To anyone who says there's no place to ride a side-by-side ATV in Minnesota, or that there are no good adventures left here, I say "Phooey."
To prove it, last week my friend and colleague Pat Bourgeois and I embarked on a 400-mile ride from St. Cloud, Minn., to Thief River Falls aboard an Arctic Cat Wildcat.
Two days, a half-dozen mud/water holes, three statues, one can of sardines and innumerable funny moments later, we indeed rolled into TRF and snapped the obligatory image in front of Arctic Cat.
There’s A LOT of adventure waiting to be discovered here. And you can experience it all on thousands of miles of road surface on which you can legally ride an ATV or side-by-side.
Pat (left) and I began the adventure from Arctic Cat's Engine Production facility in St. Cloud. It's here that Arctic Cat builds the 951cc V-Twin engine that powers the Wildcat, and thus it seemed the perfect place to begin our journey.
We gave ourselves two days to complete the trip, with a planned overnight at roughly the halfway point in Nevis, Minn. With no solid handle on how long it would take us to cover 200 miles (and fully expecting to run into some kind of, ahem, problems along the way) we opted for an early-morning departure time.
In the weeks prior to the trip, I spent around 6-8 hours poring over maps (both printed and electronic) to come up with a route that emphasized not only gravel (aka "Class 5 Surface), but also the twistiest, squiggliest sections.
We of course found the greatest joy when we entered sections marked with this sign.
Understandable the the most common question we've been asked about the Class 5 Rally adventure is about the legality of riding an ATV/Side-by-side on public roads. Though it would be perfectly legitimate to question the antics of Pat and I, we actually DID our homework when the trip's concept first surfaced.
Here's what the Minnesota DNR says about riding a Class II ATV (those that weigh between 1,000 and 1,800 pounds, which includes the 1,300-lb. Wildcat). Note where I've bolded words for emphasis:
• Class 2 ATVs may be operated on the shoulder or extreme right side of county or township roads and city streets if not prohibited by the road authority or other local laws. Class 2 ATVs may NOT be operated on the shoulder of a state trunk highway.
• Public use registration allows for the operation of Class 1 ATVs in the ditch bottom; on the outer slope of roadside ditches along state and county roads; on the right side of township roads and city streets, if not prohibited by the road authority or other local laws.
• Public use registration allows for the operation of Class 2 ATVs on the shoulder or extreme right side of county roads and on the right side of township roads and city streets, if not prohibited by the road authority or other local laws. Class 2 ATVs may not be operated in the ditch unless part of a designated Class 2 trail.
To reiterate, it's legal to ride a Wildcat on right side (or shoulder) of county and township roads and city streets unless prohibited by local authorities. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit that it's not easy to learn the specific ordinances of every city and township. Unfortunately, there are no quick Google searches for most of this stuff.
We saw exactly two law enforcement officers during the course of our entire trip. One was a sheriff who passed us going the opposite direction while we were driving at 55 mph down county road, and the other watched us drive through Bagley, Minn., to get fuel at a gas station. Neither officer reacted in any way, let alone locked us behind bars.
I've been told by other ATV riders that not all law enforcement personnel are aware that it's legal to ride such vehicles on township and county roads, so your mileage may vary if/when you attempt your own Class 5 Rally.
(And yes, we did some real rallying along the way.)
And a few pit stops.
I'll admit it: At first it felt a little strange rolling down main street and parking in front of the local cafe, but after a while it ceased to feel like we were skirting the law. And anyway, when you're hungry for caramel rolls, there's no stopping you.
No, we're not poaching private property here. This is actually a minimum maintenance road somewhere west of Little Falls. It was the first "primitive" section of road on our trip, but was far from the last. And this would seem like a highway compared to some other sections later in the trip.
Yep, we're entering the Big City here, as you can see by all the Starbucks, gas stations and sky scrapers.
I jest about the big cities, of course. In reality, we were quite intentional to avoid any large cities simply because it seems like you find more interesting sights in the smaller towns.
Like any kind of road trip, it seems like when we paused for a moment (like we did here while waiting for an Amtrak train to pass in Philbrook, Minn.), that we'd catch a glimpse of something that deserved further inspection.
In this case, it was an old Panther resting peacefully in backyard that butted up against the tracks. When we pulled the Wildcat over for a better look, the family came out of the house and proceeded to try and sell us the ol' gal. Had we been pulling a trailer, we might have considered it.
Anyone interested in this baby will find it Philbrook. Note: it's powered by a Polaris engine, it has a sewing machine stuffed into the bellypan and it needs A LOT of work.
According to Google Maps, this is 87th Street, about 6 miles north and slightly east of Staples, Minn. We were laughing our way through this section, happily motoring towards a town that we vaguely resemble...
... Nimrod, Minn. Population 71 at the moment we shot this photo.
Day one put smack-dab in the middle of Minnesota's central forest region, where they've laid claim to the legend of Paul Bunyan. This statue in Akeley, Minn., is a favorite of ours, and one that we needed a photo with.
Our actual destination for the first evening was Nevis, Minn., home of the world's largest tiger muskie.
