What started a year and a half ago as an idea to better connect the many miles of ATV trails in and around the Orr and Crane Lake areas has turned into one of the fastest growing clubs in northern Minnesota.
And the 18-month effort has lead to an expanded trail system for riders across the area.
The group, known as the Voyageur Country ATV Club, celebrated the expansion with a ribbon cutting ceremony last week at Melgeorge’s Elephant Lake Lodge. Around 200 people showed up to mark the occasion including several elected officials.
“The day was a perfect opportunity for thanking folks for their efforts in getting us to this point, ” said Voyageur Country Treasurer Gretchen Janssen. “We enjoyed some fun trail riding and spirited camaraderie among fellow outdoor enthusiasts. It was also a great time to discuss our next steps. ”
According to Board member Bruce Beste, he and Voyageur Trail Administrator Steve Koch started the ATV club in the spring of 2015 after discussing the idea of finding a way to connect hundreds of miles of ATV trails in the area together more efficiently.
“We have hundreds of miles of beautiful wooded, designated ATV trails in the national forests, state forests and on county tax-forfeit lands. But the only way to get from trailhead to trailhead was by truck and trailer, ” Beste said by email. “Many trails were only a quarter mile apart, so we saw a real need to open roads for the purpose of trail connectivity. ”
They put together a plan and eventually met with officials from U. S. Forest Service, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and St. Louis County, all of which who thought it was a good idea but suggested they needed to form an official organization.
At that point they decided to create what Beste called a “small” ATV club, and held an organizational meeting with Janssen, of Crane Lake, and Tom Tacik, from the Echo Trail.
Initially about 66 people from the area formed the Voyageur Club but as word spread more joined. Now, there are 800 members including 70 local businesses, Beste said.
That also meant the club’s reach expanded as well.
“We increased our geography to include International Falls, Kabetogama, Ash River, Cusson, Orr, Cook, and Beatty Township, ” he said.
The major issue the group faced throughout the process was getting everyone on the same page. That meant a lot of meetings with a lot of different people.
Koch said ATV trails in the area are managed by several different entities. For example, the area north of Lake Vermilion to Elbow and Myrtle Lakes has miles of Managed Trails by State of Minnesota while the area around Elephant lake to Crane Lake to Echo Lake has miles of managed trails by U. S. Forest Service.
“Many trails are connected via county roads, but most of the trails are State of Minnesota and US Forest Service trails used for logging and other public activities including hunting and ATV travel, ” Janssen said. “ Other trails are on parts of Snowmobile trails already designated for off-road use.
In order to make the plan work and to connect existing trails they first needed to open St Louis County Roads 24 and 180 (and as it expanded, St. Louis County 23 and 116). That would require an Ordinance change.
“Our club became active and worked with St. Louis County through Commissioners Tom Rukavina, Keith Nelson, and Pete Stauber to help establish a new ATV use ordinance, ” Koch said.
The ordinance passed and went into effect in May.
Next, the trails connector plan needed Forest Service roads 491 and 203 (along with 6 other USFS roads). The club worked with Tim Engrav and Andrew Johnson at La Croix District Ranger Office in Cook and got those roads open in late September.
Along the way, Beste said, the club and it’s members attended multiple meetings and found plenty of support from various townships, cities and elected officials including Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U. S. Rep. Rick Nolan, and Rep. Rob Ecklund, D-International Falls.
Koch said the club is now starting work on a trail map similar to the state’s snowmobile map to get riders into the woods. Members aren’t sure how many miles of trail are connected now. Beste said there were “hundreds” of miles of ATV trail before the process started and now but best estimates are approximately 40 miles of U. S. Forest Service roads, over 80 miles of St. Louis County gravel surface roads and about 30 miles of St. Louis County roads on paved shoulders were added.
They are also going to start to market ATV opportunities, develop and enhance the trails and build bridges where appropriate to connect trails from International Falls through the Crain Lake and Orr area, and eventually to the Iron Range OHV parks.
“We have begun to educate children through the ATV Safety Certificate program with MN DNR. We have a quarterly newsletter that promotes safe and responsible riding. We expect to grow our membership to over 1000 by years end, ” Koch added.
Club members are justifiably proud of their efforts and appreciative to all those who helped along the way – and there were many. Beste said they did to promote tourism in the area and to maximize the outdoors experience for residents and tourists alike, among other reasons.
“Unlike snowmobiling, ATV is a growing sport. It is another important opportunity for young people to be engaged in a good family outdoor activity. ATV opportunities are almost a 12-month per year sport, ” Beste said. “Minnesota as a whole is working to develop ATV trail systems all over and our area does not want to miss out, nor should we. We have an amazing system of safe and beautiful trails here. ”
For more information on the Voyageur ATV Club see their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/Voyageur-Country-ATV-437373466432686/?fref=ts.