The following article appeared in Portage Daily Register on Dec 9, 2013
If snowmobiling is in their hearts, then the map of red trails connecting communities is the life blood.
More than 500 miles of public snowmobile trails in Columbia County exist for three main reasons: volunteer club members, willingness of private landowners and the forethought of pioneers, such as the late Harold LeJeune.
This fall, snowmobilers gathered to officially dedicate a park in honor of LeJeune. It was purchased in 2003 by the Winnebago Ridge Runners Snowmobile Club, of which LeJeune was a member. In 2008, work began with support from the Columbia County Association of Snowmobile Clubs, member clubs and Friends of the Park. The park is located off Agency House Road in Portage.
“The park is a result to not forget pioneers of snowmobiling in Columbia County. It was named in honor of Harold because he was thinking of the future. He definitely had a vision. We felt he was real key,” said Steve Pate, a charter member of the Winnebago Ridge Runners Snowmobile Club in the Portage area.
Snowmobile trails in the late 1960s were about knocking on doors and asking landowners’ permission to drive on their property, Pate said. County club members in their respective areas each developed and maintained their own trails, agreed to use each other’s, but often the trails wouldn’t connect.
“In the early days, you followed someone else’s tracks, nothing was marked, so sometimes you’d end up in someone’s backyard,” Pate said. “In 1969, I didn’t know how long the sport would last; the machines were crude and it didn’t have a great reputation.”
From 1971 to 1983, LeJeune served as the Community Resource Development agent for Columbia County. He saw the need to adjoin the various club trails in the county, knew the club members were volunteers and worked toward a financial solution to link them through snowmobile registration money, said Jim LeJeune, Harold’s son. LeJeune moved to Portage in 1971, rode snowmobiles and lobbied for riders until 2000 and died in 2004.
“He was sort of a middle man to connect the local clubs to the DNR, and he knew the DNR had the money and knew the county clubs needed the money,” LeJeune said. “So, the solution my dad and the DNR guys cooked up was using the state funds to get the standards set up, like signs within the trails. Through UW-Extension and the DNR, a joint program was set up to create a link between the DNR funds available and get it down to the local clubs that were actually doing 90 percent of the work.”
LeJeune, who lives in La Crosse, said that he had no idea about the park in memory of his dad until he got a surprise call from Pate.
“Steve Pate said, ‘We’re having a ceremony and we’d like you to say a few words.’ He talked about the park and the signage to remind the new riders about what the predecessors had to go through to get to where we are now,” LeJeune said. “I got about half way through my little speech and there were some tears, just memories of my dad were a little overwhelming for a few moments, and I know Steve Pate got a little choked up, too, about all the hard work Harold had done.”
In 1973, Columbia County was the first in the state to become eligible for the Snowmobile Aid Program Funds in order to develop and maintain a system of public snowmobile trails on private property funded by the snowmobile registration money.
The trail system was completed in the late 1970s and the Columbia County Association of Snowmobile Clubs printed its first countywide map, which was needed to promote the trails to the public. There are 10 active snowmobile clubs in the county: Yellow Thunder Snowmobile Association (Lodi/Lake Wisconsin area); Arlington Prairie Drifters (Arlington/Poynette area); New Haven Sno-Streakers (Wisconsin Dells area); Rocky Run Riders (Pardeeville/Wyocena area); Winnebago Ridge Runners (Portage area); Camper Country Snowriders (Rio area); The Moonlighters Inc. (Cambria area); Columbus/Fall River Snow-Blazers (Columbus/Fall River area); Sno-Hoppers Club (Doylestown area); and the Randolph Trail Busters (in the Randolph area).
No general revenue tax dollars are used for the trails, but they are free and open to the public.
“The public trail established on private land was a big thing at that time. In our county, we have close to 500 miles. However, only 300 miles are partially funded by the DNR which are spread out through the county. All of the others are maintained by the clubs and not reimbursed from the DNR. So many people think the DNR marks the signs. Everybody enjoys it, but not everybody pays,” said Donna White, charter member of the Moonlighters and the first and only female president of the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs.
Clubs have fundraisers year-round and work on maintaining the trails, safety and integrity in order to continue their three month recreational season, White said. When the sleds hit the snow, the riders go through communities to eat, get warm and meet up with fellow riders.
“People don’t understand how much we bring to the economy. Millions of dollars come to the state through snowmobiling. When you have a good snow, you’ll see every gas station full, every hotel full and it comes right down to your local economy and trickles right down into your pocket,” White said.
LeJeune said his father was thinking of the economy in the early days, too.
“What can we do to encourage tourists to spend money in our community and make life a little better for the residents of Columbia County,” he said.
For more information about the snowmobile clubs in Columbia County, visit www.orgsites.com/wi/ccasc, or find the group on Facebook.
Posted: December 10th, 2013