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As winter hits mid-stride, James Valley Drift Skippers snowmobile club rides into 47th year

During the winter of 1968, the main form of transportation through the snowy streets of Mitchell was a snowmobile. The winter of 1968-69 is often referred to as the "year of the snow," and it is also the same time that the James Valley Drift Skip...

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Members of the James Valley Drift Skippers snowmobile club participate in the club's annual ride in the Black Hills in February 2014. (Submitted photo)

During the winter of 1968, the main form of transportation through the snowy streets of Mitchell was a snowmobile.

The winter of 1968-69 is often referred to as the “year of the snow,” and it is also the same time that the James Valley Drift Skippers - a local snowmobile enthusiasts club - was born.

A total of 58 inches of snow fell and there were days and days of blizzard conditions. This prompted many to purchase snowmobiles out of necessity.

Amid the “year of the snow,” Mitchell residents used the snowmobiles to assist in emergency, including reaching isolated individuals, feeding stranded cattle, delivering food or medicine, assisting in search operations and also giving nurses a ride to catch their shift at the hospital.

The people who purchased snowmobiles decided this would be a good time to develop a club to support their love of the outdoor activity. And so the first meeting of the James Valley Drift Skippers commenced on Dec. 30, 1970 with 67 members in attendance.

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The first year of activities included frequent rides to area communities, a box social and and the first annual ride to the Black Hills, a tradition that continues today.

Keith Crago, the club’s current president, remembers when it all began nearly 50 years ago and how club members used to ride every Friday night to Mount Vernon.

Crago said nearly 100 people expressed interest in the snowmobile club when it first began, all gathering at the Holiday Inn in Mitchell for one of the first meetings held for the Drift Skippers.

“Just about everyone in this town that had a snowmobile wanted in the club,” Crago said.

More than 46 years later, the club includes members from not just Mitchell, but surrounding communities including Ethan and Tripp.

Still going strong

But what has kept the Drift Skippers club alive and thriving all these years is not the amount of members enrolled with the group, but the time they’ve spent together, according to Bill Pitz.

Pitz, a member of the James Valley Drift Skippers since 2000, has enjoyed every second of it.

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“One of the nice things is if you want to go out snowmobiling, you can make a few phone calls out to some people and you don’t have to go by yourself,” Pitz said. “You can get people together to go. They can help you out if you get stuck.”

Approximately 35 families are involved with the club, and while that total is lower than the number of club members upon the group’s inception, Pitz and other members are not worried about the club dying anytime soon.

Pitz said he first joined because of a friend who recommended it. And now he’s friends with everyone in the club.

“We’re a family,” Pitz said.

The club meets monthly year-round and makes a point to continue having several social gatherings throughout the year.

The club is open to anyone interested in snowmobiles, both Pitz and Crago said. They are also a part of the South Dakota Snowmobile Association, which several members make the trip to the annual convention each year.

The group also takes a trip to the Black Hills annually. But for many, this continues several times throughout the snowmobile season.

“You got people who all want to go out riding and we call each other and see who wants to go,” Pitz said.

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While it might be one of the older clubs around Mitchell, both Pitz and Crago agreed they aren’t the largest. But they still make a point to do their part in the community.

Pitz said the James Valley Drift Skippers donate time and money to the Corn Palace Shrine Circus every year, and they also give to the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree.

The club members also look out for one another on a personal level, Pitz said. If a club member has medical issues or family problems where hospital bills are too high, the club will help them out, too.

But at the end of the day, Pitz said, it’s all about having a good time.

“It’s not really a formal club - it’s a social club,” Pitz said. “We all just get together and have fun.”

Maintaining a trail

In 2010, the club took on a new task: a snowmobile trail.

Located north of town, the trail is maintained by the James Valley Drift Skippers. It’s approximately 38 miles long and starts on North Harmon Drive near Highway 37, running along to meet up with a trail near Huron, Pitz said. Together, it makes up the Heartland Trail.

The snowmobile trail system in South Dakota is all handled and funded by the state Game, Fish and Parks and in December, the club was given a new groomer to help maintain the local trail, according to club member Dean VanderHamm.

The season is short, as it always depends on the amount of snow. So signs are put up for the trail approximately in November each year, VanderHamm said. The trail is groomed to keep it in best shape possible through about April, when the signs are taken out.

VanderHamm, who has been with the club for approximately 10 years, helps maintain the trail, even when there’s not a lot of snow in the ground - like this year.

Other than trail maintenance and having fun on the trails, the club also advocates for safety while riding, VanderHamm said.

The group puts on a safety seminar each year, where they also try to teach the “young ones” how to also be safe while snowmobiling.

“There’s always somebody wanting to go ride, and the season is short,” VanderHamm said. “But even with less snow, the people still get together and enjoy each other’s company.”

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