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Sobriety, caution keys to snowmobile safety

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 Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ 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. Wisconsin is the birthplace of snowmobiling, and it is as much a state tradition as the gun deer season,” Dombrowski said. “Because Wisconsin can have upwards 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. Eleven 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 versus night operation. Moreover, never drink alcoholic beverages before or while driving,” Dombrowski said. “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,” she said. “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.”

Here are more easy-to-follow ice safety tips from Capt. Dombrowski: -- 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 you may not be able to see. This is especially true after the first cold nights, and the early ice is spotted.

-- Always remember that ice is never completely safe under any conditions.