A warren of helmets.
In the north woods, there are two kinds of winter sports enthusiasts: Skiers and Snowmobilers. As someone who grew up in the former camp, I grew to despise the latter at an early age. After all, nothing can ruin a peaceful winter day in the woods, when the sky is clear and the snow is dry and powdery, than the whine of a snowmobile.
So a few weeks ago, when my girlfriend and I were invited to a cabin in St. Germain for the weekend, I immediately suggested we rent some Nordic skis and find some trails near the resort. The others in our group were renting snowmobiles for the weekend and were planning on hitting the trails. In my mind, the farther away from those death sleds I got, the better.
As a skier (I competed on my high school team in Minnesota), my view of snowmobile enthusiasts has always been tainted. I'd been told that the hobby revolves around riding from tavern to tavern until a decent buzz is acquired, then taking the sleds across a frozen lake, attempting to achieve the fastest speeds possible. It's best to dress as warmly as possible, because your body doesn't generate much heat by simply revving the engine and holding on for dear life.
St. Germain is pretty easy to find. You basically take Highway 51 straight north until you get to about Minocqua, then turn right. It's a little resort town that is home to fishermen and water skiers in the summer and snowmobilers in the winter. There are lots of skiing trails, but the economy of the town clearly revolves around the sledders.
We were persuaded to join the group on a short trip to breakfast on the four rental sleds and headed out early Saturday morning to pick them up. The guy running the rental agency looked a lot like Santa and, despite temps in the teens, was proudly sporting a pair of shorts.
"Feels kinda good when the wind blows up your legs," he boasted.
What can't be denied is how cool a snowmobile looks, with its sleek hood and windshield. And they're surprisingly simple to operate. You basically start the thing and squeeze the throttle until it goes. Not only that, but you get to wear one of those helmets with the flip-up face mask. I was beginning to feel like a convert.
Once on board and about a mile down the path, the bait and switch was on. Our original breakfast destination was probably no longer serving, so we would be better off heading about 10 miles away to a lodge known for its Bloody Marys. There was no turning back.
As our group made its way through the pines, the charm of snowmobiling became more and more clear to me. The backwoods trails are like an alternate world, where road signs are just a little smaller and lower to the ground than their automobile world equivalents. Same goes for those assemblies of arrow signs common up north. And any resort or lodge that knows what's up has a large sign, spanning the trail, welcoming sledders.
After about a half hour on the trail, we arrived at Pitlik's, home of the "Ultimate Bloody Mary." My experience is that nothing up north is quite as good as we get it here, with the possible exception of fish. The ingredients just aren't as fresh and the cooks aren't as skilled. But Pitlik's proved me wrong with its Bloody, which contains something like 50 ingredients -- including a serious selection of vegetables and a jumbo shrimp -- and is made by hand with pride. It's delicious and absolutely worthy of the hype.
Right inside the door at Pitlik's is a grid of cubbies, made especially for storing helmets and just about everyone inside had arrived via snowmobile. Ski pants and boots were the standard and most of the men had produced ball caps with snowmobile logos to hide their helmet hair. Several Bears jerseys called attention to the number of Illinois residents among us.
Emboldened now by the trip in, I now had not only become a fan of this recreation, but had developed a serious need for speed. Still, two of the sleds in our party wiped out on the way back to our cabin - thankfully with no injuries - so my excitement was somewhat tempered.
Still, when there's a straightaway in front of you and the wind is tickling your neck through your jacket and helmet, squeezing the throttle is unquestionably thrilling. Not only that, but you're part of a club and passing riders always wave hello.
By late afternoon we were on our skis, shushing through the quiet woods, past an immaculate frozen lake, unmarked by snowmobile treads. The hard work of herring-boning up the short rises paid off on speedy downhills and we congratulated ourselves on a good workout. But it wasn't the same. Once you get a taste of buzzing through the woods at 40 mph, it's hard to find the same thrill in doing the same thing at 2 mph.
On the drive back to Madison, nearly two out of every three vehicles were pulling snowmobile trailers and I caught myself inspecting the brands and models. And we weren't even back home for two hours before I was on eBay, looking at the used sleds for sale. Can a guy enjoy two hobbies so diametrically opposed?