Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 24, 2013

Snowmobile trip is 'ultimate U.P. adventure'

By Anne Stanton
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Jim Houston’s idea of a fun vacation is riding 1,600 miles on a Yamaha snowmobile through freezing rain, blinding snow, and atop massive snow piles. Not to mention deer that dart out of nowhere.

He calls it his “ultimate U.P. adventure.”

His coworker, Teresa Wahl-Beck, on the other hand, plans to head to sunny Florida.

“How can someone do that?” she said. “If I was 28, I think it would be fun, but I’m not that adventurous anymore.”

Wahl-Beck and the banquet crew at the Grand Traverse Resort are following co-worker Houston’s progress since he left on Feb. 15 for Copper Harbor. The Record-Eagle reached Houston on his cell phone in Calumet.

Houston reported he began his journey a little behind schedule. He couldn’t get his snowmobile off the lift; then downed trees on the trail slowed his pace. Even so, he drove a whopping 318 miles to Grand Marais — 30 miles more than he intended, thanks to having to double back when a trail abruptly ended. But Houston is ready for the unexpected.

“I always pack everything,” said Johnson, 38. “Space blankets, water, matches, compasses, and gas on each side of the sled. It looks a little ridiculous — like the Grinch that stole Christmas.”

Johnson found water, not ice, when he reached the Mackinac Bridge, so he paid $15 to get a lift for himself and the sled. He knew from past experience that it’s important to arrive between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Arrival time at the bridge is one of scores of details that Johnson attends to, from mapping the trail route to booking motels to finding gas stations within reach of the trail. He picks up paper maps as he goes along because they tend to be most accurate. And he carries cash because a lot of places refuse credit cards.

Mother Nature is the one thing he can’t control, and she recently dumped lots of snow, he said.

“I’m always nerved up because some of the snow banks are as tall as the sled,” Houston said. “When you cross roads, you have to ease out. The snow banks make it impossible to see. Sometimes, you have to stand on your snowmobile to see what’s coming.”

As the day rolls by, deer becomes the biggest hazard, he said.

“They’re like a car. They decide whether to run at you or not,” he said.

Blinding snow around Newberry forced him to throttle down. Freezing rain also was “exciting,” along with a breakdown in Eagle Harbor on Monday.

“It was about 1:30, and I saw green on the ground,” he said. “I said, ‘I hope that’s not me.’ And I looked under the sled and it was gushing anti-freeze. At some point, I must have picked up something on the trail.”

Houston considers himself lucky because he broke down at a bar and restaurant. He was doubly lucky because he was put in contact with a college student who could fix it right away.

“I called him and he was 20 minutes from going to class,” he said. “So he sent a friend with a pick-up. That’s what they do for extra cash. They pick up sleds that go down.”

The breakdown put an end to the next day’s ride, but a storm slammed in just about that time, anyway.

“They got her back on the trail,” he said. “They welded the heat exchanger, put on some brake pads. I picked her up Wednesday morning.”

For safety, Johnson carries a SPOT satellite tracker that allows his friends and co-workers to follow his whereabouts.

“Every 10 minutes, it puts a bread crumb on a Google map. I can send a link and you can see exactly where I am,” he said. “It’s also a safety thing.”

He straps a Go Pro video camera on his chest to make it visually more exciting for his friends.

“You see some of the trip as I make my way,” he said

Johnson laughed when asked how fast he drives.

“That depends on the area,’ he said. “When you hit the U.P., they’ve converted a lot of train rails and they’re fast and they’re straight. You can easily run into the 70s pretty comfortably. As fast as a car would go on a major highway.”

Johnson reached his destination of Copper Harbor on Wednesday, but decided on a repeat trip Thursday to get better video.

If all goes well, he plans to be home Monday or Tuesday with good memories.

“I always meet a lot of people who are really friendly and willing to help you out if you need help,” he said. “The snowmobile industry is pretty good up here. Folks are happy to see you come and they want you to come back again.”