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HERO Ride: Snowmobiling from St. Cloud to Thief River Falls


(3/21/2014)

Back in January, three friends and I commenced on a two-day, 423-mile ride from Arctic Cat's St. Cloud, Minn., engine facility, to its headquarters in Thief River Falls.

It would involve bitter cold temperatures, Paul Bunyan, crazy amounts of snow, Nimrod, candy cigarettes and four Arctic Cat ZR 6000 El Tigre snowmobiles.

We dubbed it "Honor the Engine Ride Odyssey" or HERO, to commemorate the new Arctic Cat 6000 Series 600 C-TEC2 engine with DSI, and to have a great adventure.

What better way to honor this engine than to ride from the factory where it was built, to the facility where it was designed, tested and assembled into El Tigre snowmobiles?!

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

The culprits (L-to-R): Tom Rowland of Thomas Sno Sports; Pat Bourgeois, OSM Magazine; Mike Baker, Service Tech and Trainer at Arctic Cat; and me.

We captured this shot inside the St. Cloud facility with the serial #1 engine.

From concept to launch, this ride came together in about one week. A window of available time happened to open for the four of us, coinciding with great snow and a truck/trailer ride back to St. Cloud.

We gave ourselves two full days to get to TRF using only a rough game plan. The only set goals were a few towns we wanted to hit, a stop at the Paul Bunyan statue in Akeley and the Mississippi headwaters. 

We didn't know what town we'd spend the night or even which route we'd travel. It would be a non-supported ride.

We expected the total ride distance would fall somewhere near 400 miles, and we wanted to cover at least half of those miles the first day. Everything else about the two-day route would be indefinite.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

8:30 am Tuesday morning, we gathered in front of the St. Cloud facility for group shot, trying to ignore the balmy -25 F temperature.

Nostrils were freezing upon intake, eyelids were freezing and the snow squeaked under foot.

We hoped the extra layer of gear would keep us warm for the predicted 200-plus miles we'd travel the first day...

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

...and sure enough, less than 20 minutes into the ride we stopped to shed a layer.

As anyone reading this who rides in the minus-double-digits will attest, staying warm on a modern sled is pretty easy with a few fundamental pieces: tall windshield, gauntlets and modern clothing.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

Although we had no prescribed route, we needed to make one correct decision at the literally the first intersection in order to cross Hwy 94 and head north.

I unwittingly made the wrong choice and we rode a good 10 miles the opposite direction, everyone ignoring the nagging uncertainty of riding INTO the sun rather than away from it.

Fail!

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

When the self-appointed trail boss fails his first decision, the troops immediately loose faith and take matters into their own hands. I called it a "mutiny."

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

While the rest of us triangulated our location via a global network of satellites, Pat used the warmth of the Tiger's heat exchanger to toast his posterior.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

St. Mary's church in Melrose, located next to the Wobegon Trail.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

We met the guy on the left at Don & Daves, a small gas station/grocery store south of Staples, Minn. He was from California and was completely dumbfounded that the four of us were riding snowmobiles in such cold weather.

We were equally perplexed that he came all the way from California just to buy Grain Belt beer.

This trip would be characterized by conversations with people who were amazed that we were riding snowmobiles in temps that hovered between -15 to -25 degrees.

I'll save it for another post at a different time, but I was (and continue to be) amazed at the number of Minnesotans who have treated this cooler than average winter as the greatest hardship of modern times.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

By the halfway point of the first day, we'd grown accustomed to trail conditions that were more akin to Western Mountain riding than they were anything we'd seen in Minnesota.

With recent snowfall followed by a couple days of gale force winds, we encountered soft drifts taller than ourselves and often for miles upon miles... to the point that it made navigation tricky, not only for the challenge of riding through TRAIL sections like you see above, but also because we'd hit a perfect moment whereby many of the clubs hadn't yet groomed, leaving vast stretches of trail completely covered.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

Of course such conditions meant that we had a few problems getting stuck. Mike Baker was the best at this trick, which became one of the many joke themes that would define the HERO ride.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

Yes, I got stuck too. Several times in fact.

