a wonderful story of disability history, at the right time of year,,,
Snowmobiles, woods and lakes lure visitors to Eagle River in winter too
Chicago Tribune | Jay Jones | Dec. 9, 2014
|One of the great innovators in snowmobiling, Carl Eliason as decades ahead of his time in 1921 as he dreamed of a vehicle capable of travel over the snow.|
Chicago Tribune | Jay Jones | Dec. 9, 2014
Tom Tomlanovich got an early start this year grooming his snowmobile club's trails. Two feet of snow blanketed Vilas County the second week of November. That meant the trail paralleling U.S. Highway 45 through the heart of Eagle River was firmly packed well ahead of the opening of snowmobile season Dec. 12.
Local businesses were also prepared. A sign outside the Dairy Queen promised a 10 percent discount to "people with helmets." At Leif's Cafe, owner Raul Torres pointed to the helmet hooks waiting for use just inside the front door.
Right across the highway, preparations were in full swing for January's World Championship Snowmobile Derby. The races typically draw 30,000 to 40,000 spectators.
Eagle River may be best known for summer boating and fishing, but it's easy to understand why the town calls itself the Snowmobile Capital of the World, like the network of 600 miles of trails greeting guests. January now rivals July for tourism. Even nonriders can join in the winter fun.
It's no coincidence that the forerunner to modern-day snowmobiles was invented 20 miles to the west, in Sayner. The original machine, built in 1924, sits proudly in the front window of Eliason Lumber & Hardware.
In the small museum that adjoins the busy store, Jona Eliason said her grandfather, Carl Eliason, created the first single-track snowmobile out of necessity.
"He had a disability, a club foot, and he needed to get around with his friends for hunting and trapping and everything else you do out in the woods. It was very, very difficult for him to walk in snowshoes," she said. "He had to come up with a device that could take him through the woods so he could do those activities."
In a garage just a few steps from the hardware store, behind what's now the Sayner Pub, Eliason lashed together some skis and put a belt of wooden treads between them. He added an outboard motor from a boat, a chunk of radiator from a Model T Ford and a wooden plank for a seat. The snowmobile was born.
"Of course, after he did that, all of his friends wanted one too, because they found out it was easier … than to snowshoe."
Carl Eliason patented his "motor toboggan" and built 30 or 40 more of them in his Sayner shop before selling the business to a company that could keep up with the surging demand.
The Eliason name, however, remained on the machines for decades, as evidenced by the 1953 model proudly displayed at the International Snowmobile Hall of Fame in Eagle River. The museum's oldest and most prized possession was equipped with an 8-horsepower engine and sold for $695.
Parked beside walls bearing photos of Hall of Fame inductees, the 1953 Eliason is among more than 60 vintage snowmobiles on display. Another of the classics, a 1968 Mallard Sno-Wing, sports bicycle-like handlebars, two headlights and a robin's-egg blue paint job.
"Some of these are pretty much priceless," said the museum's Scott Anderson.
If Eliason, Mallard and even Montgomery Ward aren't brands commonly associated with snowmobiles, it's because there used to be 200 companies making them. Over the years, Anderson said, that number has been reduced to just four.
The museum also shares the history of the races held just a snowball's throw down the road.
They began in 1964 as a way to boost the winter economy. Snowmobilers zipped around a track on Dollar Lake before a purpose-built oval was constructed.
What's now known as the AMSOIL Eagle River Derbytrack draws a couple of thousand competitors, and far more fans, for two consecutive weekends of racing. Vintage machines built before 1986 will tear around the track Jan. 9-11. The World Championship races follow Jan. 15-18.
As they did at the original derby 50 years ago on a frozen lake, snowmobilers continue to race on ice, not snow. The process of applying more than 1 million gallons of water to the track begins several weeks before the races.
"It's a half-mile track, and we put more than a foot of ice on it," derby COO Steve Decker said. "Ice affords so much more traction than snow."
Traction is what prompts people like Tomlanovich, trail boss for the Sno-Eagles snowmobile club, to put so much effort into grooming the trails that snake through the woods and across the many lakes.
The avid snowmobiler calls the sport a sure cure for cabin fever during a long, hard winter.
"My wife and I pack saddlebags, and we go from town to town," he said. They've traveled north into Michigan's Upper Peninsula and even to Superior, Wis., 180 miles to the west, to visit their son at college. Well-signposted trails and detailed maps guide them, and others, on their journeys.
"We have trails all over," Tomlanovich said. "It's like a road system."
And, of course, all roads lead to Eagle River.