under way to reopen two interstate trails, which had been closed for several years.

The two trails – Nos. 11 South and 160 North – had connected snowmobilers riding between Michigan and Wisconsin in the western end of the U.P., but the trails were closed several years ago without necessary landowner permissions, enough volunteer workers or necessary improvements.

However, over recent months, vital efforts to reopen these important routes came largely from the reinvigorated leadership and members of the Gogebic Range Trail Authority, a snowmobile club that grooms and maintains over 70 miles of trail in Gogebic County.

“Trail 160 was a big project north of Ironwood in Ironwood Township – there’s a historic snowmobile trail there from Ironwood all the way up to Saxon Harbor (Wisconsin),” said Ron Yesney, Michigan Department of Natural Resources Upper Peninsula trails coordinator. “That trail linkage had been disrupted and that trail had been closed on two separate occasions, and really what we needed was local involvement.”

Yesney said the DNR can supply resources, in terms of financial resources through grants and administration, but when it comes to maintaining and sustaining a trail system, the DNR needs to partner with local organizations, clubs that get involved and really want to see something positive happen.

“With Trail 160, the pivotal issues were land control – they had to get land permission from 21 different land owners, which people in the community were able to do – and then secondarily to that, there was a bridge issue,” Yesney said.

The damaged Mud Creek Bridge is shown weels after the August 2016 storm.The bridge was out on Mud Creek, on property owned by a major corporate landowner, blocking riders from running the trail north from Ironwood for about 30 miles to Saxon Harbor, where it connects to Wisconsin’s Trail No. 3.

“This bridge in the summer of 2016 was nearly washed out from a record-setting storm. We had 9 inches of rain in about five hours,” said Steve Hamilton, president of the Gogebic Range Trail Authority. “When our new board members took over, this was our top project was to get this trail reopened. It took about $170,000 of trail-permit-funded money to get this bridge put in.”

Hamilton said the original bridge measured 45 feet. With the new flood stage precedent set, and damage to the bridge, the new bridge was extended several feet.

“It’s been an incredible addition to our trail system. This wasn’t open last year. This bridge was actually completed in February of 2017,” Hamilton said.

Workers are shown replacing the Mud Creek Bridge in Gogebic County.Yesney said there’s a lot of work that went in to making sure that that bridge was installed in an ecologically sustainable way.

“The way that bridge sat, at the bottom of a valley, created a lot of erosion concerns and a lot of environmental engineering issues,” Yesney said.

Deborah Fergus, vice president of the snowmobile club, was a critical and integral part of the Mud Creek Bridge project. She spent 30 years as an engineer working for the Michigan Department of Transportation.

“Her abilities greatly influenced the outcome of these projects,” Hamilton said. “Without her, I know projects wouldn’t have been executed to the impressive extent that they were. She was the charging force behind the execution of our trail-funded improvement projects on the trail.

A groomer rides across the new Mud Creek Bridge in Gogebic County.“The Mud Creek Bridge project had a couple hundred pages of engineering documentation alone, which, with her prolific skill set, she fostered fast and accurate project completion.”

Interestingly, Fergus is not a snowmobiler. She is a downhill skiing and Judo instructor and official. Hamilton said she joined the club simply as a civic-minded volunteer who wanted to re-establish the critical wintertime economy for local communities.

“All of the tasks associated with these projects occupied 30-plus hours a week of her 100 percent volunteer time for the last 18 months,” Hamilton said.

In addition to the environmental considerations, with the bridge located about a mile from any roadway, considerable effort and equipment was necessary to get construction workers and equipment to the work site.

“It’s been a shining example of volunteers working with the state of Michigan to create better recreational opportunities for everybody,” Hamilton said.

Check out video clips of Hamilton and Yesney discussing the work of those involved in the bridge project.

Marv Saari talks with Jeff Kakuk of the Michigan DNR and Steve Hamilton at the Montreal River Gorge in Gogebic County.Marv Saari, of the Gogebic Range Trail Authority, said Trail 160 North has been in existence for about 20 years.