 

This 16-second video shows conditions that were typical for much of day one, which made for lots of whooping and hollering.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

We also enjoyed amazing groomed trails for much of the trip, often making first tracks. Between the variety of trail conditions, new (to us) terrain and the shoot-from-the-hip approach to our route, the HERO ride gave each of us a tremendous sense of adventure.

Uncertainty can be a wonderful mental environment, especially on a snowmobile trip. In a world in which most of us know exactly where we are at all times, with a set schedule and plan for every waking moment, it's refreshingly adventurous to NOT know exactly where you are, where you're going or what you'll encounter next.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

For me at least, that sense of adventure was heightened when the sun got low on the horizon and the odometers indicated we had another 100 miles to go before finding a suitable overnight location.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

Somewhere north of Staples, Minn., enjoying powdery trails and the last whisps of sunshine.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

We made it to my namesake town in the last bit of evening light.

After taking the self-timed shot we consulted our phone map and put a target on the town of Park Rapids, with a hoped for dinner stop somewhere before town...

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

... lo and behold, we found ourselves riding through Menahge, Minn., where the warm lit glow of the Cottage House Cafe caught our weary eyes and stirred our empty stomachs.

Having been in the saddle the better part of six hours, our bodies burning calories to stay warm and dig Mike's and my buried sleds out of various snowdrifts, a nice warm meal becomes an epic experience. This place was great and it refueled more than just our bodies for the final 20-mile push to Park Rapids.

Once in Park Rapids we found a hotel (C'mon Inn), hit the hot tub and talked about all the funny, unusual and great things that happened during the day.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

The next morning we stopped at the city limits on our way to Akeley to see Mr. Bunyan.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

On the way to Paul, running along the freshly groomed Heartland Trail, we grabbed a couple shots of the remnant drifts from the day before.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

Visiting Paul was awesome, except for being victims of a hold-up.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

I'm generally not a huge fan of riding converted railroad grade trails, but Heartland Trail between Park Rapids and Walker is an absolute joy because it's full of subtle turns, hills and cool bridges. Definitely not a typical RR trail, it's worth experiencing.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

We peeled off the Heartland and headed northwest towards Itasca State Park, headwaters of the Mississippi. There's an awesome network of trails in this area of Minnesota within the big woods.

This area has recovered well since Paul and his blue ox, Babe, logged it.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

Gas station lunch stops provided the key food groups: sugar, sardines...

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

... and candy cigarettes. It's tough to beat the satisfaction of enjoying a good candy cig.

After the smoke break, it was time to head towards the headwaters and see if we could solve the mystery source of the Mississippi.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

Much like Lewis & Clark, Columbus and the Plaisted Polar Expedition, we summoned great courage, cunning and bravery to navigate and discover the river's headwaters...

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

... only to realize at least one other person had arrived before us (and commemorated their achievement with a sign). Oh well, you can't be first every time.

In all seriousness, it's pretty dang cool that you can snowmobile to this spot.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

This bridge crosses the Mississippi less than one mile from its source.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

After rallying around Itasca State Park and west into the White Earth State Forest, we headed north to Bagley, where the trails transitioned from deep forest to open farmland.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

Somewhere north of Fosston, we stopped on a section of snowmobile trail marked as 7c, which of course reminded us of Team Arctic great Blair Morgan.

Blair, if you're reading this, I put a Canadian flag decal on this sign for you.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

Well ahead of schedule and with just 60 miles or so from our final destination, we stopped for a (candy) cigarette break at this shelter, where we had a conversation about the more than 300 miles of trail we'd ridden up to that point.

The overwhelming consensus among the group was that we sledders are fortunate beyond words for phenomenal trail systems that navigate our states and provinces. This has been a winter in which, in Minnesota, you could seamlessly ride from one end to the other on expertly groomed trails that are signed, mapped and dotted with shelters.

