'Snow patrol' fighting rise in sled deaths
SAINT GERMAIN - When winter hits Wisconsin, you basically have two choices: let it beat you or beat it right back.
Tens of thousands of people choose to rage against the grip of winter by climbing on the back of a snowmobile. In the Northwoods, a team of Department of Natural Resources wardens makes sure all that raging is done within the law.
"When they do see us out there, word spreads like wildfire," said warden supervisor Dave Walz.
He and his team work a big chunk of snowmobiling country that includes Vilas County.
Part of the job is keeping speeding in check on streets and marked trails. Keeping snowmobilers at safe speeds can be challenging, as modern sleds are built for speeds in excess of 100 mph.
"That's the ultimate good that they enjoy the outdoors and they get out there but they're ridding responsible and safely," Walz said.
For almost a decade, the DNR has seen snowmobiling become safer. From a peak of 38 deaths in the 2004-05 season, to a low of 10 in 2011-12.
The numbers, however, are creeping back up. This season, the number of deaths is already at 15. Two fatalities occurred in Walz's territory the night before our visit.
That is leading to more aggressive shows of strength. On our visit, wardens looked for something as small as an expired registration sticker to stop a snowmobile and start a conversation about safety.
Of the 15 deaths this season, 14 were linked to speeding and nine were the result of drinking. Four came in the hours after taverns close, between 1 and 3 a.m.