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Any Excuse to Hop on 4-Wheeler for Ride Will Do

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

CLOQUET VALLEY STATE FOREST, Minn. (MCT) - Deep inside her red and black helmet, Rebecca Rutka wore a big smile. The 8-year-old was just where she wanted to be, riding on the second seat of her mom's red four-wheeler.

Rebecca was among 16 of us on a four-wheeler trail ride north of Duluth on this sunny Sunday in July. Her mom, Patti Rutka of Saginaw, is president of the North Shore ATV Club.

Wayne Laakso, a member of the club from Proctor, put the ride together, assembling a group whose ages ranged from 8 to 65. Most are members of the North Shore or Arrowhead ATV clubs.

Laakso needs little excuse to throw together a ride, even in the heat and dust of midsummer.

"Wayne would ride every day of his life," said his wife, Eileen Laakso.

She's somewhere in this column of riders, too, snaking along old logging roads, forest management roads and narrow ATV trails. We had started at the Shaw Cemetery, just north of the Three Lakes Road, and were winding our way to Dick Ronning's deer shack near Comstock Lake for lunch.

Before the day was over, we would ride 39 miles. Wayne Laakso led the way, and Dean Claussen of Hermantown brought up the rear. Claussen always brings up the rear.

"I like to look around," he said. "That's why I stay back there."

He rides a lime green Arctic Cat 500 that's hard to miss.

"When I see the ditch pickle coming, I know everyone is there," Laakso said, referring to Claussen.

The morning was cool, and a recent rain had dampened the dust on the trails. We moved along at an easy pace, nearly always between 5 and 15 mph. The column was elastic, riders sometimes spreading out, sometimes bunching together, as the terrain dictated.

The rule on these group rides is always the same: Each rider is responsible for the rider behind him. That way nobody gets marooned if something goes wrong.

The country was green, if not dramatic. We traveled through second-growth forests of aspen and birch and spruce. At times the trail weaved through hallways of popple. Sometimes it serpentined through lush ferns.

The most common scent was a pleasant blend of crushed grass and four-stroke exhaust.

GOAL OF 1,000 MILES

At one point, we bushwhacked through the forest for a few hundred yards. We traveled in deep ruts, bounced over deadfall trees and climbed a small berm of earth. Our machines - models from 350cc to 800cc - made easy work of the challenges. There's a reason these machines are called all-terrain vehicles. They are amazing, powerful rigs capable of going almost anywhere.

Wayne Laakso explained that we made the detour to avoid a wet area.

"I've seen 'em up to their handlebars in there in the spring," he said.

By midday, we had covered 16 miles and had found Ronning's deer shack. Laakso fired up the grill for hot dogs. While we waited to eat, Paul Rutka talked about how much his family enjoys riding.

"We do cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, but we can see so much more this way," said Rutka, who is a regional director for the All-Terrain Vehicle Association of Minnesota. "Our goal is to hit 1,000 miles this summer before the snow flies. We're at about 350 so far."

Nathen Rutka, 11, was also along for this ride, plopped on the rear seat of his dad's or mom's machine. He'll take his ATV safety course in August and after he turns 12 in December, he'll be able to ride machines larger than 90cc.

Rebecca Rutka knows why she likes riding with her family.

"It's fun being out here because you see nature," she said. "I've seen deer, birds - and flies."

"How about the beavers?" her mom asked.

"Yeah, beaver - and moose," she said.

Wayne Laakso rides about 2,500 miles a year, more of it on snow than on dirt, he said. But he said the average rider covers about 1,000 miles a year.

Gas prices, so far, haven't affected ATV riders much, Laakso said. A four-wheeler can go all day on two or three gallons of gas.

"And generally, when we go riding, it's within 30 miles of home," he said. "We're not going to go to Bemidji to ride because we don't know the trails to ride."

LONG LOOP REACHES ITS END

Full of hot dogs and chips, we climbed back on our machines to complete our loop. I was riding a beefy Can-Am Outlander 800, a demo model from Duluth Lawn & Sport. It is among the largest four-wheelers made. Patti Rutka borrowed it for part of the ride and filed this report: "You could get in trouble real fast on that thing."

I offered it to other members of the group, but they declined.

"We might want one," someone said.

The day warmed. The trails dried out. The dust factor increased. Some riders wore goggles to keep the dust out of their eyes. The rest of us simply put up with it and wore dirty smudges on our cheeks.

By the time we were back at the cemetery, we had ridden for six hours. And Rebecca Rutka was still smiling.

(c) 2006, Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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