SKIING AND SNOWBOARDING
EAGLE RIVER, Wisc. – It had to be in the 1960s -- 1964 to be exact -- the way Conrad Heeg tells it.
“Snowmobiles were kind of new back then, so a couple of local businessmen thought they could drum up a bit of winter business for this summer resort town,” explains Heeg, executive director of the Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce. “They concocted a snowmobile race out on Dollar Lake, spread the word, and figured no more than 300 people would show up. Boy, were they wrong. The event drew 4,000 people.”
Businesspeople, townsfolk and elected officials all realized one thing: this tiny town, where the sight of a Bald Eagle is commonplace, was on to something big. And it was called a snowmobile. So the following year they again held a snowmobile race – only this time they called it the World Championship Snowmobile Derby.
That was the beginning. Now, nearly 50 years later, what began as a dinky snowmobile race on a frozen lake has morphed into a 10-day extravaganza drawing upwards of 700 competitive snowmobiles and 25,000 spectators, not only from the United States but from around the world. According to Heeg, the snowmobile derby is Wisconsin’s fourth largest tourist attraction, giving the economy here in Eagle River an annual $30-million shot in the arm.
“From November to March we receive an average of 45 inches of snow and the temperature is typically below zero to the low 30s, so it’s pretty cold here” says Danielle Johnson of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, explaining factors that led to the steady growth of snowmobiling throughout the state and especially here in Eagle River.
“The state created and maintains 25,000 miles of snowmobile trails, with 600 miles here in the Eagle River area, that weave through forests, fields, lakes and villages,” she says. “That’s enough miles to travel by snowmobile from Los Angeles to New York and back three times.”
Years ago, about 140 companies manufactured snowmobiles, Today, only four firms remain, turning out sleds, as they are called, that sell for about $6,000 to $15,000. Comforts on the machines such as electric starting, reverse gear, heated seats and handrails, and higher windshields to block wind have added to snowmobile popularity.