Jim Miesbauer, chatting as he stood next to a warm fire at the Douglas Trail parking lot in Douglas, paused suddenly in mid-sentence and looked south down the trail.
"A sled's coming," he said.
Not until several more seconds had passed did the whine of the engine reach the ears of the other members of the Byron Snow Bears snowmobile club. It was the afternoon of Jan. 28, and they were waiting in Douglas to offer free food and soft drinks to riders during the club's annual Trail Appreciation Day.
The trail had been quiet for the previous 30 minutes, and Miesbauer, 72, was pleased to see a rider, even if he didn't stop for a hot dog. Just by riding the trail, that snowmobiler was enjoying the fruits of the Byron's club's labors, and Miesbauer is... well, Snow Bears member Greg Kemple put it best: "Jim is the hub of the club."
Last week, while many residents of southern Minnesota were cursing the heavy, wet snow and firing up their snowblowers, Miesbauer went out to his pole barn north of Byron, climbed into the cab of the club's trail groomer and spent the next nine hours in happy, snowy solitude as he groomed mile after mile of snowmobile trails.
A day later, when the weather turned cold, those groomed trails froze into perfect conditions for hundreds of riders who had been itching for a chance to get out on their sleds, the Post Bulletin reported .
Miesbauer is paid a nominal fee for his services as a trail groomer, but the retired IBMer doesn't do it for the money.
"I just enjoy running equipment," he said. "I grew up on a farm and always enjoyed driving tractors and big trucks, and driving this groomer is just fun. These days I enjoy grooming almost as much as I do snowmobiling. It's really peaceful out there."
But Miesbauer's efforts are really just the finishing touches to an effort that began several months ago. Members of the Snow Bears, Stewartville Driftskippers, Kasson-Mantorville Snowdrifters and hundreds of other clubs across the state invest thousands of hours of volunteer labor getting the trails ready for that first magical snowfall of winter.
Dean Anderson of Rochester has been a Snow Bears member for about 10 years, and he's one of Miesbauer's first phone calls when there's work to be done.
"Jim will call me up and say, 'Dean, what are you doing tomorrow?' And I'll say 'Well, what are we doing on the trail?'" Anderson said with a smile. "I'm retired, so I get out and help Jim with a lot of the sign work before the season. We have to wait until the farmers are done harvesting so we can put the signs in, and in the woods, we try to do the trail work after the deer season so we don't conflict with the hunters. We have to do a lot of chainsaw work and brush-cutting, and we have a limbing saw, because we have to keep the brush higher than the grooming machine."
If Miesbauer is the "hub of the club," then the grooming machine is the club's engine. Snow Bears president Trevor Augenstein said the $200,000 machine ended up in Byron due to a lot of hard work by a lot of people — especially those who help stage the club's annual Great Southern Minnesota Grass Drag Nationals.
That event, held near Douglas each September, attracts thousands of participants and fans, but it's a lot of work.
"We couldn't do it ourselves, so a lot of clubs come together to help," Augenstein said.
"Clubs from Faribault, Austin, Kasson, Stewartville and others help out, and we share some of the proceeds with their clubs so they can get money from the grass drag, too. We're all snowmobilers, part of a big club, really."
The grass drag, which will mark its 24th year in September, makes it possible for the Snow Bears to have top-notch grooming equipment.
"That's the Cadillac of groomers," Miesbauer said on Jan. 28 as he looked at the grooming machine parked nearby. "And the nice thing is, it's a two-seater, so I can bring someone along and teach them how to groom trails."
When snow is abundant and trail use is heavy, Miesbauer and other groomers will groom the trails twice per week, and it's an all-day job. "You should be going about 7 to 9 miles per hour," he said. "For us, it's an 80-mile loop, and that machine will burn 65 gallons of diesel in one loop."
Much of the money for that fuel comes from snowmobile registration fees, which are $113.50 for a three-year state trail sticker. The state shares that money with the clubs that maintain the trails, and Augenstein said the state also helped defray the cost of the Byron club's new grooming machine.
"We are really fortunate," Augenstein said.
That good fortune, however, can be undercut by riders who use the trails improperly. While the Snow Bears groom a 13-mile stretch of the Douglas Trail, the club also maintains 30 miles of grant-in-aid trails around Oronoco, Byron and near Stewartville.
Without the cooperation of private landowners, those trails could not exist.
"Every year, we talk to landowners to get permission to run trails through their property," Augenstein said. "Some of those trails go right through someone's back yard, so we have to keep a good rapport with the landowners. Riders need to stay on the trails and respect the people who are generous enough to let us ride through their yards and on their fields. They don't get paid for letting us put the trail there, and without them, we'd all be stuck riding in the ditches. That wouldn't be good."
Right now, trail conditions in southeast Minnesota range from terrible to fairly good. Miesbauer said the Douglas Trail has a good base that is holding up quite well despite heavy snowmobile traffic in mid-January and Jan. 26's 40-degree warmth.
"But we could always use a few more inches of snow," he said.