“Toward Ironwood there’s a lot of private properties that we had to get easements (landowner permissions) from and it was a challenge, and it’s still a challenge to keep the easements open because sometimes snowmobilers go where they aren’t supposed to go,” Saari said. “But, it’s been working out pretty good. We’ve been controlling it and the trail has been – this year, in particular – it’s a beautiful trail.”

Saari said the trail has been groomed on a regular basis and it goes through a lot of mixed country with woodlands and farm fields.

“(There’s) a lot of scenic areas over Lake Superior, Bald Mountain that overlooks to the south towards Ironwood-Hurley and a gorge on the Montreal River, which is the border between Wisconsin and Michigan, is a beautiful scenic area,” Saari said. “People like this trail. It gets used more and more every year. People are hearing about it and (are) coming to check it out.”

Jeff Kakuk of the Michigan DNR and Steve Hamilton of the Gogebic Range Trail Authority talk along Trail No. 11 South.Trail 11 South in Gogebic County Trail runs from Vilas County, Wisconsin back up into Michigan just east of Wakefield.

Until this past winter, the trail had been closed for about five years, due to land ownership and wetlands concerns, as well as staffing issues with the snowmobile authority, which ran out of volunteers and time to reopen the trail.

“The new members of the snowmobile club were able to get some long-term agreements in place with the landowners, and also get some reroutes around the flooded areas, and then in areas where there were wetland issues, some flooding, they were able to get some beaver control projects under way,” Yesney said. “Overall – just a great effort by the snowmobile club and the community members and everybody that really, really got involved and became very focused on getting that trail reopened between Wakefield and Winchester, Wisconsin.

“It’s a good example of interstate commerce. It creates connectivity. It brings more people to the Upper Peninsula. It gives folks an opportunity to ride. It makes a nice loop there from Gogebic County over into Wisconsin and back up into Gogebic County.”

Check out this video of Yesney with some important rider reminders.

Landowner and snowmobile trail proponent Bill Lafond stands at the Michigan-Wisconsin border, just off Trail No. 11 South.Bill Lafond, of Batavia, Illinois, purchased a northern Wisconsin-Michigan lake house on Chaney Lake. Once there, he discovered the snowmobile trail out the back door. Lafond has 11 sleds and he invites his friends from Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota to come to the U.P. for snowmobile rides.

Lafond was the driving force behind re-opening the trail. He enlisted his friends to come up to help work. During the first trail brushing event in March 2017, there were more than 11 people from four states on sleds, brushing 17 miles of trail.

Standing along the Michigan-Wisconsin border, just off Highway 519, near Trail No. 11 South, Lafond lauded the efforts of Hamilton and his snowmobile club.

“There was some bureaucracy going on with the last couple of years and this group that Steve (Hamilton) put together, they came out of everywhere and they put all the pieces together and we were able to, with all the volunteer work, just open it (the trail) up,” Lafond said. “From here, it’s 18 miles up to the next trail, which is Trail No. 2, and for four years, no one’s been on that trail, and we spent hours and hours and hours and days and days with groups, cutting trees out of the way – it was a cool effort.”

A map of western Upper Peninsula snowmobile trails is shown.Hamilton said it took about 16 months of work and about 1,000 volunteer hours to ready Trail No. 11 South for grooming. The U.S. Forest Service and the Keweenaw Land Association granted necessary approvals.

“The response has been huge. The city of Wakefield has seen a pretty substantial snowmobile traffic increase for this year. The public absolutely loves it,” Hamilton said. “This trail up here in our neck of the woods, in the extreme western U.P. and north-central Wisconsin, we have very, very large snowmobile wintertime economies.”

Hamilton was referring particularly to Vilas and Iron counties in Wisconsin and Gogebic County in the western U.P. He said reopening the main corridor back to Wisconsin has brought a lot of relief to other trails that had borne the burden of heavy use during the years Trail No. 11 South was closed.

