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Smart, sober driving is key to safe snowmobile season

Snowmobilers enjoying Wisconsin’s trails, often hear conservation wardens stressing the importance of safety, staying sober and being smart, which also are among the top priorities promoted during International Snowmobile Safety Week, Jan. 18-26.

Capt. April Dombrowski, who leads the DNR’s Bureau of Law Enforcement Recreational Safety and Outdoor Skills Section, says the awareness week spotlights the smart and safe methods all snowmobilers should use the entire season.

“One death during snowmobile season is one too many,” said Dombrowski. “Wisconsin is the birthplace of snowmobiling, and it is as much a state tradition as the gun deer season. Because Wisconsin can have upward of 25,000 groomed trails during winter, safety is a top priority for this outdoor recreational machine enjoyed by friends and families.”

The DNR recorded 16 fatal snowmobile accidents in 2019, and 11 of those involved operation on public trails and roadways, while four incidents occurred on frozen waterways.

Dombrowski said the wardens’ goal is to help everyone have fun and make lifelong memories, while enjoying Wisconsin’s incredible trails, many of which are groomed by volunteers.

“Safe snowmobiling means riding within your capabilities, operating at safe and appropriate speeds for the terrain, machine and user capability, along with the element of daylight visibility vs. night operation,” said Dombrowski. “Moreover, never drink alcoholic beverages before, or while, driving. Always wear a helmet and adequate clothing, stay within designated riding areas and always snowmobile with another person, never alone.”

Another factor in Wisconsin snowmobiling, is the ice that covers the 15,000 lakes and other water bodies.

Winter’s fluctuating temperatures, snowfalls and snowmelts, have made for often-changing terrain and mixed conditions on snowmobile trails.

“Nobody wants the sudden surprise of breaking through ice or riding into open water conditions,” said Dombrowski. “Your best pre-ride action is to contact those local fishing clubs, snowmobile clubs or outfitters, and inquire about the ice conditions. The DNR does not monitor conditions.”

More easy-to-follow ice safety tips include:

• In all likelihood, the ice looks thicker – and safer – than it is.

• The best advice to follow, is no matter what the month, consider all ice unpredictable.

• There can be cracks and changes in the thickness that can’t be seen. This is especially true after the first cold nights and the early ice is spotted.

• Always remember ice is never completely safe under any conditions.

• Go with a friend. It is safer and more fun.

• Carry a cellphone, and let people know where traveling and when returning home.

• Wear proper clothing and equipment, including a life jacket or a float coat, to help stay afloat and to help slow body heat loss.

• Carry a couple spikes and a length of light rope in an easily accessible pocket, to help pull out of the ice.

• Do not travel in unfamiliar areas or at night.

• Know if the lake has inlets, outlets or narrows that have currents, which can thin the ice.

• Take extra mittens or gloves, so there’s always a dry pair.

• Common sense is the greatest ally in preventing ice-related accidents.