Published February 15, 2009, 12:00 AM

Red River Snowmobile Club marks four decades on the trail

Saturday, the Red River Snowmobile Club celebrates its 40-year ride with an open house from 1 to 5 p.m. at Riverside Park.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

Viking snowmobiles were tearing up the trails, and the Purple People Eaters of Minnesota Viking fame were terrorizing offensive lines across NFL.

Hubert H. Humphrey still had a shot at becoming president.

That was the scenario in October 1968, when a group of East Grand Forks snowmobile enthusiasts decided to form a little club to share their passion for this growing winter sport.

There’ve been a few bumps in the trail along the way, but 40 years later, the Red River Snowmobile Club is alive and well.

Saturday, the club celebrates that 40-year ride with an open house at Riverside Park. The event, which is open to the public, runs from 1 to 5 p.m. in the park’s warming house, and plans are in the works to have trail groomers, along with snowmobiles from 1968, 1978, 1988, 1998 and 2008, on display.

There might even be snowmobile rides if conditions improve after last week’s barrage of rain.

“There’s been a fairly good, core group of members,” said Steve Magnuson, Grand Forks, a longtime member and avid snowmobiler.

The club, which today includes members from both sides of the Red, has spent countless hours improving snowmobile opportunities in northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota. They’ve also managed to have a little fun along the way, with events such as grass drags and rides to popular winter destinations such as Pinehurst Resort near Waubun, Minn., the Bemidji area and Kenora, Ont.

Magnuson was 12 years old when he took the club’s first snowmobile safety training program in 1969. The Red River Snowmobile Club certified 169 kids that first year, Magnuson said, and snowmobile safety training remains a big part of the group’s mission.

“I don’t know how many people have taken the course, but it’s got to be in the thousands,” Magnuson said. “That’s one of the big things.”

Similar challenges

There’ve been a lot of changes in snowmobiles since those early days. Dozens of companies, makers of snowmobiles such as the Sno-Jet, Rupp, Wheel Horse and Viking, have fallen by the trail, leaving only Polaris, Arctic Cat, Ski-Doo and Yamaha as major manufacturers.

Machines that once rode rough enough to rattle teeth have been replaced by sleek, smooth-riding sleds with electric start and reverse.

But looking back, Magnuson says, snowmobile clubs today still face the same challenges they did 40 years ago:

Working on trails, trying to convince landowners to grant easement access and noise ordinances all were issues the fledgling snowmobile club tackled in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

“Things were about the same as now,” Magnuson said.

Magnuson recently compiled a collection of old photos and newspaper clippings to commemorate the club’s anniversary. To illustrate the challenges, Magnuson cites an incident in the early 1970s, when the club received a $15,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to establish a snowmobile trail in Polk County.

The caveat: They had to secure leases from all of the affected landowners to receive the funding.

“They never got all the land leases signed, so they never got the money,” Magnuson said.

One of the oldest

In September 1971, Snowmobile Times magazine honored the group as its Club of the Month for donating a Viking snowmobile and emergency rescue sled to the East Grand Forks Fire Department. The club had a brush with TV fame the next year, when they helped a film crew produce a show about snowmobiling called “Winter Safari.” The half-hour show aired on TV stations across the Midwest.

Magnuson says Grand Forks and East Grand Forks each had snowmobile clubs back in those days. The Grand Forks group, which called itself the Prairie Ramblers, often worked with the East Grand Forks club on events and projects, Magnuson said.

When the Grand Forks club folded, many of its members joined the East Grand Forks group, and the Red River Snowmobile Club now promotes the sport on both sides of the river.

According to Magnuson, the club started grooming trails in North Dakota in 1992 and expanded to Minnesota in about 1996. Today, the club maintains nearly 100 miles of trail in North Dakota and another 75 miles in Minnesota.

Snow conditions might not be ideal for riding Saturday, but even if they’re not, the day is cause for celebration. Keeping a club on track for 40 years is no small accomplishment.

“We’re one of the oldest clubs around,” Magnuson said. “We’d like to get anyone who’s interested in snowmobiling — and especially people who were members in the past — to stop by.”

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Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to