Constable: Snowmobilers' dreams of white February finally arrive
The volunteers walk through the grass in November, putting signs on the trails with the intention of directing snowmobile traffic.
"Every year when we're marking the trails, we say, 'I hope this is the year! I hope this is the year!'" says Don Schaefer, a 59-year-old Ingleside resident and secretary of the Sno-Kommanders of Lake County. "Well, this is the year."
We are experiencing the snowiest February since 2011.
"Last year, the biggest snow we had was on Halloween, and I swear it never snowed again," snowmobiler John Saigh, 61, of Gurnee, says of the 2019-20 winter, which saw measurable snowfall in October and April, but very little in February. "There are a lot of years, I shake my head and wonder if it's worth it."
This year, Saigh shakes his head only to remove excess snow as he continues taking his snowmobile out for many trips, including three along the Des Plaines River Trail, where there's an 8-mile path that starts in Wadsworth and heads north. He's a member of the Riverbend Benders, one of six snowmobiles clubs in Region 1 of the Illinois Association of Snowmobile Clubs.
Many years, suburban snowmobilers are forced to head north into Wisconsin to find snow.
"This year, they have not had to go up North. They are enjoying snowmobiling here. They're enjoying their sport in their home state," says Skip Schaefer, 62, a resident of Lake Villa and brother of Don Schaefer. "We have had such a good year. McHenry County has some of the best trails around."
Skip Schaefer is president of the Sno-Kommanders, which has been an official not-for-profit agency since 1989 and draws about three dozen people to events. Their next event is the 10th annual "Chili Dump" (everyone brings a quart of chili and dumps it in one giant pot to share) from noon until 3 p.m., Sunday Feb. 28, no matter the weather, under Shelter A in the Grant Woods Forest Preserve, 25405 W. Monaville Road in Ingleside. The event is open to anyone who snowmobiles or would like to learn more about the hobby.
Building their sport in Illinois is a passion for members of the snowmobile association, which successfully lobbied years ago to increase state snowmobile registration fees 50%, from $30 to $45, to raise money to maintain and improve the 2,500 miles of trails across the state and preserve more land for winter recreation. A 2010 study showed that snowmobilers pumped more than $83 million into the Illinois economy each year.
The state snowmobile association boasts 54 local clubs, from the Wauconda Snowmobile Club and the Elgin Cold Ducks to the Heartland Polar Riders near St. Louis.
"I've made a whole other set of good friends through clubs," Saigh says. "I learned a lot about the sport, maintenance, trail etiquette and safety."
Safety is the key concern, say the Schaefer brothers. State law requires kids between 12 and 16 take an approved safety course and obtain a snowmobile safety certificate. Similar to driving an automobile, snowmobile operators must have liability insurance. Out-of-state residents must buy a $25 trail pass to ride in Illinois.
"It's a privilege to ride. It's not a right," Skip Schaefer says. "Respect the land owners. Stay on the trail, or stay home."
Snowmobilers share the landscape with cross-country skiers, snowshoers, horses and more.
"We used to share a trail with dog-sledders outside Wadsworth," Don Schaefer says.
"It's all about respect," Skip Schaefer says. "Pull over and let the horses go by. Why scare them?"
The Schaefers say snowmobiling is a family sport. Don Schaefer's wife, Donna, and two grown sons, D.J. and Dillon, used to hit the trails together. Same with Skip and Lynne Schaefer and their four children.
While club meetings and conventions have been postponed or gone online, snowmobiling is a sport with a low risk of spreading COVID-19. Not only is it outside, participants always wear masks and gloves, and generally top that off with a helmet that has a face shield.
"You can get out of the house, enjoy the outside and get some fresh air," says Don Schaefer, who thinks the snow might stick around until March.
"I've been snowmobiling since 1973, and this year reminds me of 1979," Don Schaefer says. "We get a refresh of snow every couple of days. It's been great."
The last time we had this much snow for so long was the winter of 1978-79, when the rules about snowmobiling weren't as strict and everyone was a little more relaxed about where the machines could operate, including the Schaefers' mom and dad, Barb and Bill. After one excursion on her snowmobile, their mom came home with a story about hitting a massive bump. Not aware of any such obstacles in their community, their dad ventured out into the snow to investigate.
"It turned out, it wasn't a bump," Skip Schaefer says. "It was a Volkswagen."