That's possible because of individuals within clubs who give their time, energy and resource.

THANK YOU!

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

The closer we got to Thief River Falls, the more we started to rally. This was especially true for Mike Baker who, as a resident of Plummer and an Arctic Cat employee, was like a horse running back to the barn as we neared TRF.

As the photo clearly illustrates, Mike can definitely rally a snowmobile. Just like pretty much everyone at Arctic Cat that I've ridden with over the years.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

The hand painted sign in Plummer gave us the news: just 17 miles to go. On the final push to TRF, we all felt the excitement of reaching our goal mixed with a bit of melancholy that the trip would soon be over.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

Barreling down the Hwy 59 ditch toward the birthplace of Arctic Cat snowmobiles, we did our best Roger Skime impression at every road crossing.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

One last photo op with the most important city limits sign of the entire trip.

 

Arctic Cat HERO snowmobile trip. Photos by ArcticInsider & Pat Bourgeois

Mission accomplished, with the photo to prove it! After taking the shot we went inside Arctic Cat and shared some stories with our friends there, then loaded up our sleds for a truck ride back to St. Cloud that evening (special thanks to Jake Johnson from Sportech for the ride!).

 

Epilogue:

My sled's odometer indicated 423 miles, a few less than Bourgeois' who is world renowned as a track spinner.

For a trip designed to experience and honor the Arctic Cat 600 C-TEC2 engine (as well as the snowmobile itself), we were rewarded with outstanding performance.

We had exactly one problem during the trip: the riser block bolts on Bourgeois' sled loosened on the first day. Otherwise, they ran flawlessly.

We averaged 12 mpg riding at a pace that I would describe as aggressive, with 50-75 miles of deep snow, hard-pulling conditions. My engine consumed exactly 50 oz. of C-TEC2 oil during the trip, which was pretty awesome. In fact, the oil level warning on my sled never flashed!

Riding 425 miles in two days with temps in the minus double-digits can be a toasty-warm experience if you're prepared with the proper gear. A medium height LXR windshield and handlebar muffs are key elements to that story.

The final and most important point I want to make is about the reward for occasionally pushing aside work, weather, chores and life in order to embark on an adventure -- however big or small -- with great people.

Spending two days immersed in adventure, new places, laughter, wrong directions, candy cigarettes, fairytale statues and nimrods is EXACTLY the prescription for bringing a fresh attitude and renewed energy into to our real lives.

I sincerely thank Mike, Tom and Pat for being great adventurers; to the club members who create and maintain the trails we rode; and to everyone at Arctic Cat who made the snowmobiles that brought untold thrills and joy along the way.

You are the real HEROS of this story.

Thanks for reading.



Comments (32):

Shannon W. says:
3/24/2014 10:32:00 AM

What an adventure!!!
I have road so many of those trails you were on I can attest to the enjoyment of them! The Itasca area is a GREAT ride!!! Being from Plummer myself and with many family and friends working for CAT over the years I can also appreciate the Arctic Cat PRIDE!!!
I have 3 sons and I promised them when school is out I would take them on a trip to TRF to tour the Cat facility, needless to say they are counting the days!
Regarding the modern clothing I am also amazed how little I have wear to keep warm on the subzero days, a far cry from the big heavy bulky coats from 20yrs ago.
Great write up John!
Alex says:
3/24/2014 10:36:00 AM

Looked like a fun trip! looks like I need to plan a road trip to explore the northern minneosta region!
Matrick98Z says:
3/24/2014 10:39:00 AM

Awesome story! Its a shame to see such a great winter disappear. Hopefully this is the first of many to come. Thanks for sharing.
Ryan W says:
3/24/2014 11:18:00 AM

