Michiganʼs Magazine
for Snowmobiling and ATV

The Fine Art of Trail Grooming

By Stephen King

Well, here we are in January. Right about the time that we should all be out doing what it is that we love to do — snowmobiling.

And what is one of the things most snowmobilers think they absolutely have to have besides the sled … someplace to ride.

Already, with the snow just starting to look all nice and the trails starting to look good, I have already been hearing some of the stuff I keep hearing every year. Namely, people complaining about the trails.

Recently, I saw some posts asking why a club was out grooming when there was not much snow on the trail. The first post stated something like, “Why are they out there? They ruined the trail. There was not enough snow.”

This made me think it was time for another story on the fine art of snowmobile trail grooming. But, first, a bit on the actual system: For the last few decades, the state has been providing us with one of the best state-sponsored snowmobile trail systems in the U.S., perhaps even the world. More than 6,000 miles of groomed and maintained trails.

With this system, we have about 65 sponsor clubs that do the actual work. They do the grooming, the brushing and signing, and all the rest. The state? They initiated those lovely little trail stickers we all love so much. This brings in enough money to totally fund the trail program. There is very little that comes from either the state’s general fund or other sources. Basically, this is a user-funded program.

The state does have guidelines. However, it is mostly up to the sponsor clubs to follow them. You have to remember that most of the people who do this are volunteers. Many do not get paid. And, if they do, it is far under union scale for a heavy equipment operator. And, there is the old saying, “Don’t yell at me! I’m a volunteer!”

On this, I want to remind everyone that the people who groom the trails do not have to do this. They can walk away at any time. People who like groomed trails need them a whole lot more than these volunteers need to do this.

Then, there is a lot more to grooming than most people really understand. Years ago, that included me. One of the very first stories I wrote, more than 25 years ago, was one about trail grooming.

Way back when, I talked my old friend Charlie Vallier, then working for the DNR, which at that time was still in the trail grooming business, to allow me to ride with him for a story. (We did get approval from higher-ups.)

Also, I wanted to understand how trails got groomed and what affected them. Over the years, I have learned most of that, so I now feel secure I have enough knowledge to share with our readers.

One of the very first things I learned was that weather has a huge impact on the trails. You need a lot more than just snow to make a trail. You need the right temps — too warm and the snow turns to mush; too cold and it turns to powder. Neither makes for a good trail.

Basically, when it’s –35 degrees out there, the snow won’t pack. However, that does not mean the groomers should stay home. They can get out there and knock down the bumps, but what they leave behind is one very fluffy trail.

Back quite a few years ago, I had put together a ride with some friends in the Marquette County area. The night before we were supposed to ride, they got dumped on with about 19 inches of snow. Powder.

The next morning, we did not meet a groomer for the first few hours, which is normal. Groomers only move at about 8 miles an hour. Given 80 miles of trail, that would take them about 10 hours.

We were having a blast in 19 inches of powder. We were in Yooper heaven. Snow plumes flying off the skis. Huge roosts coming off the back. Awesome.

However, with the cold temps, it was basically fluff and was not packing down. Just after noon, we met some other riders. One guy was totally ticked. First thing he said was something like, “These trails are terrible. Why in #$!? are they not out here grooming!”

We all just kind of nodded and quietly left his company.

He was the kind of snowmobiler who had the idea the trails have to be as hard and flat as a state highway all the time or they will not be happy. And, if not perfect, there should be hell to pay.

A bit later, we did meet a groomer. We were locals. He was a local. We stopped and chatted for a bit. He had been out all day but there was little he could do with the powder. It was not packing. We were good and gave him big thumbs up and happy faces.

To my next point: This groomer driver was out all day but, with fluff, he couldn’t do much. Also, with sleds out on the trails, he would go along and pack down the fluff as best he could. But a few snowmobiles would come along and “poof,” back to powder. An hour or two later, you couldn’t even tell he had been out there.

This was when the temps were too cold. The same is true for warm temps, only worse. I can remember doing a ride-along with one of my cousins many years ago on a warm day. I couldn’t count how many times Hank had to stop the groomer to knock the snow off the drag. It was totally packing up. After a half an hour of grooming, the drag looked like one giant snowball and quit working. That was temps too warm.

Back to my first complainer: At the start of the season, in what seems to be a very odd thing to a lot of riders, the best way to get a good base to a trail is to actually remove most of the snow.

Seems a bit odd? Well, it is, but what happens is that if left there, the snow insulates the ground like a blanket, keeping it warm and soggy. Remove that snow and the ground freezes. This allows the snow to stick better and, with the right conditions, you will end up with a very nice trail.

I am very sure of this idea because of the many years I worked in logging. In the winter, we often cut in swampy areas because this was the only way we could build a road into some of these areas. Namely, to freeze one down in the winter.

Now, there are a lot of other factors involved in grooming. Traffic is another major one. Even with the best conditions, if a groomer puts down a good path and 50 sleds come along right after, you can’t even tell groomers were out there.

Let me assure you that these many men and women are usually out there. Usually? Yes, because sometimes equipment can fail, or something might break on a groomer. A club usually only has one or two — and they are about $250,000 each. Want to dip in your wallet and buy one for that bit of trail you are complaining about?

So, that was Trail Grooming 101. All you really need to know is that these people are out there spending their time and working their butts off just so you can go out riding.

Instead of whining and complaining, show them some appreciation. Give them a smile and a thumbs up. And, if you don’t like the way they are doing it, then volunteer yourself. Find out what grooming is all about. Climb into that cab and head out on the trails. But if you still want to whine and complain and these people quit, just look in the mirror for someone to blame.

 

 

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