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Slice of Life: What it’s like to be on a volunteer snowmobile safety team

Ron Julian prepares for an evening as a volunteer snowmobile safety patrolman for the Kane County Forest Preserve District near Route 64 and Hanson Road in Campton Hills.
Ron Julian prepares for an evening as a volunteer snowmobile safety patrolman for the Kane County Forest Preserve District near Route 64 and Hanson Road in Campton Hills.

When Ron Julian wears his yellow-green vest on the Great Western Trail, riders know he isn’t playing around.

Julian wore the vest last week as he checked the insurance paperwork of an Elgin man who was stopped on the trail near Hanson Road in unincorporated Kane County. Next to him was Rick Splittgerber, a Kane County Forest Preserve police officer. Splittgerber wrote the man a ticket for not having his snowmobile registered in Illinois.

“We just don’t want anybody hurting themselves. It’s pretty easy to do,” Julian said during the stop.

Julian, 60, is one of 12 people who make up the Forest Preserve’s Volunteer Snowmobile Safety Patrol team. The volunteer patrol started in 2009 in response to a few snowmobile crashes at least two years before on the forest preserve trails, Splittgerber, the patrol’s team leader, said. Julian became one of the first volunteers after he met Splittgerber, who was taking Julian’s snowmobile safety course at the time.

Volunteers use their own snowmobiles, and Julian’s sled of choice is a red Yamaha Venture 1000cc snowmobile. Before he heads out, Julian typically puts on sweatpants covered by leather bib overalls, a waterproof coat, gloves, boots and of course, the safety vest.

His snowmobile includes a first-aid kit – all volunteers are trained in first aid and CPR – and snowmobile safety brochures.

Julian’s volunteer shifts vary by the amount of activity Forest Preserve Police expect on the trails.

That could mean a couple of hours during the day, or a five-hour night shift that ends just before the trails’ 11 p.m. closing time.

Julian doesn’t mind the hours and puts up with the cold because he loves riding and being outdoors. He said he’s been on snowmobiles ever since he first rode with his father at age 12 or 13.

“It’s pretty out here – the scenery is really nice,” said Julian, a Campton Hills resident. “I saw four deer here before I drove in.”

Julian also can identify with many of the avid riders who use trails in multiple states.

When he is not in Kane County, Julian can be found riding his snowmobile near his Florence County cabin in northern Wisconsin.

When he rides on the trails, Julian is usually flagged down by riders looking for landmarks or the nearest gas station.

During quiet patrols, he will look for any loose signs or fallen tree branches to clear off the trails.

The snowmobile safety volunteers always have to patrol in pairs. Since the volunteers cannot initiate a traffic stop, they assist with paperwork checks only when an officer is present, Splittgerber said. The night patrols can be the same as on regular roads – officers are on the lookout for any signs of intoxication.

Splittgerber and Julian on Feb. 5 knew they couldn’t stick around Hanson Road for too long – riders will likely tip each other off when there is a patrol with police on the trail. Julian predicted that the trails would be quiet that evening as temperatures slid down to the single digits.

“We’ve been lucky to have a lot of snow ... but when it’s below zero and 20 mph winds, it’s a little rough,” he said.

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