In Paradise, A Prayer For More Snowmobilers

A roadside sign surrounded by snow marks Paradise, Mich. i i

In Paradise, Mich., a snow-pummeled community on the state's Upper Peninsula, snowmobiling is a favorite pastime. But the number of visiting snowmobilers has gone down in the tough economy. David Greene/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Greene/NPR
A roadside sign surrounded by snow marks Paradise, Mich.

In Paradise, Mich., a snow-pummeled community on the state's Upper Peninsula, snowmobiling is a favorite pastime. But the number of visiting snowmobilers has gone down in the tough economy.

David Greene/NPR

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Snowmobilers Rick Drewyour (left) and Carl Harm i i

Rick Drewyour (left) and Carl Harm are Paradise diehards who traveled 170 miles from Traverse City — on their snowmobiles. The rough economy hasn't kept them from their favorite pastime. David Greene/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Greene/NPR
Snowmobilers Rick Drewyour (left) and Carl Harm

Rick Drewyour (left) and Carl Harm are Paradise diehards who traveled 170 miles from Traverse City — on their snowmobiles. The rough economy hasn't kept them from their favorite pastime.

David Greene/NPR
Ordained minister Edson Forrester presides over the snowmobile blessing. i i

Ordained minister Edson Forrester presides over the town's annual snowmobile blessing (above). Edson burns cedar and tobacco, then spreads smoke over each vehicle (below), saying, "Creator, protect this snowmobile on its travels." This year, people in Paradise say they're adding an extra prayer for a better economy next year — and more snowmobilers. David Greene/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Greene/NPR
Ordained minister Edson Forrester presides over the snowmobile blessing.

Ordained minister Edson Forrester presides over the town's annual snowmobile blessing (above). Edson burns cedar and tobacco, then spreads smoke over each vehicle (below), saying, "Creator, protect this snowmobile on its travels." This year, people in Paradise say they're adding an extra prayer for a better economy next year — and more snowmobilers.

David Greene/NPR
Ordained minister Edson Forrester presides over the snowmobile blessing. i i
David Greene/NPR
Ordained minister Edson Forrester presides over the snowmobile blessing.
David Greene/NPR

In winter, snowmobiling is like a religion in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Devotees flock to the area, where restaurants advertise "Snowmobilers Welcome," and gas stations serve more snowmobiles than cars. Though some diehards have made the pilgrimage this year, residents say the sinking economy is keeping many tourists home.

The town of Paradise — a snow-pummeled little community on Lake Superior — has a population of 600, a smattering of hotels and miles of snowmobile trails. At the annual pancake breakfast at the community center, Joanne Cook says that most years, by late morning, tourists would be buzzing around everywhere.

"Oh, it would be all snowmobiles; it would be like bumblebees going by," says Cook, who runs a local grocery store.

"Normally, we're really busy with the breakfast here," she says. "It's way down right now. I think it's the economy. Nobody knows if they got a job or not."

When times are uncertain, she says, people don't travel to a place like Paradise for snowmobiling — they stick closer to home. She says she is feeling the effects at her grocery store.

"I used to stay open from 9 to 9. Now I'm down to 9 to 6, Monday through Saturday. I'm closed on Sunday, because there's nobody around," Cook says.

But on this day, the diehard snowmobilers have come — to a snowy field on the edge of town, for the annual snowmobile blessing. Looking like astronauts in their thick snowsuits and helmets, they're gathered around a fire. Remember that bit about snowmobiling being like a religion?

"Creator of the heaven and the Earth, give blessing to these snowmobilers," says ordained minister Edson Forrester, who is in charge of the annual blessing. "God, we ask for your guiding light when blizzards leave us blind, when accidents leave us alone in the dark."

Carl Harm is one of the diehards. He drove to Paradise from Traverse City, Mich., 170 miles away — on his snowmobile. As a mechanical contractor, Harm says, the tight housing market has hurt him.

"Usually I do eight, 10, 12 houses a year. I'm a small contractor. Last year, I had one. This year, I've got one going," he says.

Maybe he has had to tighten his budget, but he has not given up snowmobiling, despite its expense. He and his buddy Rick Drewyour ride together, outfitted in a thousand dollars worth of gear, including helmets installed with voice-activated walkie-talkies.

"Carl is usually in the lead. He can inform me of any other sleds coming toward me," Drewyour says. "If I have a problem, I can tell him I gotta stop, take a potty break, or my sled's making a funny noise or whatever. It makes riding a little more enjoyable."

Before they head out, the minister holds smoking bunches of cedar and tobacco up to each of their snowmobiles. Tobacco, the minister says, is known to carry prayers up to God.

"Creator, protect this snowmobile on its travels. Give it safe passage so it can find its way home," he says.

This year, the people of Paradise say they're adding an extra prayer to that blessing — for next winter to be a little more crowded.

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