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Hook and bullet club

Let’s just call this the best winter we’ve had for the past decade. For snow and trail conditions, it just doesn’t get any better than this. The Ely Igloo snowmobile club has been grooming the area trails on a regular basis and other than the periodic mechanical breakdowns, the white highways are paved and bringing people to Ely.As a trail administrator, I hear plenty on how the trails are, what needs to be groomed and even a word of thanks now and then. On a recent Saturday night we were a bit shorthanded and I took a shift in one of Bombardier tractors, pulling an eight foot drag to smooth out the bumps and flatten the corners on a section of the Tomahawk Trail.Jacob decided to come with me and we headed down Highway 1 just before 9 p.m. after picking up a spare tire to replace one that blew out on the drag. We pulled into Isabella and fired up the Perkins diesel engine to let it warm up while we changed the tire. It was a dark night, with a chance of snow lingering in the air. By the time we got underway it was 10 p.m. and the snowmobile traffic had bedded down for the night. We saw three sleds at the junction of the Yukon and the Tomahawk, but that was it. We didn’t see another human or sign of humans until we got back. The Tomahawk Trail stretches nearly 90 miles from Ely to Lake Superior, connecting two state trails, the Taconite and the North Shore Trail as well as making connections to the Yukon Trail that runs to Two Harbors and the Stony Spur that heads west to Babbitt. The Tomahawk is a grant-in-aid trail, meaning the Igloo Club maintains and grooms the trail and is reimbursed by the state with funds from snowmobile licenses and a portion of the gas tax.Reimburse is a key word since the rates are almost laughable, since we get less than $50 an hour for grooming with a piece of equipment that has a price tag of around $125,000. So that $50 has to pay for fuel, insurance, wages, oil, parts and depreciation. Well, it doesn’t quite make it but our club, like many others, does the best we can.The stretch we were on is the most remote of the Tomahawk and maybe of any trail in Minnesota. From the intersection of the Yukon to Mattila’s Shelter nearly 30 miles to the north, it is just snow and trees. There are no houses, no plowed roads, no power lines, no nothing. We plugged along with the orange flasher on top announcing our arrival to no one. The tractor has bright lights on the front and back, illuminating the trail ahead and giving the operator a view of what’s being left behind the drag. Driving a groomer requires the ability to look behind while driving ahead. Raising and lowering the front of the drag changes how deep the cutting edges skim snow off the trail and carry it to the back of the drag where the “pan” flattens the snow and hopefully the trail.Hydraulic controls drive the tractor and control the drag so a one-handed operator would have a really tough time. I can tell you even as a two-hander you have to keep focused on what you’re doing in order to do a good job.We groom at night when there are fewer machines on the trail so hopefully the snow sets up and creates a hard surface. Our trip was fairly uneventful which is good news since breaking down in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night is no fun at all. After turning around at the shelter, we were a few miles down the trail when we saw where two wolves had come out of the woods and began walking south, down the freshly groomed trail. We kept a watch out for two tails ahead, but the wolves had a head start on us and even at our top speed of 10 miles per hour, we never caught up to them.An hour went by and the tracks finally veered off into the woods. We stopped to stretch our legs but there was no one there to greet us. Instead it was back in the groomer and we continued on toward Isabella. A snowshoe hare crossed the trail in front of us, a small white blur heading into the forest understory, our only visitor for the night. Grooming is an important part of the world of snowmobiling but in the middle of the night, in the middle of the woods, in the middle of nowhere, it can be a desolate one as well.

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