LAND O' LAKES, Wis. – Bev Dittmar squinted in the bright sunlight as she straddled her 2016 Ski-Doo and unfolded her snowmobile trail map.
As leader of the green team, it was Dittmar's responsibility to get her group of 16 snowmobilers back to Eagle River following lunch at a restaurant in the Vilas County community of Land O' Lakes. But as thermometers inched up above freezing, trail conditions were getting icier, particularly on curves.
Dittmar was easy to pick out among the 85 snowmobilers parked end to end in rows on the snow in front of Gateway Lodge – her sled flew two triangular flags, one that said "Women on Snow" and another that said "Bev." Other team leaders carried the same type of flags but in different colors and names.
Dittmar is a trailblazer and the reason so many snowmobilers gathered on a recent Saturday. Dittmar is a founder of Women on Snow, a group of snowmobile enthusiasts who gather on the last weekend of January every year in Eagle River to ride their sleds and have fun. The only requirements for participants are an enthusiasm for snowmobiling and to be at least 21.
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Women on Snow started in 1986.
"In those days, there weren't too many women who rode their own sled. If you rode, you rode behind your husband," said Dittmar, who was accompanied by her two daughters and granddaughter this year. "We don't get the husbands' leftover sleds anymore."
This year, 87 women signed up for the weekend gathering, mostly from the Midwest but some from as far away as Colorado, Missouri, Florida and Texas. They ranged in age from 21 to 80 – making Dittmar the lone octogenarian of the group.
Despite the off-and-on snowfall over the last few winters, Wisconsin leads the nation in registered snowmobiles, 211,000, and snowmobile trail miles, 25,000.
Though many families and couples ride snowmobiles, the sport skews decidedly male – 88 percent, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association.
The number of female snowmobilers was paltry back in the 1980s, too, when Women on Snow was formed in Eagle River to teach women how to operate snowmobiles and promote the sport among women. The group also hoped to raise awareness among snowmobile manufacturers that it wasn't only men who enjoy driving the mechanized sleds.
Back then it was harder to find snowmobile clothing that fit women and the machines were more difficult to handle, said Judy Pacanowski, Women on Snow director.
"I think we've made an impact but we're still far behind. When women go to purchase a snowmobile, they're still not taken seriously. It's like 'What are you doing here?' " said Pacanowski, who lives in Eagle River.
This year, 17 women were first-time Women on Snow participants, a bit more than normal, something organizers attribute to word of mouth and social media from the group's Facebook page. The first-timers wore pink "Women on Snow" ball caps, which are exchanged for the veterans' black caps at the Saturday night banquet.
Many hats were adorned with annual pins, attached like chain links. As one of the few who has been to every Women on Snow event, Dittmar left all 32 of her pins at home "otherwise my hat would weigh five pounds," she said.
Many Women on Snow participants have been coming for years and their daughters and granddaughters join them as soon as they turn 21.
Paula Hirt towed a snowmobile trailer from her Lake Zurich, Ill., home accompanied by her daughters Kelley, 24, and Darcy, 22. Twenty years ago, Paula Hirt heard about Women on Snow from a friend and she hasn't missed a year since.
"It's awesome. It's so much fun. We help each other," Paula Hirt said as she waited for others in her group to gas up at a station in Land O' Lakes. "It's nice having men but we don't need them."
Both Kelley Hirt and her sister Darcy joined the group as soon as they were old enough.
"It's probably the most fun thing about turning 21," Darcy Hirt said.
Sue Perry of Rockford, Ill., has also come for 32 years.
"They were going to stop after five years but everyone whined and hollered so much. They realized we were having so much fun," Perry said.
The cost this year was $300 per person, which included two nights lodging, meals and gas for snowmobiles. Participants split into six groups to head in different directions on the many miles of trails in Vilas County because 85 snowmobiles traveling behind each other would create quite a bottleneck. Some participants always travel with the same group, renewing friendships once a year, and others are randomly assigned to groups.
On this particular Saturday, each group drove 80 to 100 miles before congregating at their hotel for the banquet.
"The first years we came, we all were riding our husbands' sleds. Now I've had my new sled for five years," said Jacki Hildenbrandt of Island Lake, Ill.
The sport is not cheap, a factor that might prevent some women from participating, said Pacanowski, noting that a $15,000 machine that can be used only from the end of December until March, as long as there's enough snow, can be a barrier. Also, some women might not feel comfortable driving a high-speed machine.
"When women go out with the men snowmobiling, they can't usually handle the snowmobile as good and they can't ride as fast and I think they get intimidated. When they come to Women on Snow, we help each other," Pacanowski said.
Christine Jourdain, executive director of the American Council of Snowmobile Associations, said snowmobile manufacturers used to make sleds with longer seats that could easily fit a passenger. But fewer sleds are now built with long seats, meaning if women want to snowmobile, they have to drive one. And it's possible fewer women took up the sport following the most recent economic depression.
"We saw our numbers all fall in sales and registrations. A lot of people sold their snowmobiles or just kept one," Jourdain said.
Heather Read was wearing a pink hat, meaning she was attending her first Women on Snow. She heard about the group from a friend. Her husband was watching their 15-month-old daughter at home in Austin, Minn.
"No guys. Women getting together for a good time and having a chance to snowmobile. I think it's a great idea," said Read, who plans to bring her daughter in two decades as soon as she's old enough.
After a lunch of chicken noodle soup, sandwiches, salad and brownies washed down with coffee, soda, bottles of beer and mixed drinks, it was time to head back to Eagle River.
Dittmar started her engine and on cue, the rest of the green team's snowmobiles roared to life. She smiled, flipped down her helmet visor and gunned her machine as she headed down the trail.