EAU CLAIRE — It may be almost halfway through February, but a popular winter sport is just getting started in Eau Claire County.
The county’s 181-mile network of snowmobile trails opened Wednesday morning for the first time this season.
The announcement by the Eau Claire County Parks and Forest Department was welcome news for Chippewa Valley snowmobilers, who have been not so patiently waiting for enough snow to allow for grooming of and zooming on the trails.
“People have been waiting and waiting, so I’m sure there will be a lot of people out on the trails,” said Ron Larson, director of the Eau Claire County chapter of the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs.
While snowmobilers are always eager for their season to begin, the anticipation is magnified this winter by the COVID-19 pandemic as people seek outdoor, socially distanced ways to stay safe but still have fun.
“Snowmobiling offers everything they say we’re supposed to do for COVID,” Larson said.
Scott Riley, vice president of Sport Rider in Altoona, said the surge in outdoor recreational activities amid the pandemic has led to unusually strong sales for his shop, which sells snowmobiles and an array of other off-road vehicles.
“With people canceling trips, they looked for other outdoor things to do because they weren’t going to sit home and do nothing,” Riley said. “Sleds were selling like wildfire in September and October as word got around that if you wait until the snow hits you might not get a snowmobile.”
Indeed, inventory at Sport Rider disappeared around the holidays, although the shop once again has some snowmobiles in stock. However, it’s so late in the season Riley doesn’t expect another run on machines now that the Eau Claire County trails have opened, although it could lead to a flood of customers seeking clothing or maintenance.
The anticipation among snowmobilers to finally hit the trails may be tempered a bit initially by the frigid temperatures delivered to the Chippewa Valley by a polar vortex.
“It’s a little frustrating because even this weekend when you wake up it’s supposed to be teens below zero,” acknowledged Eric Iverson, secretary-treasurer of the Pleasant Valley Rough Riders snowmobile club.
On the bright side, the trails should be in reasonably good condition, Larson said, because volunteers from the county’s seven snowmobile clubs got out after recent snowfalls to groom the trails. Thus, most of the network should have a firm base about 6 inches thick.
Iverson said he is looking forward to zipping along the county trails even though there could be a few rough spots where not enough snow has fallen to fill in all of the bumps in swampy areas.
But Iverson said he’s optimistic more snow will fall to improve conditions even further.
“It’s that natural optimism of snowmobilers that gets us out there every year maintaining the trails in hopes we’ll be able to use them,” he said.
While Iverson and Larson said they are aware of local snowmobilers who have taken their sleds up north or to surrounding counties where trails opened sooner, they know some people wait until their home county trails open to make their season debut.
It should be worth the wait, Larson said, noting that Eau Claire County snowmobile trails cross a mix of public and private land and offer a variety of terrain ranging from forest to farmland and from rolling hills to flat fields.
“It’s a very scenic ride,” Larson said.
Funding for trail maintenance, which is all done by volunteers, comes from snowmobile registrations, trail pass fees and the state gas tax.
Snowmobile travel in the county is permitted only on designated trails and routes. The county trail network, which links to trails in adjacent counties, will close no later than March 31.