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Snow. It's silent music to thousands of winter outdoor enthusiasts. And this winter there is a special reason to celebrate as Wisconsin enters 2002, the "Year of the Trails." Trail use runs the gamut from hiking to cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.
This season, more than 230,000 snowmobilers are expected to hit Wisconsin's more than 22,000 miles of interconnected snowmobiling trails, including 350 miles of former railroad beds that convert to snowmobile highways in the winter.
Although the state-implemented 50 mph nighttime speed limit has ended, counties do have speed limits. Check with local sheriffs' offices, snowmobile clubs and DNR forestry staff to learn the local limits.
Biennial snowmobile registration fees have increased. The cost to register a snowmobile in Wisconsin is $30, up from $20 last season – the first fee increase in 16 years.
The city of Hayward hosts its 16th annual world class snowmobile race on Lake Hayward the first week of February. Darrell Salzman, race manager, says snowmobile drag racers reach speeds of over 150 mph. The race attracts about 500 racers. See Hayward Area Chamber of Commerce or call (715) 634-2102.
Minocqua (800) 446-6784 and Hurley (715) 561-4334 are other popular "sledder" home bases. But Eagle River is the site of the World Championship Snowmobile Derby, to be held Jan. 13-20. Eagle River is the self-proclaimed Snowmobile Capital of the World – thanks to more than 600 miles of snowmobile trails that traverse the Nicolet National Forest and Northern Highland State Forest and cross many of 1,300 lakes in Vilas County. (715) 479-4424 or (800) 359-6315.
Daylight and candlelight skiing
Mirror Lake State Park in Baraboo was the first state park to host candlelight skiing in 1988. Today, more than 40 candlelight skis are held at state parks around Wisconsin.
When the weather cooperates, these events attract up to 1,000 skiers and hikers. In addition to candle-lighted trails (it sometimes takes 500 candles to light a one-mile path), some parks provide bonfires, grills, food and beverages. Most trails are geared toward beginners. If there is too little snow, parks may host a candlelight hike instead.
Wisconsin offers more than 250 cross-country ski trails, from easy jaunts on golf courses to challenging routes such as the Rock Lake Trails near Cable in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. See the DNR website for a list of trails in Wisconsin State Parks and Forests: Cross-Country Ski Trails.
The annual Nicolet Sled Dog Sprints – one of the biggest dog sled events in the Midwest and a qualifying competition for the World Cup – will be held Jan. 26 and 27 at Camp Nicolet, located east of Eagle River on Hwy 70. Four-dog, 6-dog and 10-dog teams race against time over different lengths. The races attract about 130 teams plus more than a thousand spectators. Add to that a skijoring contest: cross-country skiing while being pulled by a dog. (800) 359-6315.
Several Wisconsin companies offer dog sled day outings and overnight trips. Glacier Valley Wilderness Adventures (608) 493-2075 trains mushers in the Baraboo area, and then takes sledders to run the trails at Devil's Lake State Park. Trek and Trail in Bayfield organizes mushing trips for visitors in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (800) 354-8735.
While snowshoeing generally is not allowed on more than 1,000 miles of state park and forest trails groomed for cross-country skiing, there is room in the woods for everyone. Hundreds of hiking tails and forested areas can be explored by those willing to break their own trails on snowshoes. A list of snowshoeing trails on state properties may be found on the DNR website at Snowshoe Trails in Wisconsin State Parks and Forests.
In 1999, the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America reported that four million people hit the snowshoe trails, up from 1.7 million in 1998. The reasons for snowshoeing's increasing popularity? At $45 to $300 for a pair of snowshoes, it's cheaper than skiing. It's good exercise; snowshoers burn 450 to 1,000 calories per hour. It's easy. If you can walk, you can snowshoe.
Snowshoeing takes you places you can't get to on skis; you can stomp through your own back yard and even race in them.
The 10th annual Perkinstown Tramp Snowshoe Races on Jan. 19 include races and tours on trails in the Chequamegon National Forest. The event also includes mountaineer races requiring participants to wear a 15-pound knapsack. Call (888) 682-9567 or visit Medford Area Chamber of Commerce.
Bayfield's annual 5- and 10-kilometer snowshoe races honor a local hero, Asaph Whittlesey. In the 1870s, Whittlesey – the area's representative to the State Legislature – protested the fact that railroads did not reach the Apostle Islands region by snowshoeing 250 miles to Sparta, the closest railroad connection at the time. (800) 447-4094.