BELTRAMI ISLAND STATE FOREST, Minn. — March was showing its lion-like side on this blustery Monday morning, and conditions for snowmobiling in open country were downright nasty.

Deep in the forest, though, where tall pines laden with snow offer protection from the worst of the wind even on blustery days, conditions for snowmobiling were downright pleasant.

It was time to embrace winter. Or, more accurately, make the best of a winter that’s beginning to drag on a bit for many people.

Significant snowfall didn’t arrive until mid-January, but the winter of 2018-19 since then has been good for snowmobiling, thanks to the efforts of local snowmobile clubs and members who volunteer time and energy to groom and maintain snowmobile trails.

No small effort, that. Minnesota, for example, offers more than 22,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, of which 21,000 are maintained by local snowmobile clubs, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

Most of the trails are funded by the DNR’s Grant-in-Aid Program through snowmobile registration fees, $50 trail stickers required for out-of-state snowmobiles and a small percentage of the non-refunded gas tax collected by the state. Funds then are allocated to the clubs to maintain the trails.

“Where they’re groomed, conditions this year are about as good as they’ve been in many years,” said Jack Nelson of Thief River Falls, an avid snowmobiler and president of the Fourtown-Grygla Sportsman’s Club. “We’re seeing a lot more activity.”

Enjoying the efforts

Blustery conditions aside, Monday was a day for riding and enjoying the efforts of three local clubs that maintain different parts of Beltrami Island State Forest and adjacent lands in northwest Minnesota. Besides the Fourtown-Grygla club, the Roseau County Trailblazers and the Lake of the Woods Drifters also groom and maintain forest trails in their work areas.

Combined, the three clubs groom about 1,000 miles of snowmobile trails in a system that extends from the Northwest Angle across Lake of the Woods and south to Upper Red Lake and west to Kittson County.

Without a doubt, though, Beltrami Island State Forest is a centerpiece, with its abundance of groomed trails and patchwork mixture of landscapes that range from pine forests to brushy swamps that are all but inaccessible any other time of year.

A dozen riders, including members from the three clubs and Nathan Hanson, director of operations at Polaris Industries Inc., in Roseau, Minn., made Monday’s ride. Part of the crew set out from Warroad, Minn., and braved the open country south down groomed trails into Beltrami forest, where they met up with Nelson and others from the Fourtown-Grygla club in an old house near the Penturen Church Road that serves as a warming shelter.

Wind issues

Snow is essential for a good snowmobile ride, but this winter’s relentless winds have presented challenges for grooming in open country, said Marty Mollberg of the Lake of the Woods Drifters.

The club has two groomers it uses to groom 273 miles in Beltrami Forest, about 60 miles of trail across Big Traverse Bay of Lake of the Woods and another 11 miles along the Rainy River from Wheeler’s Point to Baudette, Minn., Mollberg says.

“We try to groom once a week, but it’s been more here lately to keep up,” he said. “Every snow we’ve gotten has been blowing around. You can’t even tell you’ve been there a couple days later, but there’s definitely some base there.”

According to Myles Hogenson, president of the Roseau County Trailblazers, clubs receive varying allocations of DNR grant-in-aid funding based on a formula that includes length of riding season, among other criteria. The Roseau County Trailblazers receives about $340 a mile in grant-in-aid funding for the season, which is based on 10 rounds of grooming along the club’s 420-mile network of trails, he said.

The money goes fast, considering a new groomer can cost nearly $250,000, Hogenson says. Like the Drifters, the Trailblazers club has two trail groomers.

“And then it depends on if you don’t break anything,” he said. “You take out a drive, that’s $15,000.”

For volunteers who log thousands of miles grooming during winters like this, actually getting to ride the trails on a snowmobile is a real treat. Hogenson, who organized Monday’s ride, grooms trails Mondays and Tuesdays throughout the riding season, he says, and Jay Quaife, vice president of the Trailblazers, grooms Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. The club posts on-the-trail video updates on its Facebook page.

“Most of the time, I’m sitting in a groomer thinking, ‘Man, I wish I was out there on a sled right now,’ ” Quaife said.

Grassroots effort

No doubt trail systems are crucial to the snowmobiling industry, and the effort is entirely grassroots-driven, which makes it unique, said Hanson, the Polaris plant manager in Roseau. And this year, those grassroots opportunities extend throughout Minnesota and neighboring states and not just “Up North.”

“I was just in Northfield for business, and the entire way looks like this — groomed trails and sleds out riding,” Hanson said of his trip to southern Minnesota. “I don’t know if you have to go back to 2009 or when to have snow like this. It’s been an old-fashioned winter.”

Back on the trail after the warming house rendezvous, Monday’s ride continued in a generally east-northeast direction with occasional jogs to the south. The trails were groomed, signed and easy follow, especially on sleds such as Polaris’ new Indy 800 Founders Edition, equipped with the Polaris Ride Command app and GPS navigation system that shows all of the trails and who maintains them.

Named for the pioneers who founded Polaris in 1954 — the company this year marks its 65th anniversary — the speedy Founders Edition’s smooth ride was a reminder of just how far snowmobiles have come since those early days.

Monday’s ride also offered a reminder of how harsh the winter is becoming for wildlife. Deer just yards off the trail stood up to their bellies in snow in places, and a hawk dined on the frozen remains of a rabbit.

Leaving the forest, lunch followed at The Hawk Tasty Tavern — formerly known as the Nite Hawk — in Roosevelt, Minn., before the crew parted ways, some west to Warroad and others back south through the forest to Fourtown, Minn.

Thanks to groomed trails and smooth-riding sleds, sore muscles were minimal after the 90-mile ride.

Winter might be dragging on too long for wildlife — and many humans — but for those who like to snowmobile, conditions are great, and the best is yet to come once warmer weather arrives.