2017-11-09 / Front Page

Snowmobile Club Is Top Group of Year

By Erich T. Doerr

Honorary director John Griffin (center), treasurer Jeri Griffin (right), and recently retired director and groomer Chuck Denoyer accepted the Community Organization of the Year Award at the November 1 Les Cheneaux Chamber of Commerce banquet. Honorary director John Griffin (center), treasurer Jeri Griffin (right), and recently retired director and groomer Chuck Denoyer accepted the Community Organization of the Year Award at the November 1 Les Cheneaux Chamber of Commerce banquet. The Les Cheneaux Snowmobile Club’s year-long celebration of its 50th anniversary in 2017 got a surprising bonus Wednesday night, November 1, as the Les Cheneaux Chamber of Commerce named the club as its community organization of the year during that annual chamber banquet.

An all-volunteer effort since its inception, the snowmobile club has helped the community in many ways, from setting up and maintaining snowmobile trails to teaching children how to ride in safety classes. Honorary club director John Griffin and treasurer Jeri Griffin, his wife, accepted the award. Mr. Griffin said the recognition is a heartwarming gesture that shows the community’s appreciation for club members’ efforts and for the generosity of the landowners who help them.

“I think that this means a lot to all our volunteers,” Mr. Griffin told The St. Ignace News. “It shows an appreciation for the hours and hours of work we do. Without the brushing, signing, and acquiring of permission to use private land that we do, we wouldn’t have a trail system.”

This year’s banquet took place at the Islander Bar in Hessel. Chamber of Commerce director Caralyn Postula and secretary Margie Denoyer, who presented the award, noted that the club has 185 members and is one of just two all-volunteer clubs in Michigan. Each year, its members maintain 109 miles of local trails with volunteers spending between 800 to 1,200 hours grooming them. The trails stay groomed until traffic begins to pick up and wears them down.

“We have the support of this whole community,” Mrs. Griffin said as she accepted the award, noting the snowmobiling brings $500 million each year into Michigan. “We work together to keep the trails in good shape. We want to bring people and keep people in our community.”

The community organization award arrives just after the snowmobile club was named the Michigan Snowmobile Association’s Club of the Year for the second time; the first was in 1993. Also, Club President Stu Volkers was just honored as the association’s Snowmobiler of the Year, a title Mr. Griffin won himself in 1993. Club member Robert “Dobby” Holland was honored as State Groomer of the Year in 1994.

Mr. Griffin said a big team handles the grooming duties each year. The trail system crosses the property of 76 private landowners who allow the club to use paths on their property from December to March. In exchange, club members make improvements to those properties during the offseason and set up gates to assure their privacy is respected at other times of the year.

The Les Cheneaux Snowmobile Club held its first meeting November 9, 1967, forming less than a decade after the first snowmobiles hit the market in 1959. It had three committee members, Archie Visnaw, George Cunningham, and Tony Autore, and 35 charter members. Within a year, membership grew to more than 100. They included family members and outdoor enthusiasts. Some charter members are still involved.

A first goal was setting up a snowmobile trail to connect Cedarville to Hessel. Mr. Visnaw flew a plane over the Les Cheneaux area to plot the trail, starting with logging roads and then negotiating with land owners for links through their properties. Most of the first trail was on public land and, by 1985, the state had contracted with the club for grooming it.

The club has groomed trails since 1968. Its first grooming tool was a bedspring pulled along the ground. Mr. Visnaw and Jack Bickham later developed a better drag they could pull with their own sleds.

The club’s first dedicated grooming vehicle was a used twin-track Ski-Doo Alpine, an early snowmobile designed for farm and commercial duties. The Alpine was geared low and it towed items such as the drag well. It performed so well, the club obtained a second one and paired them in a formation with one behind the other, allowing them to tow each other out if one got stuck. Experimentation during the early years showed the organization that the optimal temperature to groom at is 24 degrees Fahrenheit.

Today, the club uses advanced single-track groomers that cost $225,000 apiece, including the drag. The machines were designed for grooming downhill skiing runs. There now are about 6,500 miles of snowmobile trails in Michigan, supported by 67 grant sponsors through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The club uses single-track groomers because many of its trails run through swampy areas; tractors like those used by the neighboring Straits Area Snowmobile Club are too heavy for this terrain. The lightweight single-track machines put less pressure on the ground.

