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?!
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.
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…
…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.
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.
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.”
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.
St. Mary’s church in Melrose, located next to the Wobegon Trail.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Somewhere north of Staples, Minn., enjoying powdery trails and the last whisps of sunshine.
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…
… 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.
The next morning we stopped at the city limits on our way to Akeley to see Mr. Bunyan.
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.
Visiting Paul was awesome, except for being victims of a hold-up.
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.
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.
Gas station lunch stops provided the key food groups: sugar, sardines…
… 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.
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…
… 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.
This bridge crosses the Mississippi less than one mile from its source.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Barreling down the Hwy 59 ditch toward the birthplace of Arctic Cat snowmobiles, we did our best Roger Skime impression at every road crossing.
One last photo op with the most important city limits sign of the entire trip.
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!).
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.