Maybe it was inevitable that one day the group of hard-core snowmobilers known as the Woodrow Willow Whackers would assemble their best vintage sleds and ride to some distant point on the map with little regard for personal comfort or the prospect that their sleds might not arrive in one piece.
For Rod Tweed, Jeff Wilkins, Grant Wilkins, Greg Gorron, Jason Smude, Ben Slowe and Dan Rademacher, pushing seven vintage snowmobiles 300 miles from Brainerd to Orr was the essence of snowmobiling and the culmination of an idea that was first tossed around over beers in Jeff Wilkins' kitchen earlier this winter.
"Oh, we had fun," Wilkins said. "We'll do it again next year."
This year's lineup of vintage sleds included a 1970 Arctic Cat Panther, '73 Scorpion Stinger, '72 Arctic Cat Lynx, '71 Massey Ferguson Ski Whiz, '69 Scorpion Wide Track, '75 Yamaha GP 433 and '71 Ski-Doo Olympic.
As might be expected, it wasn't smooth sailing the whole way. The Scorpions' engines burned down on the trail and other sleds sustained various malfunctions. Without a support crew that included Jim Benjamin on a '93 Polaris, Bobby Gorron on a '97 Arctic Cat, Travis Gorron on a '97 Arctic Cat and Tammy Benjamin and Mary Alice Slowe in a Chevy Suburban and 1-ton Chevy truck, respectively, the riders would have "been hurtin," Wilkins said.
"They went out ahead of us but we were calling them all the time, 'Come back!' "
Day One, Feb. 23
The Willow Whackers gathered on Eagle Lake, where Tweed lives, and set out at 8:30 a.m. Two miles down the trail Wilkins' Scorpion fouled a plug, the first mishap of the ride. After breakfast in Aitkin, the riders were headed for the Soo Line trail when Wilkins' Scorpion and Smude's Scorpion both broke down and had to be towed. Smude drove back to Brainerd and returned with a '73 Scorpion Stinger and two motors, one for Jeff and one for a spare. You can't have too many motors on a vintage ride.
Without further incident the riders arrived in Grand Rapids at 8 p.m. and spent the night at the Sawmill Inn .
Day Two, Feb. 24
"We had a heckuva time just getting out of Grand Rapids," Tweed said. "We lost three sleds in the first five miles."
Smude's Scorpion lost spark and had to be towed. The motor mounts broke on Grant Wilkins' Arctic Cat and the motor was held in place with vice grips and wire. Rademacher's Ski-Doo lost a ski and he rode eight miles before realizing it.
"We stopped for a break," Tweed said, "and I looked over and said, 'Danny, I don't see your other ski.' He looks over and says, 'It ain't there!' So he rode into Side Lake on one ski."
Ironically, the "support sleds" needed support, too. Bobby Gorron spun the drive bearing on his Arctic Cat and the throttle cable broke on Jim Benjamin's Polaris. Benjamin switched to an Arctic Cat ZR, only to see the chain tensioner break. To top it off, Tweed's Arctic Cat ZRT suffered a broken jack shaft and had to be towed -- by Tweed himself on his '70 Panther.
"He cried the whole way," Wilkins said.
"The trail was terrible," Tweed offered in his defense. "It was a spur trail and I had to run wide open just to get up the hills. No brakes, no lights. I didn't think she was gonna make it."
Day Three, Feb. 25
The riders started the day at Mohawk's, a salvage yard in Hibbing, where they found bearings and a throttle cable for the Arctic Cats, swapped motors on Smude's Scorpion and set the skis on Jeff Wilkin's Scorpion.
"We were out there wrenching in the parking lot," Jeff Wilkins said. "Good thing it was warm out. We got 'em all running, loaded up and took off."
No further breakdowns occurred from Hibbing to Cook. The riders got on the Arrowhead trail and followed it from Cook to Orr, but on the way made a wrong turn and got lost on Lake Vermilion. It was a 30-mile mistake, but after gassing up at The Landing on Lake Vermilion the riders pushed on.
Word spread up the trail that a merry band of vintage sledders was northbound, and wherever they stopped the riders fielded numerous questions from curious onlookers. Tweed even made a business transaction.
"I was talking to a guy in the Cook Municipal who said the clutch went down on his Arctic Cat ZRT," Tweed said. "I said, 'I got one right outside.' I went out there, pulled it off and sold it to him."
The vintage sleds that finished the 337-mile trip were Tweed's and Grant Wilkins' Arctic Cats, Jeff Wilkins' single-cylinder Scorpion, Slowe's Yamaha and Greg Gorron's Ski Whiz. Total cost per rider was about $400.
One week later, Jeff Wilkins, Greg Gorron and Tweed agreed they wouldn't have made it without two things: terrific trail conditions and the support of Mary Alice Slowe and Tammy Benjamin. Greg Gorron said riding his Ski Whiz was like "riding on a two-by-four, about that low, too."
"No, a two-by-four has a little more travel," Wilkins said. "I rode my Scorpion the whole last day on one spring. Couldn't even tell the difference."
The Willow Whackers are already talking about another ride next year.
"Winnipeg!" Tweed said. "St. Paul to Winnipeg, just like the old I-500."
Jeff Wilkins pondered the idea for a moment, then said, "I don't know if they'll let us across the border."
VINCE MEYER can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5862.
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