The legend of Wisconsin’s phantom snowmobiler tells of a ghostly rider with no face who is known to run other riders off the trails and block dangerous paths in the Northwoods.
I’ve never gone snowmobiling. The closest I’ve ever gotten was sitting on the rusted out, inoperable sleds in the woods behind my cousins’ garage when we were kids. Sure, riding the trails through snow-covered pines and making pit stops at dive bars along the way sounds like a great time. But I’ve heard enough cautionary tales about snowmobile accidents to keep me off the trails.
When the dead of winter descends upon Wisconsin, if the stories are to be believed, the ghosts those accidents left behind may still be lingering.
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Stories from around the areas of Woodruff and Minocqua tell of a ghostly snowmobiler who rides a clunky old Arctic Cat in greasy coveralls and a hat with earflaps. Anyone who has gotten close enough to see under the visor of his hat has been startled to discover he has no face.
“Under the visor of his helmet or under his facemask, is a pool of empty blackness,” Badgerland Legends writes. “One version of this tale has harkened back to Sleepy Hollow, where the rider appeared headless.”
As frightening as that sounds, it seems the phantom snowmobiler is a helpful spirit looking out for other riders.
Encounters with the Phantom Snowmobiler
In his 1998 book Northern Frights (which also brought us the story of the Ice Fisherman ghost) author Dennis Boyer shares a story told by an “Old Marine” who encountered the phantom snowmobiler numerous times over the years.
“They started talking about him about ten years ago,” the Old Marine says. “Back then people saw him running late on Highway J out toward Pickerel Lake. I remember thinking that the taverns were using cheap stuff in those Korbel bottles. I saw funny things once on cheap tequila.
“But then about two years later I saw it myself. A bunch of us were on Woodruff Road south of Hemlock Lake. An old clunker Arctic Cat pulled out of the gravel pit road, almost wiped me out. It was the most beat-up piece of crap I’d ever seen.
“But when I tried to catch it he left me eating snow. He must have hit a hundred miles per hour when he got on the straightaway of Highway 47. Then he doubled back on Mid Lake Road. When we made the beer and pee break down at Lake Tomahawk, the others told me it was the ghost.”
The Old Marine gave up trying to catch the phantom, but that didn’t put an end to the encounters.
“I stopped chasing the ghost and he starting finding me,” he says. “Yeah, riding just ahead of me. Sometimes alongside of me. This is when I started getting a good look at him. I think I’m about the only one who’s spent that much time close to him.
“Saw him two or three times a winter for about five years. Chased him all the way to McNaughton one time. He ran me off the trail twice, dumped me off a bridge once, and led me onto thin ice on Minocqua Lake. He made it across. I didn’t.”
Some reports depict the phantom similarly, as a trickster like the Ridgeway Ghost who lures unsuspecting riders into the woods and cornfields, or just runs them off the trails. Others claim he’s there to help.
“The ghost has blocked trails and those who went around him later found themselves through the ice,” the Old Marine says. “He tried to run some drunk punks off Highway 47 to save them. But one of those fools gave an electric pole a sixty-mile-per-hour kiss. So I know he’s trying to tell us to tone it down.”
He explains that Northwoods get a lot of visitors from Milwaukee and Chicago who hit the trails on high-performance snowmobiles and have had too much to drink, riding through areas they don’t know and getting hurt.
“The ideas of guide wires, private lane cable gates, and barbed wire fences are totally beyond their brain capacity. They’re surprised when they’re decapitated or have their skulls bashed in. They’re shocked when they trespass and cross private land and end up cracked up in somebody’s foundation hole. I think the ghost is trying to stop it. But maybe all those other dead snow jockeys left ghosts that are working against him. We better help him or there’ll be a snowmobile ghost at every intersection from Stevens Point on up.”
Have you had a run-in with the phantom snowmobiler or something similar? Tell us about it in the comments or send us a message.