The parking lot is the kind where you worry you might get a ding. But it’ll be in the hood of your sled, not your car door. There are about 70 snowmobiles in the lot when I arrive on a snowy eve last winter, and no apparent rhyme nor reason to the parking situation. Until you stop and look, and notice that the sleds are parked in packs, nose to tail, skis hugging the sled ahead of it.
And more sleds are coming, they rumble in over the top of the hill, fresh arrivals from the groomed trail, a snowmobile highway of sorts. Hands gripping the steering bars, there are old guys and young guys, women and kids, a helmet with a Mohawk, a puffy pink one-piece relic of a sledder suit.
And the thunder of a 2008 Yamaha Apex.
Gone is the Apex’s red and white factory paint job. Instead, the hood is pink and black, because piloting this one is Miss Cadillac, 2010. Also in pink, she pulls off her helmet and her blond hair falls out in greeting.
“I tell the guys, your sled is fastest, but mine is prettiest,” says Heather Dostal with a laugh. “No one else has an outfit like mine. I can go anywhere and everyone knows it’s me.”
She is beautiful and funny and almost shy. But her sled—not so shy. She is the first snowmobiler I meet at one of the most famous snowmobiling hubs in Northern Michigan: Lost Pines Lodge.
Lost Pines is a tiny bar, kitchen and hotel sitting on 500 acres in the Manistee National Forest near Harrietta. At its edges there are a lot more acres—976,043, actually—of national forest and other bars and restaurants that dot nearby Cadillac. Caberfae Peaks Ski Resort is not far.
If you’re heading out for a ride in Wexford County, you can bet at one point or many, you’ll find yourself pulling up to the best-known little secret on the trail. The 44-year-old resort has become the number one meet-up spot for snowmobilers along the trail, a place to convene where the snow is abundant and the cell phone signal scant.
It’s a regular stop for Heather and as many as 300 sleds on any given Saturday in February. And, today, Heather is having her first drink by 3 p.m.—a hot cocoa.
“We always end up here,” she says. “And everyone finds out who’s out, where they’re going, who came by and when. This is where we meet to make our plans and map our rides according to meals.”
All told, she has clocked 800 trail miles this year, taking in the scenery and downing guys with her pink snowmobile and matching getup.
“We love to race for fun, not money,” she says. “Except the guys get mad to get beat by a girl in pink.”
The lodge draws people from Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and all over Michigan. Inside the bar, riders and their helmets are plunked down at the long plank tables under the beer posters on the wall. One group of guys from Chicago passed Lost Pines six times in one day. Another rider had a friend all the way from Florida who had heard about this pint-sized place in the middle of a vast forest (“It’s famous!”). Another group of guys rents a house three months out of the year so they can come up and ride Wednesday through Sunday and hang out at Lost Pines all winter long.
Deedee and Rich Hrdlicka have driven seven hours north from Cleveland to stay at the lodge every winter since 1988. This year, their group numbers 12, ranging from ages 8 to 61. They come to ride as a family and enjoy the scenery, which is a postcard today in the fresh fallen snow.
The only problem with their tradition? “Putting up with Rick for that many years.”
This answer is big and booming and from Rich, holding a blue beer can with a ring of snow around the bottom. He’s laughing, he has helmet-head, and his wife is by his side. Their jackets are touching, but shrouded as they are in a force field of puffy and stout polyester snow gear, they’re not actually close to each other.
Rick Kahner is the man behind the bar and the guy behind the lodge. He’s got a cordless phone in one hand and he’s pulling a beer with the other. His parents, Ann and Alfred Kahner, built the resort in 1969. Alfred passed away in 2000, but Ann, 76, still works the kitchen. She’s better known as “Ma” or “Grandma” to the regulars and remembers a time when sleds went 30 miles per hour and ran on one cylinder.
“I don’t ride now,” she says. She’s wearing a turtleneck, a blue sweatshirt, jeans and tennis shoes. She’s everyone’s grandma—warm, friendly, loving. But also, she exudes an essence of two-stroke exhaust and could put every man in the bar in his place if she had to. She offers to make a burger or hot dog for me.
“Come on, sit down,” she insists.
