UPDATE: Section of western UP snowmobile trail to be closed this season

Trail 2 in Wakefield.
Trail 2 in Wakefield.(Gogebic Range Trail Authority)
Published: Oct. 26, 2022 at 8:13 PM EDT
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WAKEFIELD, Mich. (WLUC) - A vital stretch for snowmobilers in far western Gogebic County will be closed this season as efforts to reconnect the trail have been unsuccessful.

The Gogebic Range Trail Authority (GRTA) made that announcement Wednesday, following more than a month of conversation with several government agencies.

The trail authority says Michigan Snowmobile Trail 2 will be closed from Sunday Lake in Wakefield to Ramsay Crossing in Bessemer Township. That section of trail is on land owned by Midwest Family Ski Resorts. The company - which just bought the property - says it has to close the trail because of safety and liability concerns.

With nearly 3,000 riders traveling the route a day during a peak weekend, the trail authority calls it vital snowmobile route and says this is an economically catastrophic situation. It is still working to reconnect the trail but says it won’t happen before this winter begins.

The GRTA Board of Directors asks businesses across the Midwest who support Midwest snowmobiling to write letters of support and impact. They can be mailed to GRTA, 708 W Longyear St, Bessemer, MI 49911. Emails can be sent to info@gogebicrangeta.org.

The trail authority suggests calling state Rep. Greg Markkanen, R-Hancock, and state Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, and demand their action in saving snowmobile Trail 2 and building phase 3 of the Iron Belle Trail.

Midwest Family Ski Resorts released the following statement Thursday morning:

“Midwest Family Ski Resorts would like to reemphasize that our entire team and ownership care deeply about the community and understand the importance of the snowmobile trail to the region, local businesses, and visitors.

“That is why, shortly after purchasing the resort, we contacted the DNR and the Trail Authority to discuss our safety concerns with the existing Trail 2.  Snowriver is in a unique position as the snowmobile trail cuts through the heart of both of our base areas resulting in thousands of snowmobilers crossing paths with thousands of our guests, including many families with young children.  One of our primary responsibilities is to keep our guests safe and to maintain adequate insurance for our guests and our business.  This obligation should not be mistaken for lack of empathy or commitment to the community – we have made every effort to accommodate the trail while remaining within the parameters required to safely operate our business.

“The risk of injury is not hypothetical.  Two seasons ago, a pedestrian was seriously injured and hospitalized after being struck by a snowmobiler, resulting in a lawsuit against the ski area.  As a result, our insurance company will no longer insure our guests or our business for snowmobile trail accidents.  Without adequate insurance from another source, it would be irresponsible to our guests, our business and our employees to continue a trail through the resort.

“From the beginning, we’ve come to the table for discussions with the DNR, the Trail Authority, the City of Wakefield, and others regarding options for this winter.  At their request, we tried to work out a solution for one more winter of use on our property if certain safeguards were put in place and adequate insurance could be found.  Unfortunately, all attempts to obtain insurance by Snowriver, the DNR, the Trail Authority, and the Townships have been unsuccessful.

“While the history of the trail has involved several moves, we understand the passion surrounding this transition.  We continue to support a solution for an alternative route through the community, and have offered financial assistance to help with a rerouting.

“Snowriver Mountain Resort is beginning a decades-long commitment to enhance the resort and invest in the region. We are investing millions of dollars in infrastructure, from our base and lodging facilities to a new high-speed lift next summer.  Our team has been working tirelessly to improve the facility and get ready to welcome guests in less than a month’s time. We eagerly await the start of the resort’s 63rd season and look forward to building upon the legacy of the resort as a cornerstone of the region’s economy and an integral member of the community.”

The entire statement from the Gogebic Range Trail Authority is below:

“The GRTA regrets to confirm that Michigan snowmobile trail 2 in far western Gogebic County will be closed this season from Sunday Lake in Wakefield to Ramsay Crossing in Bessemer Township.

