Youthful 90-year-old snowmobile trail groomer shares secrets to a good life
Friends have been watching Jansen do it, largely unimpeded, for decades — grooming, smoothing out a 35-mile network of trails, up to six hours a day, twice a week, during the highs of summer and during the depths of winter.
MERRIFIELD, Minn. — There’s plenty of ageless landmarks on the trails up by Merrifield, but if one keeps their eyes peeled, they’re likely to catch a glimpse of another seemingly ageless wonder of the trails that’s been there for decades, just chugging along as always.
That is Ben Jansen, who at a youthful 90 years of age, can still be spotted driving rigs down the snowmobile trails to groom a proper path for winter sports enthusiasts across the Brainerd lakes area. Since the late 1980s, Jansen has been a dedicated — and, at times, indispensable — member of the Merrifield Marathons Snowmobile Club. Alongside promoting the joys of snowmobiling, Jansen estimated the club raised roughly $100,000 in 2019 for the likes of food shelves, charitable gambling, Lion’s Clubs, scholarships and other community giving.
So, inevitably it raises the question: How does Jansen keep chugging along at 90 with few indications of slowing down? Asking him, it’s a matter of two things — one, keeping a sunny disposition through the good and the bad, as well as a simple matter of momentum, as a body in motion generally stays in motion.
“Just keep being active,” Jansen advised shortly after bounding down from a big Sno-Cat with the energy and limberness of a man half his age. He’s lean and wiry, wearing jeans and a sweater in the cold, with a craggy face quick to reveal a bright toothy grin at a moment’s invitation. “Don't sit on the couch and wait for time to go by. ... Like I said, keep active, boy!”
There seems to be an element of trying new things as well. Despite being an avid member of the Marathons now, Jansen didn’t try his hand at snowmobiling until he was in his 40s, sparking a love affair that’s thrived through the 1970s to the present day. It’s a journey that’s crisscrossed the state of Minnesota, with ventures into the trails of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Yellowstone National Park as well.
“I enjoy it. I just like to see nice trails because when I used to go snowmobiling up north, there were these nice trails. And I always wondered, ‘Why can't we have just as good of trails here as they get up north?’” Jansen said with his wife, Lou, weathering the frigid cold by his side. “And it's just the idea of taking care of it, the idea that you go out in the woods and trim the trees back down, that you want to keep a nice smooth base because the smoother base you have, the smoother ride you’ll have.”
So that’s what Jansen has been doing for decades — grooming, smoothing out a 35-mile network of trails, up to six hours a day, twice a week, during the highs of summer and during the depths of winter. There've been good years and bad years — years where the snow has been all but missing from northern Minnesota, and years like 1996, when the snow was so deep it made grooming nigh on impossible.
Friends of his have been watching him carry on, largely unimpeded, for decades, through three marriages — one that ended in divorce, the other in 2002 when his second wife died of Alzheimer’s disease — and into retirement after a lengthy career at Clow Stamping Co., where he retains deep familial ties to its founders back in the day. He volunteers at his church, he grooms and serves as a trail coordinator, he dances.
He doesn’t stop.
Friends of Jansen, including Marge Winkelman and Bill Sanford — who also counts himself a member in the snowmobile club — spoke warmly of their seemingly indefatigable friend, just as likely to tear it up on the dance floor as he would out on the trails.
“We have a Tucker Sno-Cat and it's about a $230,000 machine. Not anybody can just get in that machine and take it down a trail. It's not just filling in potholes. You have to shave the trails and put snow in the right place and all that, so there's a lot to it,” Sanford said. “There's a lot of grooming and Ben’s one of the best. He’s always positive, always has a smile on his face, always energetic.”
“He’s a jokester,” Winkelman added. “He likes to tease and he stays so active, dancing twice a week at all the clubs in the area. If you old-time dance with him, you better hang on. He’s just a heck of a guy and he leads by example. We would all love to live to be 90, and then to have his health in what he's doing, but also just his disposition on life — I mean, his viewpoint on life is so positive and he's really an amazing, amazing person.”
“We visited him for his 90th birthday, he had a party at the 40 Club overnight and the dance hall was filled with family and friends and he was out there dancing all afternoon long,” Sanford chimed in.
So is there any chance of slowing down? The Merrifield Marathons now insist that a companion — often Lou — rides shotgun while Jansen goes about his grooming duties and Father Time is, after all, undefeated.
“I don’t know, we’ll see what happens in the fall,” Jansen said with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes. Then he waxed philosophical: “I think you look at the good things. The bad things are there, but they don't seem so bad then. I’ve had a good life.”