GPS + Northwoods + winter spells trouble

Serene Northwoods scenery. Mild winter weather. Leisurely timetable. GPS set.

What’s wrong with this picture? The GPS – and our assumption that a road can be driven just because it looks cleared.

Two friends and I veered onto lesser-traveled roads because there was no reason to rush during a 325-mile trip from Bayfield to Madison. This is how we reached the remote Delta Diner, in southern Bayfield County, to feast on thin and sweet Norwegian pancakes laced with jalapeno bits, plus other pleasantly unconventional breakfast entrees.

Delta, population 240, doesn’t show up on my state map, although online directions are straightforward. So the diner was easy to find, but our driver turned on her GPS to maneuver us toward an impromptu stop: Spider Lake Lodge, near Hayward, a 1923 fishing camp with stylish cabin furniture developed by the inn owners, who also are professional interior decorators.

I hope to actually see it in person someday.

Our car sashayed in and near Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, a pristine, peaceful and complex web of roads that led into Sawyer County. You could say we were contently sidetracked, until the GPS guided us onto Lake Helene Road in the town of Spider Lake.

Loretta immediately thought the road seemed “softer,” but when she tried to reverse her path, the car slid into soft snow that would cover my knee as Kathy and I tried in vain to push us back on track.

The fat Cadillac wouldn’t budge. Snow reached the axle. Our cell phones were out of range. We were helpless, isolated and out of touch with the world.

We also are smart, logical women who had strong opinions about how to proceed during the four hours of daylight that remained. The closest house was a couple of miles away, we learned later, but a trio of snowmobilers appeared before anybody started walking.

The town road, we learned, was only maintained as a wide, groomed snowmobile route in winter. No signage had hinted of this. No GPS had sensed this.

The snowmobile drivers – Craig Bennett, Gary Bluemel and Kert Harenda of the Muskego area – pushed the car with no success, then made note of our exact location and promised to send a tow truck our way.

They took off, and we waited. It would be two hours before we would resume our travels, which sounds like no big deal, unless you’re in the position of not knowing how the story would end.

We wondered if the guys would follow through. We talked about being grateful for sunny, windless weather. We differed about whether to walk or stay with the vehicle, but believed we could survive a night in the car.

Eventually, a half-dozen other snowmobiles showed up. The drivers cheerfully assessed the situation and ganged up to lift the car back onto the trail. Their muscle worked, and we were out of our predicament just as a tow truck from Hayward arrived.

The six unnamed angels in snowmobile suits – from the Twin Cities – refused payment for their help. The tow truck, without even needing to budge its winch, cost us $40, but I’m certainly not complaining.

I’m also not totally naive about snowmobiling – that is how neighbors transported me for babysitting jobs in the 1970s, and it is how my dad used to traverse Lake Winnebago during ice fishing season.

But until this month, I had no inkling that town roads could be maintained as little more than snowmobile trails during winter.

Such a set-up is not uncommon – especially in sparsely populated northern Wisconsin, says Gary Eddy Jr., snowmobile and ATV administrator for the state Department of Natural Resources. “Any municipality could enact an ordinance designating a public road as a snowmobile route,” he says, as long as maps and signage explain this.

Greg Peterson, Sawyer County snowmobile coordinator, estimates that 20 percent of the 600 miles of snowmobile trails in the Hayward Lakes area double as little-traveled town roads. “They’re still public roads but not frequently plowed,” he says.

Roads groomed for snowmobiling “will create an appearance that they are plowed,” notes Brian Hucker, Spider Lake Town Board chairman. “But there’s a big difference in the weight they support.” The routes aren’t designed for, say, Cadillacs.

And the average GPS isn’t reliable when navigating the remote Northwoods. “I have myriad stories,” Brian says, “involving summer as well as winter.”

Still unanswered: How is the average driver to know what she’s getting into? Snowmobile drivers carry trail maps, but I see no tourism website or map that warns car drivers about what to expect on some rural roads during winter.

The lack of proper signage also is not unprecedented, Gary Eddy Jr. says, because snowmobile clubs and townships can get into a tussle about who should pay to post them.

Wisconsin calls itself the birthplace of snowmobiling, mainly because of Carl Eliason’s 1924 motorized toboggan. The patented contraption in Sayner (Vilas County) led to an association with Polaris Industries, which began manufacturing snowmobiles in Minnesota in 1955.

Only one of Wisconsin’s 72 counties (Menominee) does not have snowmobile trails, and the DNR reports that at least 18,700 miles of snowmobile trails exist in the state. More than 200,000 snowmobiles are registered in Wisconsin.

Most trails are maintained or paid for by volunteers, and the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs considers Wisconsin to be one of the top three snowmobiling destinations in the world. The association tallies about 25,000 miles of trails and at least 570 snowmobile clubs.

Eagle River considers itself the Snowmobile Capital of the World, with 500 miles of trails in the area (Vilas County) and the annual World Championship Snowmobile Derby in January. Snowmobiles can be rented. For more: www.snowmobileeagleriver.com, 800-359-6315.

For more about snowmobiling in Wisconsin, go to www.travelwisconsin.com and look for Old Man Winter.

For more about Delta Diner, 14385 Hwy. H, Delta: www.deltadiner.com, 715-372-6666. Consider Pedro’s Mex Benny – like eggs benedict, only with a meaty Tex-Mex sauce, under cornbread that contains kernels of corn. Lighter and sweeter: the Dutch Baby, a souffle-like pancake.

For more about Spider Lake Lodge, 10472 W. Murphy Blvd., Hayward: www.spiderlakelodge.com, 715-462-3793. Rely on the online lodge map, not your GPS, and call before visiting.