Black Woods Blizzard Tour tops $2 million for ALSWho would have thought a decade ago that a bunch of snowmobile enthusiasts would become Minnesota’s biggest weapon in the battle against ALS disease?
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune , Lake County News Chronicle
Who would have thought a decade ago that a bunch of snowmobile enthusiasts would become Minnesota’s biggest weapon in the battle against ALS disease?
That force will be unleashed today, when riders hit the trail in Proctor, kicking off the 11th annual Black Woods Blizzard Tour.
Over its first 10 years, the event raised $2 million to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Things picked up two years ago, when the tour raised $500,000 — an all-time high. Last year it dipped back to $470,000, but this year, despite a recession, organizers are striving to set another record.
The Blizzard Tour has become the largest single fundraising event for the ALS Association, Minnesota Chapter, and the largest individual snowmobile fundraiser on the planet, according to its organizers.
The concept is simple. Get
150 sledheads together, have them raise at least $900 in pledges each — $1,200 for first-time riders — and set them off on a three-day ride across Northeastern Minnesota. The tour will run from Proctor to Tower today, on to Two Harbors Friday and back to Proctor on Saturday. Riders will celebrate with a dinner and more fundraising Saturday night at the Greysolon Ballroom in Duluth.
Greg Sorenson of Proctor was one of four riders who organized the first Blizzard Tour. He and friends sought to circumnavigate Lake Superior — traveling
2,025 miles in 10 days — and were looking for a worthy cause they could support in the process. After months of organizing, Sorenson learned just five days before the tour was to begin that his own father had been diagnosed with ALS, a disease that would later claim his life.
“It was tough news, but it made the whole trip take on a different meaning for me,” Sorenson recalled.
The tour has evolved into a three-day, 370-mile trek from Black Woods in Proctor to the Fortune Bay Resort & Casino on Lake Vermilion to Two Harbors and then back to Proctor.
“On the first ride, the big challenge was the mileage and the planning involved. Now, the big challenge is planning for the number of people involved,” Sorenson said.
The tour gets a little star quality with celebrity riders such as Minnesota Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire, former Wild hockey player Darby Hendrickson and former Twins Terry Steinbach and Kent Hrbek, both of whom lost their fathers to ALS.
Steinbach remembers driving through a thunderstorm to attend his first Blizzard Tour in 2000, anticipating that there would be few if any participants. He was surprised to find more than 50 people on hand for the event, snow or no snow.
“I picked up on the determination and the dedication of the people up here that day,” Steinbach said. “I saw how committed people were to showing their support for the cause, even without any snow. It was kind of like having a golfing event without a golf course, and people still showed up.”
Gardenhire credits his involvement in the event since 2001 to Steinbach and later Hrbek. He said he had been on a snowmobile only a couple of times before participating in his first Blizzard Tour. He said he was struck by the character and shared commitment of the people involved in the event. His wife, Carol, and son, Toby, also embraced the cause and will accompany him on the tour this year, as they have in years past.
“We get a chance to spend time together and to do something for a good cause. It doesn’t get any better than that,” Gardenhire said.
The Blizzard Tour usually fills up months ahead of the event.
“We have 153 riders this year and 90 percent of them are repeat participants. There’s such a camaraderie at this event. ... These people love to snowmobile and they love to see what they can do to fight this disease,’’ said Sue Spalding, executive director of the ALS Association Minnesota Chapter.
Spalding said while many of the participants could afford to simply write a check for the event, most do not.
“The majority of the riders go out and get donations. And we think that really helps raise public awareness out there about ALS. Every person they ask gets a little information about ALS,” Spalding said. “Unfortunately, people with our disease die so fast that the number really doesn’t go up. But it never stops. People keep dying.’’
Often known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a debilitating and always fatal ailment that attacks people’s nerves and muscles. It affects 30,000 people across the U.S. and more than 300 in Minnesota. Two people die every week in Minnesota from ALS, and another two people are diagnosed, Spalding said.