“We have Lake Gogebic just to our east and that’s just a hotbed for snowmobile traffic and there’s traditionally only been one way in there,” Hamilton said. “Now, with 11 South reopened, there’s two ways and it’s creating quite the interstate trail system again.”

Lafond agreed.

“We have 11 sleds, and that’s approximately $1,000 right there of trails stickers for two states, and that’s without doing anything,” Lafond said. “But the big benefit is all the folks from around here, especially in this area in Wisconsin, can come up to Wakefield, Bessemer and Ironwood, and Marenisco for that matter, on an absolutely great trail, and they couldn’t do that before. It was very difficult to get to the tri-city area from the Presque Isle (Wisconsin) area.

“And now, this is wide open and, it’s not heavily travelled, but it’s traveled enough. And all that business comes straight up to Wakefield and they go either way. They go to Lake Gogebic. They’re going to restaurants, they’re buying gas, they’re fixing sleds, so it’s pretty powerful.”

Gogebic Range Trail Authority sweatshirts and other merchandise laid out for the club's fundraising event.One snowmobile dealer in the area said they had their biggest sales year ever and their most profitable season in the past five years.

The snowmobile club is using social media to publicize its trail and club news.

“Steve is great with technology, a lot of folks in the club are good with technology, and they’re using Facebook big-time to the benefit,” Lafond said. “Maybe my generation doesn’t use it as much, but the next generation and then some of snowmobilers, that’s how they get the word out, and they’re doing a great job of that.”

Recently, riders have left tips for drivers – including cash and candy bars – in parked trail groomers, then posted the news on-line.

“No one would have known that,” Lafond said. “I think that’s pretty cool.”

With the snowmobile season closed March 31, work has already begun on planning for next season. Part of Trail No. 11 South will have to be rerouted and the snowmobile club is hoping to boost its volunteer ranks to meet the challenge.

The club’s first-ever fundraising event held this past weekend was reported as “a huge success,” with people from many different walks of life joining together in the same room.

“It was pretty emotional for some of us because sometimes you just feel like no one appreciates, cares or even comprehends the amount of work put in,” Hamilton said. “We were shown that is no longer the case as folks from around the state-line area turned out to support us.”

For more information on snowmobiling in Michigan, visit the DNR’s webpage at: mi.gov/snowmobiling.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is committed to the conservation, protection, management, use and enjoyment of the state’s natural and cultural resources for current and future generations. For more information, go to www.michigan.gov/dnr.

Accompanying photos are available below for download. Caption information follows. Credit Michigan Department of Natural Resources, unless otherwise noted.

Damage: The Mud Creek Bridge was damaged severely during a record rainfall in August 2016.

Gorge: The Montreal River snakes through a gorge along the Michigan-Wisconsin border in Gogebic County.

Groomer: A trail groomer crosses the new bridge over Mud Creek in Gogebic County.

Lafond: Property owner and trail proponent Bill Lafond at the Michigan-Wisconsin border, just off Trail No. 11 South.

Map: A map shows the snowmobile trails in the western Upper Peninsula, including Trial Nos. 160 North and 11 South.

Marker: A trail marker along Trail No. 160 North in Gogebic County.

Merchandise: Gogebic Range Trail Authority sweatshirts and other items set out before the group's recent fundraising event.

Overlook: From left, Jeff Kakuk, western Upper Peninsula trails specialist, with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Steve Hamilton, president of the Gogebic Range Trail Authority, talk with club member Marv Saari at the overlook above the Montreal River Gorge.

Riders: Snowmobilers head north along Trail No. 11 South in Gogebic County.

Talk: Jeff Kakuk, western Upper Peninsula trails specialist, with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, left, and Steve Hamilton, president of the Gogebic Range Trail Authority, talk along Trail No. 11 South.

View: Steve Hamilton, president of the Gogebic Range Trail Authority, stops for a look out over Lake Superior along Trail No. 160 North in Gogebic County.

Work: The Mud Creek Bridge substructure and stone road bed are shown./