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A Snowmobile Safari in Minnesota

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A flurry of large wet snowflakes makes visibility a bit of a problem, but the trail's markers glow in our snowmobiles' headlights.

The storm's no biggie, but it heightens our sense of adventure, and by the time we reach Hungry Jack Lodge (our overnight stopping spot), we're spouting tales of the great blizzard of '07 — as we snuggle into leather armchairs around the fireplace, sipping hot toddies until exhaustion overtakes exuberance and we trudge off to sleep.

Forrest Parsons, whose family bought the lodge in 1970, tells us the storm will pass by the time we get our 6 a.m. wakeups. The sunny day will offer ideal conditions for day two of our snowmobile safari.

In the summer, this historic lodge (founded in 1924) on scenic Hungry Jack Lake is a trout fisherman's refuge. In the winter, it caters to snowmobiling adventurers, some of whom — like we did — outfit and set out from Grand Marais, a town on Lake Superior, in Minnesota's northeastern corner (some 140 miles from Duluth).

Hungry Jack is 35 miles north of Grand Marais. That's not a long haul in this snow-clad country, where hearty snowmobilers can run up to 300 miles a day — depending on how often they stop to shoot the breeze and toss snowballs. Come morning, preparations for our drive are brisk. We stoke ourselves with pancakes and bacon, stow our few possessions (the idea is to travel light) in waterproof packs and strap them to our refueled snowmobiles, and hit the trail.

We'll cover 50 miles of wilderness before pulling into our next lodge around 7:30 p.m., when all's dark except for glowing trail markers in our beams, and the beautiful whiteness of pristine snow beneath a riot of stars in the clear winter sky.

Overall, we're snowmobiling for four days, looping around 200 miles of Minnesota's 14,000 miles of well-marked trails, returning to Grand Marais. We're 11 friends celebrating a "significant" birthday of a 12th friend, who booked our lodging and snowmobile rentals and hired a guide to shepherd us through the wilderness.

Booking your own accommodations and rentals is easy.

And, because trails are well-marked, you don't really need a guide if you can read maps and have the discipline to stick to the trails.

But there are companies that will prepare everything for you and your group, or add you to a prepackaged tour with pre-set dates and an itinerary.

We looked over the trail maps and chose routes that allowed us to cruise comfortably along the broad State Trail, run open-throttle races across Hungry Jack Lake and dozens of other little lakes that patch the area, and experience Gunflint Trail's hills, forests and rocky outcroppings.

We also allowed some time to enjoy campfires or lodge stops along the trails — and to remove trees or branches that may have fallen across our path.

We were constantly on the lookout for wildlife, hoping to spot some deer, rabbits and other animals, but were disappointed that we didn't see any. But we were moving most of the time, so they were probably scared by our vehicles' growls. The only creatures we encountered were fellow snowmobilers and, occasionally, cross-country skiers.

Most of Minnesota's snowmobile trails are groomed by late December, and snow has been very good this year. The season usually lasts through March, weather permitting.

If you're looking for solitude, take your snowmobile safari midweek, when there are fewer riders on the trails. But there's plenty of trail for everyone and, once the holiday season has passed, even on weekends, traffic jams are extremely rare.

Snowmobiles are easy to handle once you get the knack for them. Renters must be at least 18 years old, but younger kids can ride with grown-ups. If this is a first-time safari, make the first day relatively easy. Observe the 50 mph limit and ride single file on the trail's right side. It's unwise to snowmobile alone. If you plow into a snowbank or sink in drifts, fellow riders can easily rescue you. Never drink and drive. Don't show off. Mishaps are rarely life-threatening, but they can be extremely embarrassing.

For information on travel, lodging, rentals and outfitters: Minnesota Office of Tourism 800-657-3700 or www.exploreminnesota.com. For Hungry Jack Lodge: 800-338-1566 or www.hungryjacklodge.com.

To find out more about Jennifer Merin and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2008 JENNIFER MERIN DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.


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