by Mike McLaskey
LATAH COUNTY — There are more miles of snowmobile trails in Idaho than highway miles, helping to make snowmobiling a big business in Idaho. And with more than 40,000 registered snowmobiles in the state, this wintertime sport generates significant revenue.
For seasoned snowmobilers, starting the season is as simple as registering their machines and cycling stale gas out of their engines. The questions for someone who’s never done it before are where do you go? Where do you begin?
Vernon Gregg is the president of the SnoDrifters of Latah County, and is a dedicated trail rider. He recommended that the first-timer should rent a snowmobile. “Most of the rental people will show you the ropes. It just takes a few minutes to explain how they work,” Gregg said.
The SnoDrifters are one of 36 chapters in the Idaho State Snowmobile Association (ISSA)(http://www.idahosnow.org/latah). The ISSA website hosts information including grooming reports and trail maps. Trail maps are also available at U.S. Forest Service (USFS) ranger stations.
Gregg added that before you go riding, it’s always important to assess potential avalanche danger. The USFS National Avalanche center website has valuable data and suggestions to keep the trail rider safe.
The Idaho Department of Parks & Recreation (IDPR)(http://parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/recreation) offers avalanche awareness safety training classes, and Snowmobile Operator safety courses as well. If you’re considering getting into the sport, it is recommended that you take both free courses.
Prepare, go in pairs
Gregg said you should always carry a first aid kit, snow shovels, a tow rope, snacks, plenty of fluids and space blankets or plastic ponchos. IDPR’s website suggests more survival gear as well in case you get stuck overnight.
Gregg explained that most people get hurt snowmobiling when they get lost. “They’ll go out in a snowstorm where they can’t see five feet in front of themselves. If you can’t see where you’re going, that’s when and where you run into trouble.” He said that in circumstances like that, it’s easy to run into a hole in the snow that was created by melting ice or wind.
Riders that hit these can drop 10 feet in loose snow. This is why it’s always recommended to ride in pairs. Snowmobiles can weigh 300-700 pounds, and lifting one by yourself in a snowstorm is extremely difficult. “If you do ride solo, make sure you always tell someone where you’re going,” Gregg said.
In 2005, the number of registered snowmobiles in Idaho peaked at 47,952. In 2010, there were 42,109 snowmobiles registered in the state. Those numbers have shrunk, but there is still a lot of money generated by snowmobiles. Each snowmobile must be registered with a percentage of the fee helping to pay for trail grooming. “You choose the area you frequently use and the money is spent where you ride,” said Jennifer Blazek information officer for IDPR.
Snowmobiling would be rough play if it weren’t for grooming machines as snow machine tracks reshape the snow. To get the best ride, trails should be re-groomed every couple of days, Gregg said.
Grooming machines are not cheap; they can cost upwards of $250,000, and that doesn’t take into account the cost of maintaining them or grooming trails. IDPR purchases the grooming machines with a 1.5-cent sales tax on gasoline.
According to Gregg, who spends much of his free time grooming trails, it costs roughly $9 a mile to groom a trail. With 7,200 miles of trails in the state, around 42,000 registered snowmobiles, and $26 of the registration money used for grooming, there isn’t enough money in the program to keep the trails in pristine condition.
Some areas get more service than others, such as popular snowmobiling areas in and around McCall. Gregg said “That $26 from registration does three miles of trail all year.”
Gregg added, “I used to groom Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights and snowmobile by day.” He explained that other operators like to groom during the day, but the reason he doesn’t: “You’re out there in a white-out, and you can’t see the holes or dips. At night the shadows show you the holes in the trail.”
Riding in safety
Gregg, ISSA and IDPR agree: alcohol and riding don’t mix. There are 14,000 snowmobiling accidents each year in the U.S. and about 200 people are killed every year in those mishaps. Most of these fatalities involve high-speed collisions, and it’s estimated that alcohol is a factor in 20 percent of accidents.
Other safety tips
Gregg said, “You should keep to your right when you’re on the trails. Keep an eye ahead of you and keep an eye out for holes.”
By following these safety tips, snowmobiling can be an enjoyable, a relatively safe adventure. “It’s clean. The air is fresh, you have no dust, no dirt, no stumps and everything is covered up,” said Gregg, who disagrees with the notion that snowmobiles cause environmental concerns: “Four wheelers ride the same path, and you see where they’ve been, he said. “As the ISSA says, ‘our tracks don’t last.’ When the snow is gone, our tracks are gone.”
The best time to go? “Go on top of a mountain some day when the sun’s out. Most people don’t ever see that. It’s beautiful,” Gregg advised.
The SnoDrifters as sponsoring a raffle run on February 15. Sign-up and departure begins at 9 a.m. at the Elk River groomer shed with a return time set for 3:30 p.m. The drawing will be held at the groomer shed with cash prizes totaling $1,000 to be paid out.
For more information call Vern @ 509-330-1720 or visit: http://www.idahosnow.org/