“We’re as careful as we can be trying to freeze up the swamps,” Mr. Griffin said, noting groomers go through these areas with a roller to help set up a wide track for forming ice bridges while not damaging the watershed.

Mr. Holland put hundreds of hours into maintaining the club’s groomer during his four terms as its president between 1976 and 2000. Since his last term ended, the position has been stable: Lyle Sherlund held it for seven years and Mr. Volkers the last eight.

The club is helping others create an off-road vehicle trail for the nonwinter months, which would connect St. Ignace to Drummond Island with some provisions for ORV users to reach downtown Cedarville. More and more side-by-side ATVs are hitting the trails of the Eastern Upper Peninsula, so planners want a safe, marked route established for them. The Les Cheneaux club also wants to protect the property of the landowners with whom it works.

The club is proposing a 121-mile trail that would use state and federal land, county roads, and short stretches of Michigan Department of Transportation right of way. At hearings in area townships, the planners drew positive responses and the concept has tentative approval from natural resources and state transportation officials. Hiawatha National Forest leaders considering allowing the ATVs access to a multi-use bridge across I-75.

The club’s women members have staged a fundraising ride to support Easterseals Michigan, an organization helping to improve the lives of those with disabilities, in 26 of the last 31 years. The for-women-only charity rides, organized by a team of at least 12 each year, have raised thousands of dollars for Easterseals. The club has won a plaque for having the most participants in a charity ride in 19 of its 26 rides.

Club snowmobile safety classes began around 1972, when it teamed with Les Cheneaux schoolteacher Tom Moore. At first, the training mixed classroom work with a snowmobile rides on a training course built on the school football field by club members. During the early years, members brought in their own sleds for the children to ride while learning to drive. Students’ lessons included reading signs and learning the necessary hand signals to communicate on the trail.

The class moved from the school to the group’s clubhouse after Mr. Moore’s retirement. Mr. Volkers, Natural Resources Department, and Mackinac County Sheriff’s Office have taken over the program. Students now must ride their own snowmobiles and the training course is gone, owing to liability concerns. Students still learn to read signs, but also are taught how to treat hypothermia by Mr. Griffin and the Clark Township Volunteer Ambulance Corps.

Once children complete the course and are licensed to drive snowmobiles, Mr. Griffin said, they have the freedom to provide their own winter transportation. Families ride together; manufacturers are producing smaller sleds aimed at younger riders.

Club fundraisers for years included colorful summer snowmobile drag racing every Fourth of July on grass at Hessel’s Albert J. Lindberg Airport. The races were almost a victim of their own success: competition was discontinued when it started to become too commercial, the need to make improvements at the airport serving as an ideal time for abandoning them.

The club later set up a concession stand in Hessel each year during the Les Cheneaux Antique Wooden Boat Show; demand for food was so high, the stand required a team of 45 volunteers preparing more than 1,200 hot dogs. Today, Mr. Griffin said, the main fundraiser is a pancake breakfast at the Les Cheneaux Community Schools in Cedarville during boat show weekend.

Mrs. Griffin said the average snowmobiler spends about $2,000 a year on the hobby and is about 44 years old. The average distance ridden each winter is 1,175 miles, but she suspects many in the Les Cheneaux area ride more than that.

He enjoys the way enthusiasts develop loyalties toward favored brands, wearing clothing adorned in colors and logos that match their sleds. Today’s user-friendly sleds have seat warmers and options geared toward female riders. They’re reliable enough that riders no longer need to be mechanically inclined.

Mr. Griffin said snowmobiles are popular in Les Cheneaux partly because fishermen need vehicles that can travel over ice nearly to the unofficial St. Ignace to Mackinac Island ice bridge in winter. They serve a passion for recreation among families whose children as young as 12 can use them. During the winter, they’re used for travel to other communities or just enjoying the sights. He still remembers coming upon a couple just lying on the Lake Huron ice looking up at the stars.

“It’s incredible what the night is like when you shut off your sled,” Mr. Griffin said. “It’s a wonderland of quiet beauty. You see things you would never see any other way. You can almost touch the stars.”

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