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Retirees gather for weekly ATV jaunts

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FOND DU LAC STATE FOREST, NEAR CROMWELL -- Here they come, now, zipping down the trail astride their Hondas and Arctic Cats and Polarises and Yamahas. They pass in quick bursts of internal combustion, grinding over rocks, splashing through puddles from recent rain.

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No, they're not kids.

In fact, most of them are retired.

"They call us the Wrinkled Riders," 75-year-old Leonard Pritchett of Twig said at breakfast before the Tuesday-morning ride.

For the past 15 years or so, these guys have gathered almost weekly through the fall and winter. They know each other from work or as neighbors or friends.

This mid-August ride began with breakfast at Spirits Restaurant and Bar in Carlton County. Now, with 60-year-old Wayne Laakso of Proctor in the lead, they're exploring trails most of them have never ridden.

At breakfast and throughout the day, they banter easily, chiding each other about the brands of machines they ride or any other topic that might come up -- from prostate cancer to the frequency of answering nature's call along the trail.

"Our conversations have changed quite a bit [over the years]," said Jim Olson, 71, of Twig. "We used to talk about cars and women. Now we talk about drugs and doctors."

The trails they ride are usually not difficult. On this cool August morning, they putt along ATV trails through stands of Norway pines, maples and oaks. They stop frequently to chat and drink coffee. I've joined them for the all-day ride.

At any trailside break, Dale White, 71, of Proctor is apt to come by handing out Twizzlers or pepperoni venison sticks. The men -- they're all men -- might talk about a doe and two fawns that someone saw along the trail, or wolf tracks, or a porcupine that waddled down the trail in front of someone.

Clearly, they're happy to be together and to be out in the woods.

"It sure makes retirement a lot better," says Curt Lindbeck, 66, of Duluth. "I love being outside."

For some, the appeal of the ride is simple.

"It's fresh air -- and lots of BS," White says.

Back on the trail, they cruise along with their own thoughts. Nobody's in a hurry. Everyone makes sure the rider behind him makes the correct turns.

Most of these men have been riding ATVs since the early to mid-1980s. They aren't looking for thrills.

"Everyone's old enough to have some common sense," White says.

That isn't to say that an accident can't happen. At one break along the trail, Dean Claussen, 63, of Hermantown points to his forehead.

"See that scar there?" he asks. "That's where I got it both times I flipped."

Nothing approaching that will happen on this ride. And riding has changed for a lot of ATV users, says Laakso, who is president of the North Shore ATV Club.

"It used to be a bunch of guys out slopping through the mud. It wasn't a successful day unless you broke an axle. You went looking for trouble," Laakso says.

The sport is becoming more social and family-oriented, he says.

"If someone asked me to go on a ride like I used to do, I wouldn't do it," he says.

We find some wet places of our own, riding the Berthiaume Truck Trail north of Fond du Lac State Forest, but they are not wetlands, and they are on old roads legal to ride. The machines gurgle and wallow through those low spots, then string out along the upland trails again.

There is an odd beauty to our little column of machines, moving along like a ribbon of beetles. It is not unlike the repetition of element in a Tour de France peloton or a phalanx of pheasant hunters marching across a South Dakota grassland.

Although there's gray hair -- or little hair -- under these ball caps, these grandpas are not just 60 or 70. They are also, like the rest of us, still 54 or 37 or 26 or 18. Riding is fun. Being with your buddies is a good thing. Traveling through the forest on a cool morning is a good place to be.

The ride, which Laakso planned for 40 miles, ends up being about 57. We ride from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. That's longer than the group usually rides, but no one complains.

About mid-afternoon, our beetles lumber up a steep hill of loose rock and emerge on a small plateau. The surrounding area was logged three years earlier and now is lush with new growth.

We park the machines, eat snacks, drink pop or water. We can see for miles in most directions. A little lake reflects a perfect August sky.

"We're in the absolute middle of nowhere," Laakso says.

That's part of why John McMillan, 73, of Duluth, comes along on these rides. He gestures out over the green below.

"This is one of the rewards of riding an ATV," he says. "You'd never walk in here, or drive a pickup."

We saddle up, crank the machines to life and crawl back down into the green.

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