Fred Ideker with some of his “sleds.” The two red machines just behind him are used by his daughters. CRAIG MOORHEAD/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS
Fred Ideker with some of his “sleds.” The two red machines just behind him are used by his daughters. CRAIG MOORHEAD/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS
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“Every sled I've had has a story behind it,” Fred Ideker of Spring Grove said. “I could probably talk for hours about that, if we had the time.”

Snowmobiles, also known affectionately as “sleds” to riders, have been a part of Fred's life since he was 6 years old. That's when a neighbor stopped at the Ideker farm on a new self-propelled snow machine.

“It was the first one seen on the ridge where I grew up,” he noted. “He took me for a ride, and that was it for me... My parents later bought a pair of brand-new Raider snowmobiles still in the box for about $1,200.”

Some assembly was required before those sleds were ready to go, but “pretty soon all the neighbors would get together and go out for a ride,” Fred recalled. “By the time I was 10, my dad let me ride.”

He said his parents were members of the Caledonia Snow Gophers for quite a few years and he served on its board of directors for a while.

“Right now I have about a dozen sleds, but I've had up to 15,” Fred said. “The older ones aren't really worth much to anybody else but me. But to me they're pretty much priceless. I play with them all the time.”

Fred admitted that he has probably had about 30 snowmobiles over the years.

“Most were either given to me or bought cheaply. The first one I bought came from a classmate, and cost about $10,” he said. “It had been sitting outdoors for about five years and the engine was locked up. I took it home and worked on it. Eventually, I got it to run, and I drove it for almost five years. My sleds range from 1970 models to 2005.”

Friends, family and many others have given him parts for his sleds. “Sometimes I can throw them together and make something work,” he said. “One day I walked into an auction and there was a snowmobile that nobody was bidding on. The auctioneer finally asked for $10 and I bid. But when I looked at the sled, the engine was frozen. I hauled it home and unbolted the engine. Now I'm looking at trying to adapt a 1970 Mercury snowmobile engine to fit into that Ski Do. The old Mercury Lightning sled is in pretty rough shape, but the motor still runs.”

Fred's daughters Julie (27), Hailey (13) and Emily (10) all like to ride, as does his fiancée, Annette Peterson.

“Just last weekend I let Emily solo,” Fred grinned.

“She's also his right-hand helper in the garage,” Annette added. “They work on snowmobiles together.”

Today's snowmobiles boast improved suspensions for much smoother rides, bigger engines and niceties such as electric start and reverse gear, Fred said. They are also more durable than earlier versions – at least in general.

“I can remember working on a sled for about three days, riding for a half-day, then having to work on it again,” he chuckled. “They've got engines up to 1100 cc (cubic centimeters) or so these days. When I was getting into snowmobiling 440 cc was about as big as they got.”

All that horsepower sometimes comes at a cost, however. Fred and Annette said riders who are going too fast miss much of the appeal of local trails, which are “as good as any out there.”

Annette said her parents live near Alexandria, on a lake. A recent snowmobile event held on that flat surface was clocking riders via radar going flat out on a quarter-mile run.

“They (her parents) didn't stick around to listen to all of it, but the last run they announced was 156 miles per hour,” she noted.

Fred produced a photo album of snowmobile trips he's taken — including rides in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, Michigan, and elsewhere.

“We enjoy recreational riding,” he said. “It's not really sport riding. The trails around here aren't designed for speed anyway, and we don't ride fast.”

He described the rides they take as leisurely trips through the woods, going only as fast as the trails allow. He said they hardly ever go faster than 20 to 30 miles per hour.

“We're not out to scare the wildlife. There's too much nice stuff to see to ride fast and just try to dodge trees,” Fred said. “Sometimes you ask a rider what they saw on the trail and they'll say, 'nothing.' We could give you a whole story about all of the things we see.”

Fred and Annette agree that being a respectful rider is important to ensure the future of local snowmobile trails.

“When riders go off the trail they upset the landowners. And without them we've got nothing,” Fred said. “Sometimes it's a real challenge for our snowmobile clubs, trying to keep landowners happy and our trails going.”

Both agreed that riding with family and friends is still what snowmobiling is about.

“There's no age limit to who your circle of friends can be,” Annette said. “They could be 9 years old or 90. He's got a pretty tight-knit group of friends he likes to go with.”

One of their favorite rides was on a cold crisp night with a full moon. “We took off about 10 p.m. and were gone until about 1:30 or 2. I was taking video through the woods, it was so bright,” she recalled. “You could see the deer in the distance. We just drove slowly, and didn't spook them at all.”

She added that many times, in the daylight, riders can see eagles in the trees and they followed a coyote one night.

“It's a unique wildlife area around here and a lot of it you would never see except for these trails,” Annette said.

“I tried to teach my girls at a young age to respect the landowners' trails,” Fred added. “If you see them having trouble with something you stop and help. You don't just whiz by. You wave to them (landowners) when you see them, and you always stay on the trail. Be nice to people. That's the biggest thing. It's great when I can get all three of my girls together and we all go out for a ride. Spending time together with the family is the best part of it. Go out and show them the beauty we have around us. This hobby is one of the only ways you'll get to see some of this stuff.”