Snow patrol: Behind the scenes

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VAN BUREN COUNTY, Mich. -- Winter months in Michigan promise freezing temperatures and ice. However, winter comes with a lot of fun activities: ice skating, skiing, snowboarding, snow shoeing, sledding, an snowmobiling. While having a good time is on the forefront of everyone’s mind when the weather permits, there’s a team out there making sure people remember to be safe.

Van Buren County Sheriff’s department has had a snow mobile unit since 1998 -- one of the first departments in West Michigan to do so -- and they gave FOX 17 News a sample of a 'day in the life' of their job. On this day, Sgt. Ron Douglas and Lt. David Walker were making the rounds on the trails.

Van Buren County Sheriff’s Department is usually seen patrolling the miles and miles of trails in their county on the weekends when most people are riding their snowmobiles. Deputies say their presence prevents reckless activity.

“People know that if they break the law, we are going to be out there to enforce,” said Lt. Walker.

Saturday, deputies were making a list of every snowmobile’s registration number and VIN number for their records.

“One thing we will do is at the end of the day we will run the registrations that we write down, and if a snowmobile comes back stolen, we can find out the group of people they were with and in the approximate time frames,” said Lt. Walker.

From that information, if a vehicle comes up as stolen in their data base they can track back to who may have been riding with those snowmobiles, and hopefully locate some of those stolen sleds.

Stolen snowmobiles are a major problem for the department, They recently handled the report of a stolen sled in South Haven. On this day, they were hoping to track it down in the Gobles area.

“That’s why we are working in this main area, because it has a direct route to South Haven,” said Lt. Walker.

For the most part, Lt. Walker and Sgt. Douglas said the day consisted of few violations. Everyone was complying by having their paperwork and stickers for registrations and permits. Earlier in the day, they learned there was a snowmobile and car collision. This happened while a snow mobile was crossing the street. They said no one was hurt.

Lt. Walker says if a snowmobile registration is not visible on the front or side, it’s a huge red flag and they will stop you. It’s one of their top violations during the winter months.

Deputies say this winter has been pretty quiet in terms of sled activity for two reasons: the bitter cold temperatures and not as much snow in Van Buren County as previous years. On this day, snowmobiles were packing the trails since the temperatures rose into the 20’s, and there was a perfect amount of snow on the ground.

“We have been out here for less than two hours, and already in the trail in Gobles we’ve probably had about 200 contacts,” said Walker.

Lt. Walker learned to navigate the trails snowmobiling when he was a young boy. He says safety is on his radar, hoping the yellow sheriff’s vest alone will prevent people from being reckless.

“If you get a reckless driver that’s driving up and down through here, that’s going to ruin it for everyone,” he said.

Sometimes there are unexpected mishaps, but he’s willing to lend a helping hand. We passed a snowmobile that had gone off the trail and was stuck in a ditch. Sgt. Douglas and Lt. Walker removed the sled, and got it back on the trail.

Lt. Walker says another big complaint they get is when people veer of the trails. The trails often go through private property.

“When people go off the designated trail, they are ruining peoples’ crops, their fields, and lawns.”

Walker urges that people need to have their sleds in good condition, from being sure all parts run properly to having working lights. Otherwise, deputies will ask that the sled be removed from the trail. In addition, snowmobilers need to be careful when crossing roads between trails. Stopping at stop signs is a necessity.

Drinking and driving laws apply to operating snowmobiles. Most importantly, Lt. Walker says to always travel with a buddy, or at least have a cell phone. There are parts of the trails where you don’t pass anyone for miles, and in case of an emergency, you don’t want to be stranded.

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