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Piston Bully hard at work

A Day in the Life of a Snow Groomer Driver

By Jim Duke

Most volunteers spend countless hours in a snow grooming tractor, usually alone and most likely in the middle of the night — and most have a day job as well. So, why would anyone submit to such a rigorous schedule? The most common answer from these volunteers: “For the love of the sport!” 

But in conversations with some of these dedicated individuals, other answers also emerge. For example, several say, “Someone’s gotta’ do it” and “If not me, then who?” But I also found a sense of pride among the majority who said they simply want to provide the best trails they can for folks they mostly don’t know and probably would never meet. I know I speak for snowmobilers everywhere when I say, “We are grateful for your dedication and perseverance to a job well done!”

To experience just what goes into the pre-groom, the groom and the post-groom, I spent a full day with a volunteer driver for an Upper Peninsula trails sponsor. It was his day off from his regular occupation, but instead of sleeping in and relaxing, he was up early. We met at the groomer barn at 7:45a.m. on a cold, blustery Thursday morning to assist the operator coming in from a 14-hour run that started at sunset the evening before. Getting the tractor and groomer drag in and out of the weather was only the beginning; it would take a few hours of thawing and preventative maintenance before we would be ready for the next run.

snow grooming
The unfortunate condition of trails to be groomed.

First things first. Using ice spuds, we needed to break the packed snow off the equipment so it could be washed down so we could see what needed immediate attention and what could wait. It is not unusual that some small parts (and occasionally larger ones) require a bit of welding, some bolt tightening or possibly a replacement. Most snowmobilers have no idea what it takes to make the trails they ride smooth and safe. I believe if they did, they may be a little more considerate when accelerating, spinning their tracks and creating those dreaded moguls. And they might be more tolerant when they encounter a bit of rough trail.

We spent about a half-day greasing all the fittings, checking pressures and fluid levels and all hydraulic hose connections as well as doing an all-around check of tracks, tires and everything in between. Then we moved the tractor to fuel storage to fill the tanks to the very top. It will take every drop to complete the section of trail we’ll be grooming this evening. We then drove by car to a nearby restaurant for dinner and to pick up coffee for the long run that will last well into the night.

Back at the barn, we take a final walk around, double checking the connections and drag hookup, safety chains, lights and beacons. Meanwhile, other volunteers have arrived. They sweep out the debris from our earlier labors and get ready for the other groomer to arrive. They will go through the same ritual we just completed, change drivers and head out to groom another section of trails assigned to this grant sponsor. And so it goes, around the clock, day in and day out, week after week from the first day of the snowmobile season on Dec. 1 until midnight on the final day of March 31.

With wheels down on the drag, we leave the barn and head out to the trailhead where we will begin the groom. Once there, wheels are lifted and the first several feet are used to fill the pan with snow for weight. During the first few miles, we were fortunate to have a relatively flat surface with only a few moguls here and there. As we got into the winding trails in the more wooded areas where snowmobilers had entered the curves and kicked the snow to the edges of the trail, the job became more demanding. The operator had to use both the blade to pull snow back into the trail surface while constantly adjusting the drag for the best results. 

Snow groomed trail
Trail is groomed and ready.

The condition of the trail can vary quite a bit depending on temperature, snow depth, whether the trail minus the snow is sandy, wet, rocky or any number of other variables. To get a smooth, flat surface, the operator must know what he has to work with. As we approached a county road, the wheels at the rear of the drag must be lowered at just the right time to prevent dragging snow off the trail and onto the road surface, then dropped again as we enter the trail to have a smooth transition from pavement to snow.

Driving a grooming machine takes patience and an even temperament. Going too fast can produce uneven and less-than-satisfactory results. And it only takes a second or two to break the equipment if something unexpected should appear in the trail like stumps, fallen trees or rocks that somehow managed to get pulled up from underneath the snow. Often there are signs missing, posts broken and other hazards to be repaired or removed along the way. So, grooming 30 or 40 miles of trail can take from dusk to dawn — and usually does. 

I’ve only scratched the surface of what these volunteers go through. We’ve only covered one day in the life of a groomer driver during the official season. There are many chores and responsibilities to take care of at other times — preseason, during and post-season. The life of a groomer operator is like a full-time job, year-round but without any benefit other than the warm and fuzzy feeling one gets knowing they’ve done their best and have met or exceeded expectations of the program administrators.

As early as mid-September, volunteer workers gather at snowmobile clubhouses across the state for trail clean-up, which entails cutting and removing brush that has grown in the trail corridor during the off-season. This is when we replace missing or weathered signs as well as record possible trouble spots that may require attention later. Trail clean-up days are essential to providing a safe and smooth trail surface once the snows have arrived.

Record keeping is also a necessary chore that begins with the groomer driver, who must log which sections of trails have been groomed, along with fuel used and maintenance performed. These records are forwarded through the DNR employee assigned as primary contact and eventually to the trails program administrators for processing and financial reimbursements. Failure to properly submit the paperwork could cause denial of the needed funds to replenish fuel and spare parts to the trail sponsor clubs. And this is in addition to the many hours spent in the grooming tractor. Only the most dedicated individuals can endure such a demanding schedule.

So, my advice to every snowmobiler who may want to complain about trail conditions encountered during their ride: Stop and consider what might be the cause? One of the best ways to understand all required of the groomer drivers is to spend a day with one of them and observe what they must do. It’s not just a quiet drive in the woods. Give them a thumbs up when you encounter them on the trails because they are the unsung heroes of the snowmobile program and the champions of our premier trails system that most snowmobilers take for granted. They deserve much more for what they do than they receive, for sure. My visit with a groomer driver, even just for a day, was definitely an eye-opener and one not soon to be forgotten.

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