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Hook and Bullet Club - Snowmobile safety

We finished the youth snowmobile safety course on Saturday morning with 21 students taking the driving portion of the class.A course was set up near the Longbranch and the kids each took their turn explaining what they needed to check before they went for a ride, showing the instructors what they learned.Everybody passed and we hope they will all become safe riders and drivers out on the trails. This was a good group of kids but as usual there were some interesting moments in class such as when one pointed out his uncle had died in a snowmobile accident a few years ago. We talk about a lot of things during the week-long class session. Hypothermia, thin ice, alcohol, first aid and winter survival are parts of the course.In addition to instructors teaching, there are a number of videos and an excellent book from the DNR. On Wednesday night we had the two local DNR Conservation Officers, Mike Lekatz and John Velsvaag, come in to talk to the kids and answer questions.The classroom portion ends on Friday night with a written test. As a member of the Ely Igloo Club, teaching snowmobile safety is one of the most enjoyable parts of being a club member.I see many of these kids outside of the classroom over the years, from coaching them on the Little League field to watching them turn into young adults. They are the future of the sport of snowmobiling. What roles they will play in the future is yet to be seen but no matter what happens, they took the time and put the effort into become certified in snowmobile safety. This was all running through my head the next day. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and we decided to take a ride across the lakes up to the Chainsaw Sisters. Evan and I led the way across Shagawa Lake with Megan in the middle and Mary bringing up the rear in our group of three sleds.We followed the wooden sign stakes most of the way across Shagawa, veering off toward the river instead of following the trail that leads to Little Long Lake.The river route takes a little longer but it’s a scenic ride, especially when you get to Burntside and head for the Dead River. The bluffs before Twin Lakes rise out of the swamp and tower above you, a reminder of when the glaciers formed our area. The snow started to fall and we crossed the Echo Trail, riding the groomed portages to Fenske, Sletten, Tee and Grassy lakes. There was a group of former snowmobile safety class students just ahead of us and the teenagers were on their way to the same spot. We let them go ahead and just took our time, steering into the powder in the bays and taking in the sights along the way. By the time we parked at Chainsaw Sisters, the snow was now falling fast, covering the sleds with a thickening white blanket. While pop, chips and candy bars were consumed, the snow continued and talk of four to six inches of fresh powder was debated. There were other groups there as well, all Ely people, a common sight on Sunday afternoons. But the Vikings game was coming on at 3:30 p.m. and one by one, helmets were pulled on and the sleds made their way past the front steps of the bar. We decided to take a different route back, heading down the old railroad grade to the Range River, then across Low Lake to Bass and across the Echo Trail to Little Long Lake and then to Shagawa. A wayward machine was pulled off the side of the Bass Lake portage and the snow seemed to gain in intensity.By the time we got to Shagawa, it was near white-out conditions. That was when I remembered what we had seen when we came across a few hours earlier.Someone had driven a truck across the lake and picked off half of the stakes that marked a safe route. Club members had put the stakes up a few weeks before, complete with reflective tape so the route could be followed at night. The normal spacing is one-tenth of a mile between stakes. The way it was snowing Sunday, that even seemed a little far. And when there was a gap of two to three tenths of a mile with the heavy snow conditions, it really was a white-out. Up, down, left, right, straight ahead or looking back, the view was the same: white. At one point I stopped to make sure we were all together and I couldn’t make out a landmark anywhere. No shoreline and no islands could be seen and thanks to the idiotic actions of one person, there were no stakes to be seen. We slowed to a crawl and were thankful there were no known open water areas to be worried about. Evan actually saw the next stake first, tapping me on the arm and pointing ahead and to the left. We made it back home safe and sound but being in those conditions was an experience I wouldn’t care to repeat anytime soon. And for the person or persons responsible for running over the stakes, you’re not likely to be a graduate of a snowmobile safety class. In the eyes of those straining to find a way across the lake that day, you have no class at all.

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