Great story John! Having ridden a similar type trip from Iowa to Itasca County a few years ago, its an adventure everybody should do at least once. The best plan for trips like those is to have good sleds, good friends, a few tools, a map and a destination, and figure the rest out as you go.
Brian H. says:
3/24/2014 12:14:00 PM

Great story John as all you CatMen achieved a great adventure through Minnesota which brought a smile to my face. One observation though John don't pick the wrong trail as your riding through Rosie's Field :)
Don says:
3/24/2014 1:19:00 PM

Awesome write up John, glad to hear you all had a safe and rewarding trip. As for the sled and engine, a big thank you!! For you input. The 6000 series seems to be getting great reviews.
Paul Nadeau says:
3/24/2014 1:20:00 PM

Great story as usual John, Spectacular photo's, sounds like a fun time was had by all! Those are the best kind of trips, destination in hand, make the plans on the fly !
Hey Alex, being from northern Maine, I also want to make the trip into northern Minesota, maybe we can sweet talk these gents to show us the way there! Thief River and the Cat factory are on my bucket list LOL !
JimR says:
3/24/2014 3:22:00 PM

That oil ratio is like 90:1. Amazing! 423 miles @ 12 mpg = 35.5 x 128 = 4,512 devided by 50 = 90.24:1. Is my math correct? Pretty sure it is.
Mike F says:
3/24/2014 5:07:00 PM

Great story! The sled and the engine have been awesome. The home grown motor is one of the biggest success stories in AC history. Some of those mills have a lot of miles on them already with the great winter we have had. Very strong motor, very good efficiency, and I believe that due to a extremely clever design, it should be much more durable than the competition. Very proud of the Minnesota folks that made it happen!
s.t.i.c.s.9 says:
3/24/2014 5:35:00 PM

Grain Belt, sardines, and candy cigarettes? Where do I sign up?
250 Tigger says:
3/24/2014 5:48:00 PM

What a great ride Guy's. Saddlebag rides are the best!
Mark J says:
3/24/2014 6:20:00 PM

Wow what a truly great ride and story. I've been out of sledding for a couple years now but this really makes me want to get back at it and try the new sleds out again. This winter was very long for me not having snowmobiling in my life.
Tom Rowland says:
3/24/2014 6:23:00 PM

The El Tigre 6000 that I had on this ride now has over 2000 miles on it with no issues. I applaud all of the men and women that are behind the successful launch of this awesome engine, job well done! As for the trip itself...there is nothing quite like putting your gear in a bag on the back of your Arctic Cat and hitting the trail knowing that your final destination is Thief River Falls MN! Not really knowing exactly how your getting there, what things might lie ahead, just knowing that when the snow dust settles you'll be shutting your sled off in the shadow of the very plant that has produced nearly every Arctic Cat snowmobile ever built...that's cool!
pdracing1 says:
3/24/2014 7:34:00 PM

Great story as always I have about 1700 flawless miles on my 6000 one of the best sleds I have ever ridden! Great job on this sled arctic cat!
the Candle Stick Maker says:
3/24/2014 8:31:00 PM

John, I'm pretty sure that was my only stuck. :-) And I got out using only my nunchuck and computer hacking skills. Now if we were going to count the handful of corners I may or may not have missed, we would maybe need to remove my wet socks. lol. It was such a memorable ride. Great friends were made along with those memories.

I was a bit more rich on oil. My calculations put me at 80:1
JimR says:
3/24/2014 8:55:00 PM

Candle: Still impressive and almost scarey until you realize that it is mixed with the fuel. 20 degree day you would probably be pulling 15 mpg or better. I want your sled!
S.K.LEPINNET says:
3/24/2014 9:24:00 PM

John - looks like you guys had a lot of fun. Every time I see something 7c I too think of Blair. Which reminds me I think it's about time for another Blair story, it's been a little while now.
kevin sebastian says:
3/25/2014 9:31:00 AM