The second leg of our journey began with a whole bunch of miles (and exploration) in the Paul Bunyan State Forest, where there are miles upon miles of sweet forest road and ATV trails.
Rather than just sticking to the easy-to-travel routes, we spent a couple hours working to get through remote sections of logging road and generally being amazed at how much exploration is available in this area, as well as the areas to the east (towards Walker) and west (in the White Earth Indian Reservation).
Pat and I both agreed that we would return to this area on a future trip, with a couple days to explore the roads and trails.
Classic remote northwoods lake.
We planned for about 75-100 miles between fuel stops, which was no problem for the Wildcat. Depending upon how hard you are on the throttle, my guess is that the Wildcat will go 125-150 miles on a tank (does anyone reading know a more exact figure?).
We carried a spare 2 gallon gas can just in case, but never had to use it.
When we did arrive at a fuel stop, like here on the east end of Itasca State Park, a quick stroll down the food isle would produce a wonderful assortment of grub. On this occasion I stuffed my gullet with a can of sardines and V8.
We saw a lot of this during the Class 5 Rally.
Once we got about 20 miles north of the Itasca area, the landscaped transitioned from forest to farmland.
What didn't change was the fact that some of the small minimum maintenance roads indicated on the map were in fact barely rideable sections like this narrow corridor separating wheat from corn.
There was a lot of wheat harvesting happening the closer we got towards Thief River Falls. It's always cool to see harvest, as it's a gentle reminder that my favorite season isn't too far away.
We planned our route so that we arrived on the SW side of Thief River Falls, at the city limits sign that's a block away from the Arctic Cat factory. Of course we propped the camera up for the "We Made It" photo.
Followed by the final shot taken on the walkway in front of Arctic Cat. It was such a cool feeling to ride into TRF and to the factory on an Arctic Cat, rather than my truck or car. It struck me that I've probably driven to TRF close to 200 times in my life, but never once have I ridden a snowmobile (or ATV) to get there. Until now.
How's this for amazing: When we parked the Wildcat at Arctic Cat, completing the journey that began two days earlier from St. Cloud, we scrolled to the trip meter on the gauge and... exactly 400.0 miles from start to finish! I should have purchased a Powerball ticket right then.
Of those miles, I'd say that more than 350 were on Class 5/gravel township roads.
One thing we didn't keep track of, but that everyone asks, is how many hours it took to get there. Since we made so many stops for photos, as well as for sardines, old Panthers and Nimrods, it's impossible for me to say with accuracy how much time this trip would have taken in a straight shot. My guess: around eight or nine hours.
For sure it's doable in one day (provided there are no breakdowns or major problems), and for sure you could have lobbed off 150 or more miles by taking a more direct route. But that wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable.
Here are some other observations and things I learned on our trip:
1. The Arctic Cat Half Windshield and Soft Top Kit are absolute must-haves for distance traveling like this. Ditto for the Arctic Cat rear storage bag and overhead bags that contained all the gear you need on a multi-day trip.
2. We were idiots for not bringing a spare wheel/tire combo. Fortunately we didn't need it.
3. The PCI helmet-to-helmet communication system we used was great, enabling clear conversation throughout the entire trip.
4. Pat's iPhone with AT&T service had better coverage than my Droid with Verizon, which only mattered when we were trying to find our way around a couple mapping "predicaments" during the trip.
5. I think I should invest in a dedicated GPS, rather than relying on my smartphone.
6. The Wildcat absolutely invites conversation whenever it's stopped in a public location. Seriously, every time we stopped for fuel or food, people would come up to look and talk about the machine. That's pretty cool.
7. Robb at Blown Concepts did an awesome job on the custom Class 5 Rally graphics. Thanks Robb, you rock!
8. Other than a couple sections of OLD overgrown logging trail/road that we were unwilling to attempt, we had no difficulty during the entire trip. Which actually is a slight bummer, because I fully expected to have some kind of problem or significant challenge along the way... something that required ingenuity and/or luck to solve. Those moments are typical of trips I've taken with Pat, and of off-road adventures in general. Those are the moments that often bite us we're living them, but what we ALWAYS talk about after we've solved them.
Anyway, we didn't have anything that even resembled a problem.
9. Yes, we loaded the Wildcat on a trailer for the ride back home. Such is the reality of time constraints imposed by work, family and life.
10. Finally, I want to revisit the whole false notion that, "There's no place to ride a Wildcat/ATV."
It's true that in Minnesota and some other states, there isn't an overwhelming amount of places to ride such machines that are truly challenging, or that require the insane suspension performance.
However, there are literally thousands of miles of roads all over the state, many of which are twisty and thrilling. Whether it's such cool routes through northern forests or straight shots through southern farmland, these roads always lead to some kind of adventure.
Whether it's a half-hour conversation with the owner of an old Panther, a nail-biting creep through water/mud holes whose bottom is unknown, or the weird old houses and bone yards you see when you take the road less traveled... there are all kinds of adventures waiting to be had for anyone willing to burn a little fuel.
Thanks for reading.