This year’s snowstorms make the blood run hot for Fox Valley snowmobile club

By George Rawlinson


What little flesh Tony Pizzuto has left exposed quickly becomes encrusted with frost and cold as he takes a break during a recent ride with other members of the Cold Ducks Snowmobile Club. Fellow member Kim Moon is whisking past at high speed.

The sport is said to be hot fun for a cold, cold day, as well as a perfect antidote for cabin fever.

Across Canada and the United States, millions of snowmobilers hit the trails each winter, their growing participation partly attributed to the plea, “I need to get outdoors and do something.”

And what parent — or spouse, for that matter — hasn’t heard that at least 100,000 times?

With its rise in popularity, snowmobiling also has seen an avalanche of organized clubs. Today, there are thousands in the U.S. alone — many, according to the International Snowmobile Industry Association, serving as year-round social organizations.

Locally, the Elgin Cold Ducks Snowmobile Club combines camaraderie, family fun and a healthy respect for rules of the road, said club president Melissa Pizzuto, a 48-year-old resident of Dundee Township.

What’s more, their roads are far from the honking horns and ill-manneredmotorists associated with drive-time commuting.

“There is nothing like being on an open trail,” Pizzuto said. “The fresh snow … It’s so beautiful and it gives you a sense of peace and a chance to develop a better relationship with nature. Off the top of my head, I can tell you that I’ve seen deer, wild turkeys, rabbit tracks …”

50 miles of trail

Founded in 1972, the Cold Ducks are now more than 100 families strong.

A number of single men and women also are involved.

“Our membership is pretty much open to anyone,” Pizzuto said. Children under 18, however, have to have parental permission to become a Cold Duck.

Members are “strongly encouraged” to have their snowmobiles insured and registered.

“And safety equipment and helmets are a must,” Pizzuto said, adding that no Cold Duck has ever been seriously injured while snowmobiling.

“We have seven members, in fact, who are state of Illinois certified safety instructors.”

One of them, longtime Cold Duck and club trail boss Larry Ratzlaff, said winter is something he looks forward to.

“Oh, it’s a really great season when you’re out and about,” he said. “We have a lot of fun, but it’s responsible fun. There’s a lot of work involved, too.”

Each year, in fact, Cold Duck members spend some 1,000 man hours preparing their 50-mile local trail circuit. Most of that is in rural Burlington, Plato Center and Pingree Grove.

Pizzuto, who was introduced to snowmobiling by her husband Anthony, a lifelong enthusiast, said that signs are regularly in need of repair, reflectors have to be replaced and weeds have to be cut to ground level.

“It’s really labor intensive out there,” she said.

Someone else’s land

“Out there,” though, is generally someone’s property.

“That’s something I really want to stress,” Pizzuto began. “We are very protective of the rights of those landowners who give us permission and access to their property.”

Being “protective,” Pizzuto adds, means snowmobiling across only that land where the Cold Ducks are allowed access.

“To us, it’s very irritating to run across some irresponsible wild hare hot-rodding around,” Pizzuto said. “So when we have to, we put up caution tape to block an area.”

Caution tape, however, is not always an answer to illegal trespassing.

“I guess there are just some people who think that a snowmobile entitles them to go wherever they want,” Pizzuto said. She said Cold Ducks themselves are bound by their memberships to drive and act responsibly.

“We would never stand for that type of behavior.”

What the Cold Ducks do stand for is full enjoyment and understanding of the snowmobile.

The word “snowmobile” was originally a trademark coined in 1913 by Virgil White, a Ford automobile dealer in New Hampshire. There is, nevertheless, some disagreement as to who actually invented the snowmobile. Canadians, for example, would credit Quebec native Joseph Armand Bombardier. But according to Snowgoer, which bills itself as “the world’s No. 1 snowmobile magazine,” Bombardier was just one of a handful of early 20th century inventors — many in Quebec — who basically strapped an engine to a sled.

Not for the faint of wallet

History aside, the Cold Ducks offer classes twice a year in snowmobile safety and technique. Those classes are open to anyone age 12 or older. But what really makes the Cold Ducks the champagne of area clubs, so to speak, are the group outings members take to premier Wisconsin snowmobile spots, like those in Minocqua and Lac Du Flambeau.

“There might be 50 or 60 of us going to a particular point,” Pizzuto said. “We trailer up there and make arrangements with a hotel that’s close to the trails.”

Belonging to a snowmobile club, like snowmobiling itself, can get to be a bit pricey.

“It’s not something you do on a regular basis if you don’t have some disposable income,” Pizzuto said, “especially when there are kids coming along.”

She said snowmobiles themselves cost $5,500 to $9,000. Then there is gasoline, upkeep and safety equipment, as well as appropriate clothing and gear.

A good pair of comfort-rated boots, offering protection up to minus 60 degrees, will cost about $130. A deluxe snowmobile suit, with a thin, pliable foam lining, has a suggested retail price of $225. The basic needs are to conserve body heat and to prevent chilling, frostbite and wind and sunburn.

Every knowledgeable snowmobiler checks the weather report for the area in which he or she plans to cruise. Snowmobilers also should carry a pocket-sized wind-chill chart.

Once on the trails, the Cold Ducks ride in single file.

“You’re responsible for the person right behind you,” Pizzuto said. “For instance, when you cross a trail intersection, you make sure everyone stays together.”

One ride and you’re hooked

Not all Cold Ducks are at the same riding level or enjoy the same kind of trail runs, Pizzuto said.

“Some of our members will go for extended runs, maybe 150 miles at a time. But with kids, a lot of us prefer smaller loops with breaks in between.”

Those breaks often are necessary when the terrain is unusually bumpy.

“When the trails are rough, it’s tiring and you need some upper-body strength to maneuver,” Pizzuto said.

Still, she added, snowmobiling is an activity that even young children can enjoy, perhaps first as passengers, then as responsible drivers.

“It only takes one ride to get hooked,” Pizzuto said.

Rides were just what the Cold Ducks offered to local girls and boys last winter at Lords Park in an event sponsored by the Elgin Parks and Recreation Department. Those rides came free of charge, courtesy of the club.

“We enjoy doing things like that in the community,” Pizzuto said.

The Elgin Cold Ducks Snowmobile Club has its own Web site, which can be visited at

“We have membership applications available online, as well as club information,” Pizzuto said.

The club also has its own snow line at (847) 622-5477.

The recorded message concludes with a fitting farewell. “Happy Trails,” says the voice on the other end — which, incidentally, belongs to Pizzuto.