When it Comes to Trail Grooming, Patience is Indeed a Virtue

When it Comes to Trail Grooming, Patience is Indeed a Virtue

This season much of Saskatchewan’s Snow Belt was fortunate to receive an early snowfall that allowed some early season riding in late November and aided in early access for forestry trail work to begin.   Unfortunately this scenario coupled with unseasonably mild temperatures which held on until mid-January, brought with it a set of different problems for our clubs and some unrealistic expectations from a part of the snowmobiling community that doesn’t understand what needs to happen every season before trails are completely open and fully groomed.  

Apparently the SSA office received a number of complaints early in the year relating to snow on the ground and groomers not being out.   From hearing that, it is apparent that a good portion of the snowmobiling public doesn’t know or appreciate, what goes into getting trails ready to be groomed and fully open, particularly within our more rugged and scenic areas within our provincial forests where the largest demand by snowmobile tourist normally occurs.  These destination areas usually offer, the most diverse terrain, reliable snow conditions and longest seasons, but generally require the most work and largest efforts to get trails open.

Despite early snow,  groomers will not get very far without proper trail preparation prior to their first trips and the tedious work, such as filling creeks, washouts and ruts, building snow ramps across rivers and pushing out deadfalls and downed trees, which have to first be cut by chainsaw,  usually takes over double the time on their initial pass.

The following is a list of basic requirements and work that has to be done prior to grooming and fully opening trails every fall:

  • All trails need to be packed down to ensure proper frost penetration and ice formation once the cold weather hits.  We’ll talk about ice again later in this article.
  • All trail routes need to be reviewed for changes that may be a result of landowner changes, crops in fields, forestry operations, new hazards such as beaver dams and floods or washouts.
  • All fallen trees have to be cut off so that they can be pushed off the trails within the groomers capabilities, overhanging willows and branches must be manually cleared back.  Groomer tractors and snow cats are not bulldozers and a huge amount of manual labour is required in the forestry to assist with the clearing of downed trees.
  • All signage must be completed throughout the trail system, whether that is staking in open areas, directional and hazard marking and intersection updates including new maps.
  • Shelters must be cleaned and stocked with firewood, stoves and stove pipes repaired, along with any other maintenance that is required, like cleaning up the mud left by the summer ATV users or repainting.
  • There should be at least 10”to 12” of good snow to commence grooming operations, to try and start with less is extremely hard on equipment and will increase maintenance expenses greatly.  That is also the minimum that is required to do a reasonable job of filling hazards and filling creek, drainage ditch and river crossings.
  • The last item on the list and definitely the most important is adequate ice thickness to allow water crossings where there is no alternative or way around the water hazard.   The minimum accepted requirement for most of today’s 15000 to 25000lb grooming units is 18” of good ice.  I believe this season we had at least five units that broke through ice causing serious damage in almost every case.   If you ask these clubs if it was worth trying to push the envelope and head out before the ice is safe, you know the answer you will get, and they will be much less likely to take chances in the future.   This season it may be late January before some ice crossings are safe.   Usually it is the smaller swampy bodies of water and beaver dams that cause the most problems and there are some conditions where they do not freeze properly all winter, making the only alternative to accept the huge cost and effort to reroute trails around such hazards.

In summary proper trail preparation and grooming is a high risk, high maintenance enterprise at the best of times and like any type of winter bush work the hazards are many and the stakes can be high.   When something does happen out on the trail where access is limited, even if it is not a major catastrophe it is a big deal and a huge stress on the local club members who have accepted the responsibilities for their clubs.   No one rests until all people and components are accounted for back at the shop.

The bottom line being that trail grooming is not something to rush into without patience and proper checks and preparation. For those who are impatient in the fall the best question is not “Why isn’t the groomer out?” but “What can I do to help the club prepare in the areas I wish to ride in?” 

Saskatchewan winters are long, particularly in the North, and the clubs in that snow zone are happy to treat Saskatchewan Snowmobilers well into April most years.   Remember, when it comes to trail grooming “patience is truly a virtue” and great trail systems are well worth that early season wait to ensure those areas are able to finish the grooming season strong for us all!

– Richard Dolezsar, Past Chair, SSA