This just seems like a really good time to thank the wonderful hard working folks up in Thief River who build our awesome sleds!!!! Hat's off to all of you folks! Great Job! And thank you John for another post that has me ready to go out and ride! ( great pics!!).
Gerry Osendorf says:
3/25/2014 11:24:00 AM

I can't believe you didn't invite me on this trip. When you photographed St. Mary's Church in Melrose you were I block form my house. I have made many 1oo
+ mile trips on Cats over the years and can attest to their reliablity. My first Cat was a 1969 Panther with a 634 Hirth which racked up 10,000 miles before I had to replace the motor.
Mike Mattson says:
3/25/2014 9:40:00 PM

John:
That was really a nice report on your trip. I sure wish I had known that you were in Menahga as I would have really enjoyed coming over to the Cottage House to visit with you guys. Looks like you had a lot of fun. Keep up the good articles and photos.
flintstone says:
3/25/2014 10:55:00 PM

awsome ride, makes me sick to my tummy though. You guys were tearing it up on my stomping grounds while my I worked my ass off to get 12 turbo was getting some much needed love at the dealer all season and Im just crazy upset I missed this season. Glad you guys had fun though.
Arlene Arvola says:
3/26/2014 1:41:00 PM

I remember very clearly the evening you stopped by at our cafe "The Cottage House". Sounds like you enjoyed your trip very much. Thanks for stopping by.
John Sandberg says:
3/27/2014 9:02:00 AM

Thanks for all the cool comments everyone. I wish that, somehow, all of you could have been on the ride. Would be interesting, for sure!
Matt LaJoy says:
3/27/2014 1:23:00 PM

John,
Thanks for the very entertaining and well-written report. As usual, you have such a gift for writing and capturing our attention. The photos were also great and added to my enjoyment of the article. I really like your use of humor! Sounds like you guys had a blast. I am going to trade my 2013 SP500 for either a new Cat 600 or a Procross F800. Your website is a great source of information. Thanks for all that you contribute to the Cat community and the sport of snowmobiling.
Matt
Jeremy Haak says:
3/27/2014 5:33:00 PM

Thanks for the well writen story. Trips like this are fun. My friends and I do a trip from St. Francis, MN to Togo, MN and back in 2 days. It is 306 miles one way. The last time we did it was durring the big snow storm 21-22 FEB 2014. It took us 17 hours each way to make the trip. Pretty much all of the trip looked like your video. Thanks again for the story. Get out and ride!!!!!!!
Hot Rod says:
3/27/2014 8:03:00 PM

Great story John! You gotta love Nimrod! I remember tearing up the trails in central MN with my 1979 Jag! Maybe next time I can go riding with you guys?!?!
flintstone says:
3/29/2014 11:14:00 PM

if id a been there we would have jumped on the crow wing river at motley and ran to huntersville and I would have let John run lead in case a gamewarden was checking speeds!!! lol
John Sandberg says:
3/30/2014 10:09:00 AM

flintstone: We looked briefly at running the river, as we crossed it during a brief detour roughly 10 miles south of Staples. I love river running, except when I'm in a group in which nobody has local knowledge of it. Such was the case this time.

We opted for trails, which were also great.
Captain says:
4/4/2014 9:59:00 AM

It was a good idea to avoid the river not being familiar with it John. We ran that river a few years ago from Motley to Huntersville and we crossed under a bridge and we were like "yeah, we are the first ones here". Well, there was a reason for that.
100 yard stretches of open water!!! We made it back to that bridge and headed up to some bar for some grub and told them about our trek and they have this deathly look on their face when we said we went past that bridge. Whoops!
Jeff & Pam says:
4/12/2014 11:10:00 PM

Thanks for sharing your story & this posting with us. We are the proud owners of the sled Tom was clearly beating on in the video. Pam says she wants a discount !! We look forward to many more miles & more importantly - more smiles on Pam's 2014 El Tigre 6000.
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Tim says:
11/4/2014 4:44:00 PM

Where do I find a pair of those handlebar muffs?

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