When the snow falls soft, pretty and inviting, I sometimes think of Hilary Stoltman, his forest cabin and the powerful snowmobile he put me on 36 winters ago.
Stoltman is 86 now, long retired from the railroad, but still keen to wander from his home in Thief River Falls, traveling to Cuba, China, Europe – and maneuvering a snowmobile or, in summer, an ATV around Beltrami Island State Forest. He often embarks from his cabin near Thorhult, Minn.
“We use snow shoes in winter, or we ride,” he said. “The snowmobiles have more power than they used to, but I’m not so interested in power. If it’s about 450 cc’s, that’s good for me. And they’ve widened out the skis so the machines are more stable. They don’t tip over as much.”
Back in 1985, I had written a column in the Herald about noise – disruptive, unnecessary noise – and how it can ruin a peaceful morning or evening. So many Sundays are spoiled, I complained, when first one, then another busy homeowner within two or three blocks fired up a growling, sputtering lawnmower. Do they have to sound so angry? I wanted better mufflers on motorcycles, and I felt that whoever invented leaf blowers and weed trimmers should be in prison.
And then there were snowmobiles, which I indicted for disturbing the quiet solace of a forest: scaring animals before they come into view, robbing skiers and explorers on snow shoes of the magic of silence and distance. The fragrance of evergreens and the purity of clean, cold air polluted by engine exhaust.
Hilary called and issued a challenge: Come to my woods for a day or two, stay at my cabin and ride with me and a couple friends. It’ll be fun.
I went. It was fun. Noisy, but fun.
There was a steep learning curve. It had been maybe 20 years since I had spent any time on a snowmobile, and the machines had changed – “grown from spunky colts to mighty stallions,” I wrote – so I rode cautiously, timidly.
“Momentum and indecision have brought me to an inglorious halt deep in new forest snow,” I reported. “Poplar saplings grab at the runners of my Arctic Cat ‘Panther’ and hold it fast. Thicker branches straight ahead and the grip of the snow appear to rule out escape, but I am still experimenting, still testing the limits of this remarkable machine.
“Throttling hard, I make the beast scream with power and indignation. Snow and twigs explode from the ravine. The forest shudders. But this time, furious noise and desire don’t translate into movement. The Cat and I are just too great a mass.”
One of my fellow riders glides up, “jumps into the snow and with experience and strength frees my Cat and helps me back onto the trail.”
I watched him, Stoltman and the other friend make their way through thick, brambled forest and over bumpy blueberry bogs. So fit and confident, they seemed, like gleeful collegians. “Comparing myself to them, I feel old and burdensome,” I confessed. But Stoltman had me by 15 years. His agile friends, gone now, were 67 and 69.
It had been 25 degrees below that morning, but we were fortified with coffee, biscuits and Ukrainian sausage. We were outfitted in snow suits and helmets and looked, I said proudly, like astronauts. We rode for hours, stopping occasionally to inspect tracks and other sign – here, wolves had torn a mouse nest from deep snow, and there, deer and wolf tracks intersecting. “We roamed slowly through some tall pines, where suddenly there was a burst of movement and noise. ‘It’s a B-52!’ I exclaimed, but Stoltman corrected me. ‘It’s a great gray owl.’”
We returned to the cabin and its heated floor, and we dined on deer steaks and baked potatoes. After supper, we talked for hours about the outdoors, how satisfying fatigue could feel, where our fathers and mothers had come from. We each had a bear story.
They didn’t make a fuss about it, but they defended snowmobiles and trail riding. They aren’t so noisy, Stoltman said. Only a few people use them in unsportsmanlike ways to chase animals. “We make tracks in times of heavy snow,” he said, “tracks the animals use as highways, to find food.”
Stoltman is still fit and trim, still eager to hit a trail. In summer, he and friends like to ATV from Thief River Falls to Viking. “They have the best dumplings at the café there,” he said.
And he invited me to visit his cabin again. “We have a sauna now,” he said.
“I like to be outside. I like anything pertaining to nature. We go out to the cabin on ATVs and poke around, take pictures. We don’t go very fast. We like to look at what we’re seeing –moose, bobcat, fisher, pine marten. I’ve seen a few timber wolves. Fox, porcupine.
“All my life I’ve been interested in nature. It starts when you’re young, you know.”
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.