Roger Nitzsche remembers when Stoughton’s snowmobile trails were marked with painted tin coffee cans sitting on the tops of sticks.
There were no marker signs, no helmet requirements.
It was December 1969, and Nitzsche and the other two founding members of the fledgling Viking Snowdrifters Club maintained its trails with bed springs pulled behind sleds.
The club has since grown to 80 families, many of whom are third generation members.
“It is unbelievable the amount of growth, enthusiasm and interest the club generated the next several years,” Nitzsche wrote in a recent letter to the club.
As the club celebrates 50 years, technology and safety have improved while the club has maintained a sense of camaraderie, several members who spoke to the Hub on Dec. 14 said. Nitzsche still talks weekly with another one of the co-founders, Larry Severson. Both are now in their 80s.
The club maintains 38 miles of public trails that connect snowmobilers from Oregon, Utica, Waubesa and Rock County.
That’s the most of any other snowmobile club in Dane County, and all the work of clearing the paths, insuring the trails and working with property owners is done by volunteers.
The group also plans annual snowmobile trips all over the state, sometimes riding 300 miles in one day.
Ron Mckittrick, the club’s president, said without the club, the trails in Stoughton would not exist. Every year, they raise money and put in physical labor so people all across Wisconsin can enjoy the winter sport, even though some years riders have as little as one week of riding because of weather conditions.
But members who spoke to the Hub agreed the thrill of riding in the winter on a trail they maintained is well worth the work.
Jim Blouin, who has been a member since 2010, said the club gets good feedback from riders on how well the trails are maintained and marked. Riders often stop and give donations right on the trail.
He said the club always welcomes new faces to help with maintenance, and members are happy to watch others enjoy the trail.
“When you’re riding during daylight hours and you see somebody’s mom come by with three kids on the snowmobile and they’re just plodding along, that makes it worthwhile,” Blouin said. “That right there makes your winter – and anybody will tell you that.”
Membership director Jeremiah Bennett joined the group around 2007.
He said the first time he rode a snowmobile was when he was 2, and he remembers falling asleep on the front of his grandparents’ sled while they rode through the woods.
“There’s places in Wisconsin that nobody will ever see unless they’re on a snowmobile,” Bennett said.
In the early days of the club, during the prime winter months, 100 sleds would park on Lake Kegonsa on the north side to make a stop at Sunny Side Restaurant.
Back then, Nitzsche said, it cost about $1,000 to purchase a sled, snowmobile suit and trailer to transport – or less than half the cost of the least inexpensive new car on the market. Today, that price has risen to roughly $17,000.
But it’s an experience unlike any other, Mckittrick said.
“When you’re out riding at night and the moon is out, you can stop, shut your machine off and it’s just dead silent. It just kind of gives you chills, Mckittrick said.