Safety on snowmobiles

Special course taught to youngsters at Forsyth club

Shawn Thill of Marquette breaks in his newly purchased ski-doo snowmobile Tuesday evening along a trail near the Crossroads along County Road 553. Thill said he purchased the snowmobile in late December and needed to put miles on the machine before his trip to Wyoming this weekend. He is traveling west because of the lack of snow in the area. (Journal photo by Andy Nelson-Zaleski)


Journal Staff Writer

GWINN — Driving more slowly at night might seem like basic common sense, but it can be easy to forget when you’re operating a snowmobile, not a car.

Or if you’re a teen who’s not experienced at driving either machine.

Snowmobile safety was the focus of a special course offered Friday by the Marquette County Sheriff’s Office and the Forsyth Snowmobile Club. The event took place at the club’s grounds, located along M-35.

Snowmobile safety education training and online safety courses are recommended for all snowmobile operators and are required for youth beween the ages of 12 and 16 years.

A person who is at least 12 but less than 17 must successfully complete a Michigan-approved snowmobile safety course if the rider will be:

≤ Operating a snowmobile without the direct supervision of a person age 21 or older. The certificate must be in the operator’s immediate possession.

≤ Crossing any highway or street. Again, the certificate must be in the operator’s immediate possession.

Teaching the basic rules of the trail and providing tips on things, such as the best way to maneuver in difficult terrain and how to recover after falling through ice, was Sgt. Errikk Decker of the sheriff’s office.

“It covers everything from basic riding skills, to what to do in an emergency and, you know, some of the laws and do’s and don’ts for the student,” Decker said of the course.

The class also covered riding techniques, how to cross a hill and even maintenance issues, such as how to change spark plugs and belts, he said.

Decker acknowledged it’s important to teach young snowmobile riders the basics so they carry those good habits into adulthood.

One of the topics discussed during the course was group riding, which requires having the proper reaction time so crashes don’t occur.

“Have at least two seconds between you and the sled in front of you, more if you think you need it,” Decker said.

He had the students gauge the timing of those two seconds so they got a better idea of what that means on the trail — seeing a person riding a sled past a tree and then counting “one, two” before coming up on that same tree.

Crossing ice in groups presents other hazards.

First of all, Decker recommended frozen bodies of water be avoided.

However, not every situation is perfect.

“Never cross ice in single file, especially if it’s an area that you guys haven’t been,” Decker said.

For example, some lakes are spring-fed.

“If we get a pile of a lot of snow early in the season, the ice doesn’t form as thickly,” Decker said.

He said the most knowledgeable and experienced rider should be at the front of the group, although the trail sweep — the last rider — is critical to maintain the proper spacing between operators.

The youngsters were shown the proper hand signals for various actions, such as slowing, left and right turns, whether there are oncoming sleds, and others.

The most important signal, Decker stressed, was the “arm up” sign for stopping.

“Does everybody’s brake light work on their snowmobile?” Decker asked. “Sometimes the lightbulb burns out while you’re riding and you don’t know it, OK? Use that a lot when you’re coming up to somewhere where you’re going to stop, or up to the stop signs.”

Riders also need to be aware of hard-packed snow drifts.

“Snow drifts are there for a reason sometime,” Decker said. “You don’t know what’s behind them.”

He has personal experience with that. He recalled that in his younger days, he was snowmobiling on Little Lake and came upon a drift.

Even though he wasn’t traveling that quickly, Decker decided to ride that drift, which, unfortunately, was built over a dock.

“Tipped me over on my side,” Decker said. “You can get hurt from doing that stuff.”

Collin Markle and Carolyn Eagle, both of Gwinn, took the course together.

They have different experience levels in snowmobiling.

Markle is more of the veteran, but he had a long list of things he was learning through the course: “How to ride safe, what to not do, what to do better, how to prevent crashing and stuff, better tips for riding on trails.”

Eagle’s education went beyond mere snowmobiling.

“I’m learning about hypothermia, how to prevent hypothermia and then what to do in certain situations,” Eagle said.

Eagle said she hasn’t ridden on a snowmobile as much as Markle, who has been snowmobiling since he was around 8 years old.

Markle said the activity — just going out in the snow — is fun.

“I like to go out in the winter,” he said.

It helps that they’re relatives who enjoy being in the outdoors.

“We’re cousins, so we share a bunch of the same stuff since we live right next to each other,” Eagle said. “He does more of the adventure stuff.”

For more information on snowmobiling in Michigan, visit the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ webpage at

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is