NOT VERY FAR UP NORTH As it turns out, “Up North” is just a short drive north of the Twin Cities. People living in the urban core can enjoy wilderness relatively close to home by touring the East Central region’s exceptional trails. A host of novel tourist attractions in the area make this a fun day trip to add to the winter calendar. The area is known for its beautiful forests, which transition from southern hardwoods to pine forests as you head north. Several state parks and forests, a patchwork of rivers and lakes, agricultural areas, plus the Continental Divide offer a wide range of landscapes filled with recreation activities. A central destination for anglers is the lake known as the Walleye Factory, Mille Lacs. Huge villages of ice houses cover hundreds of acres of the lake, and these anglers generate their own fleeting but uniquely Minnesotan social scene. Area businesses are well-equipped for snowmobilers, with warm food and rooms, repair and supply shops, and even rental locations for those who want to try out the sport or test a new machine. This supportive community is a great place to introduce newbies to the sport. [ East Central ] ROAD TRIP ATTRACTIONS Try a casino-to-casino ride, as trails connect the Grand Casino franchises in Hinckley and in Onamia. Hinckley is remembered as one of Minnesota’s worst disasters. In 1894, a massive fire ripped across the heavily logged central region, killing more than 400 people and destroying communities throughout the region. A museum in downtown Hinckley is at the site of the original train station and there are two monuments to honor the dead: one in Brook Park and the other on Highway 48, east of Hinckley. The Rum River Sno-Riders will host the MnUSA Winter Rendezvous at Izaty’s Resort in Onamia. This three-day celebration of snowmobiling brings hundreds of riders together to enjoy the trails, help plan the future of the sport, and participate in special events. February 8-11. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the Hay Days Grass Drags in North Branch. Even though it’s a September event, this race kicks off the snowmobile season, attracting thousands of riders and raising funds to improve the region’s trail system. GREAT TRAILS The Willard Munger Trail follows the route of the railroad that many people used to escape from the terrible Hinckley Fire of 1894. Today it runs from Hinckley to Duluth, following the Moose River, passing through Jay Cooke State Park. It’s comprised of three segments. The main Munger Trail runs from Hinckley to Duluth, with a section that showcases the St. Louis River as it crashes through a rock-lined gorge in Jay Cooke State Park. The Matthew Lourey Trail, connected to the Munger, covers 80 wooded miles linking the Nemadji and St. Croix state forests. This segment is named for the Minnesota U.S. Army officer killed when his helicopter was shot down in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Alex Laveau Memorial Trail connects Carleton to Wrenshaw. It honors the area farmer and county commissioner whose activism on behalf of public trails led to many of the rails-to-trails conversions we ride on today. The Hinckley/Pine City Flames club maintains 106 miles of trails and the Heidi Benoit Memorial Shelter in the Chengwatana State Forest, which is always stocked with firewood for the fire ring and has a picnic table for a lunch break. The Mille Lacs region features hundreds of miles of trails, and it’s possible to circumnavigate the entire lake by snowmobile, in addition to some freelance laketop riding (be on the lookout for ice road berms and ice heaves). Four local clubs maintain trail networks in the area. The Soo Line South Trail runs just south of the lake and covers 114 miles through five Minnesota counties. As you might guess, the trail is a railroad grade, making it a comfortable place for riders of all skill levels. Landscapes change from fields to woods and wetlands, keeping the route continuously interesting. SELFIE SPOT - GREAT GROOMER (Photo by Mille Lacs Drift Skippers Snowmobile/ATV Club, Isle) These monster machines, and their talented drivers, are often out all night long to make trails smooth for snowmobilers. If you meet one on the trail, give it plenty of room (or wait for a signal from the groomer operator to pass). It is a true treat for a snowmobiler to see these machines in action. TRIP PLANNER Aitkin Area Chamber 800-526-8342 Cloquet Area Chamber 800-554-4350 Cuyuna Lakes Chamber of Commerce Crosby, Ironton, Deerwood, Emily 218-546-8131 Garrison Commercial Club 218-851-2389 Hinckley CVB 800-952-4282 McGregor Area Chamber 877-768-3692 Mille Lacs Area Tourism Council Isle 888-350-2692 Moose Lake Area Chamber 800-635-3680 Winter 2017 - 18 23