by Dennis Dalman
While most central Minnesotans are grinning and bearing this winter, the members of the St. Stephen River Runners are grinning and loving it. In fact, they couldn’t be happier with all the snow and more snow.
“We’re loving it,” said Lori Welch of St. Stephen. “This winter we can actually ride right from our house to the snowmobile trail. We don’t even have to use the (snowmobile) trailer.”
It’s quite a change from the winter of two years ago when there were unusually warm temperatures and virtually no snow for most of the season.
The River Runners, a group of about two dozen snowmobile hobbyists, recently purchased a used 200 model Tucker grooming machine with drag from a company in Bloomington. They are eager to show off the new machine and have scheduled “Community Day” for that purpose from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, March 8 at Trobec’s Bar in St. Stephen. All past and present club members are invited to attend. Landowners who live along the St. Stephen snowmobile trail have been invited to the gathering at Trobec’s, along with anyone else who wants to show up. A Polaris snowmobile will be raffled, with a limit of 650 tickets sold.
Thanks to the new used groomer, several members can take turns keeping the trails in good order. The main groomer is Mark VanderWeyst, whose wife, Cindy is the mayor of St. Stephen and president of the River Runners. There are four other groomers who help out, including Randy Welch, the husband of Lori Welch.
All members of the club also help keep the trails shipshape in autumn by putting up or repairing signage and by cutting brush or limbs that intrude into the trails. The trails include a stretch between St. Stephen and St. Joseph, from St. Stephen to Opole and the St. Joseph trail that reaches Sartell. Altogether, those trails add up to about 15 miles. Since they are state grant-in-aid trails, the county and groomers receive so much recompense per mile to groom and maintain those trails, Lori Welch noted.
Like other members of the River Runners, the Welches make snowmobiling a family affair. Rodney and Lori, when going for snowmobile rides, are often accompanied by their two children – Tyler, 24, and Hailey, 14. The family rides about 1,500 miles each winter, Rodney estimates.
“Sometimes more,” he said. “And those are just the miles our family rides.”
Like other members of the club, the Welches emphasize safety at all times and make sure they have the right gear for the sometimes below-zero weather: snowmobile suits, bibs, jackets, goggles, hand-warmers on the sleds.
River Runners’ members are trying to interest more younger members in joining their club. The current age of members ranges from early 30s to early 50s.
The Welch family also belongs to the St. Joseph-based Sno Joes snowmobile club, as do some other River Runners. The St. Stephen club is comprised of members from St. Joseph, Sartell, St. Cloud and, of course, St. Stephen.
The River Runners take an annual multi-day trip to other areas of Minnesota. Such trips have included areas near Bemidji, Virginia, Deer River and Alexandria, to name just four. Another annual event is when members go bowling every spring.
“It’s kind of a family day for all the members,” Lori said.
Each year, the club also does several fundraisers, such as selling pizzas and a snowmobile raffle event. In addition, club members, twice a year, keep a stretch of CR 2 clean of litter.