She’s lived the better part of her life doing this, welcoming people and making meals and building her family here. Lost Pines also has chalets and condos to rent, its own gas pump out front and Artic Cat and Polaris sled rentals. It’s a minuscule village unto itself, an oasis beside the trail. The staff even rides to work on snowmobiles. (“All their friends envy that,” she says.)
While Ma runs the kitchen, Rick handles the bar, where the action is this afternoon. Jackets are thrown across tables, their bulk pushed to the middle so they don’t slide off. Helmets pack shelves on the wall, helmets line the tables, helmets pile on the floor. Bibs are unzipped and hanging from waists, suspenders looped around legs. Trail maps are folded and refolded. The guys (and a few gals) are hunched over them, their fingers tracing routes, out, then back, retracing their idea until they find their turn in the trail.
Rick offers trail conditions and ideas for routes. The trails near Lost Pines “are the best place to ride,” he says. “Harrietta will hold snow even when Cadillac doesn’t.” And he’s the guy who would know: in peak season, the groomer comes by every day to share the trail intel.
At Rick’s side is Wolf. He’s German, full name Wolfgang Mueller, wearing a ball cap and a sweatshirt with gigantic lettering that takes me a bit to sort out what it says. “Snowmobiling is life, live it.”
“I’ve served my country and God,” he says. And for 12 years, he’s served the crew at Lost Pines. “I pump gas, I do rentals, I tend bar. My only rule is you can’t drink out there and you can’t smoke in here.”
He speaks German to me to raise a smile, and it works. Wolf is as essential to the character of the bar as the vintage photos framed on the wall, the stuffed jackalope, the fifths lined up by the register. He heads outside for a gas sale, “$76 in gas on a credit card,” he hollers back to Rick.
I join the longest table. Four different groups line it, some friends, some strangers, but all talking to one another. I notice Scott Wendecker’s chair is on wheels. He’s a paraplegic. I look twice to be sure, yes, he’s wearing snow gear.
“How?” I say.
“Motorcycle accident, 1984” he says.
“No, I mean how can you ride?”
He nods out the front window at his sled and back at Rick behind the bar. When it’s time to go, Rick, or another friend helps him across the lumpy parking lot and onto his sled. The wheelchair is folded up and kept next to the side door at Lost Pines. Scott uses hand controls to navigate an average 125 miles a day. His best year he rode 2,600 miles, his worst, 750.
The next question: “Why?”
“Just look out at that field,” he says. At the moment, there are about two dozen sleds slicing through the powder on the hills trying to eat up every bit of the fresh stuff. Peels of snow land on their hoods, more of the white stuff shoots from under the tracks. They are having, without a doubt, a blast.
“We all feel like little kids out there,” he says.
It’s the perfect answer. The fun, the friends, the thrill, the beauty. And it’s true. I know it is, having grown up in a one-piece snowmobile suit with a belt, sliding off the flat seat of a 1981 Ski-Doo with my dad.
It’s a solitary sport on one hand, the quiet inside the ride itself, long sweet stretches of open trail. On the other, it’s social, a stop along a partially frozen river, standing on the tiny back-road bridge and watching ice chunks ride the current. With your father, perhaps, unwrapping a sandwich, planning the next stretch.
Forget the high-speed crashes, the bad reputation and the drinking. (Ma says, “some people always have, always will.”) But the majority of them ride because they’ve stood in the middle of the forest at night. Stood with their engines silent and their helmets off, looking up at the stillness of a winter sky. Their breath in the air, their hands cold and cupped over the warmth of a hood exhaust. Their friend next to them, telling a story, mostly untrue. They are here to be together, enjoying the most remote spots in Northern Michigan, places most people will never see.
The story begins again when I stop in at Coyote Crossing, a restaurant up the trail in Cadillac. Their parking lot is packed with sleds too, the doorway clogged with coats and helmets, and not a seat left in the place.
“Over here, we’ll make room!” It’s the pink lady again, Heather. I feel like a stalker for a fraction of a second. But it’s not my fault she radiates pink and vibrant amid a sea of black sledder suits. She left Lost Pines hours ago, but here she is again on the circuit along the trail. She passes me a basket of deep-fried green beans. “Try these, you’ll love them.”
“Where to next?” I ask.
“We’re heading back to Lost Pines to see what everyone is doing tonight.” She laughs, and so do I.
Kandace Chapple is a freelance writer and can be reached at kandacechapple.com.
This article and additional photos are featured in the January 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.