“Snowmobile trail 2 is the western most gateway to thousands of miles of world-renowned snowmobile trails in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. On peak holiday weekends nearly 3,000 snowmobiles a day travel the route. Currently there is no agreed upon road route or other option with any township or other governmental entity to re-connect the trail. The club is starting those efforts and seeks community support.

“We sincerely thank the City of Wakefield’s Robert Brown & Mike Zeckovich, Bessemer and Wakefield Township Supervisors Jeff Randall and Mandy Lake, Michigan DNR Law Enforcement Officer Jennifer Hanson, Rep. Greg Markkanen, and the Michigan DNR for standing by the GRTA as we wade through this economically catastrophic situation.

“In our first in-person meeting with Midwest Family Ski Resorts (owner of SnowRiver Mountain Resort) September 28th, they made it clear their interests were preventing snowmobilers from entering their property. Midwest Family Ski Resorts stated they do not view snowmobiling as a family friendly sport compatible with “their style of family-friendly” business. Midwest Family Ski Resorts outlined three ultimatums to achieve a one year temporary trail. Firstly they requested local stakeholders provide a $12 million excess layer liability policy in addition to the $2 million already provided; the city of Wakefield, Townships of Wakefield and Bessemer, and the Michigan DNR indemnify Midwest Family Ski Resorts; and finally a modest reroute of the trail around the old Indianhead summit. Midwest’s owner Charles Skinner expected all costs be the responsibility of local governments or other various stakeholders but suggested they would donate $5k towards the costs.

“Within a few days after that meeting it was relayed back to Midwest Family Ski Resorts that indemnification wasn’t something local governments could lawfully provide. Additionally, no local government was able to get anywhere with their insurance providers. The feedback from insurance providers was the request lacked precedence and risk due to stout Michigan landowner liability protections. Insuring snowmobiles beyond that as a governmental entity would be uncharted territory and cost prohibitive. As communications continued Midwest Family Ski Resorts reduced their insurance coverage request down to $5 million and said they’d ask their insurance provider for a quote since all other sources returned no-quotes. During the wait for feedback on their investigative efforts our partners at the MDNR requested the state’s Attorney General’s office to offer a one-on-one meeting with Midwest Family Ski Resort’s team. On October 14th GRTA followed MDNR communication with an offer to purchase a small sliver of land around the exterior of their property to fully vacate any perceived liability exposure. Midwest’s concern centered on safety and liability and these solutions resolved both. The club was only able to offer that purchase gesture after being approached by regional donors looking to solve the issue and provide access.

“On the evening of October 18th during a GRTA board meeting Mr. Skinner issued a statement to the GRTA expressing the conclusion of their efforts working with GRTA, our communities, and the MDNR to save Snowmobile Trail 2. Skinner’s team said on the phone the primary hurdle was their insurance company allegedly now just becoming aware of the snowmobile trail on their property. Skinner’s team elaborated further that their insurance provider, Safehold Insurance, would not insure them going forward if they engaged in snowmobile activities across the property. Safehold is the same vendor the previous owners utilized the last 7-years the trail ran on the property. This was shocking news as the previous ownership advertised and offered snowmobile rentals from their Indianhead location. Complicating our understanding is that Safehold also insures another U.P. ski hill that advertises and markets to snowmobilers, Ski-Brule of Iron River, MI.

“We call on businesses across the Midwest who support Midwest snowmobiling to start drafting your letter of support and impact. We ask you – the snowmobilers and skiers – to draft your letters of support and impact. You can mail them to GRTA, 708 W Longyear ST, Bessemer, MI 49911. You can email them to info@gogebicrangeta.org. Please, contact your local representative and senator and demand their action in saving snowmobile trail 2 and building phase 3 of the Iron Belle Trail through this difficult area. It’s time the Western U.P. permanently connects its tremendous trails for the benefit of all.”