It’s no secret that Northwest people are typically outdoor people. Our cities and towns are set in and around nature, and our woods, trails, and the backcountry is often just a short drive from our front door. After fall sports season and hunting season come to a close, outdoor enthusiasts start doing the “pray for snow” dance. While some of the population could go without snow, a large section also sees a cold winter without snow as a worthless winter. Skis and snowboards get waxed, snowshoes and winter coats, gloves, jackets and pants all come out from their summer hibernation. It’s also the time when another passionate group of people gets ramped up for their favorite season of the year—snowmobile season.
“The adventure of the ride has to be my favorite thing about snowmobiling,” said Jacob Hinrichs, current president of the Boundary Backcountry Association. “Every ride is different, from the people you ride with, the terrain and the snow as well.”
With 15 years of riding under his belt, Jacob is an accomplished rider, able to navigate not just designated trails but backcountry mountain faces and other challenging locations. He leads a group of year-round backcountry enthusiasts whose goal is to promote the enjoyment of outdoor recreation through responsible access to public land.
“Snowmobilers are a very passionate group of people,” said Jacob. “We love the outdoors and are very dedicated to keeping our lands beautiful and open for our next generation of outdoor users.”
A few of the long-term goals of the group are to unite all types of recreational users, both motorized and non-motorized. They also want to promote, conserve and maintain existing access routes, make improvements, and make aware the economic impact that snowmobilers have on local communities.
The biggest goal, however, is to encourage more riders to take up the sport, camaraderie amongst current snowmobilers and overall enjoyment of this unique outdoor activity. A group sport, there are clubs to be found all across the state where “sled heads” can get together, swap stories, schedule rides and discuss snow conditions. “My advice would be to go to a local club meeting, talk to the members and decide if it is something you want to do,” said Clayton Meserve, president of the Sandpoint Winter Riders Snowmobile Club. Clayton is also a 15-year rider who still loves the beauty and thrill each new season brings. “Snowmobiling is a great winter activity. You are able to get out in the mountains and see some amazing sights,” he said.
The Sandpoint Winter Riders are always on the lookout for new members, and skill level is never a requirement. Even if you’ve never been on a snow machine before, you are welcome to pick members’ brains, and it’s likely someone will even be able to give you some basic instruction. “If it is possible, we can find a snowmobile and take you out for a ride so you can experience it before investing a lot of money,” said Clayton.
This is a huge advantage, as daily snowmobile rentals can run in the hundreds of dollars, and getting set up with your first machine is also a rather large investment. Just like dirt bikes and four-wheelers, technology in snowmobiling continues to improve year in, year out. Snowmobiles can be designed for the comforts of riding groomed flat trails or stripped down while bulked up to tackle the deep snow and big bumps of backcountry riding. A new Ski-Doo or Polaris model typically starts in the $6,000 to $8,000 range before upgrades and customizing high-end units can get you north of $15,000. Still, there will always be used equipment which can be purchased for much less, and groups like Sandpoint Winter Riders or Boundary Backcountry Association are good places to find your first ride.
Whether you have your own, are renting or borrowing, this tight-knit group of outdoor enthusiasts is often ready to get you up and riding in a safe and responsible manner. “I personally take my time to help new people to the sport learn how to properly ride a snowmobile. This year I am doing a small riding class to help out anyone that wants to learn how to be a better rider,” said Jacob.
With the tragedy of the avalanche on Silver Mountain fresh in the minds of local skiers, snowboarders and riders, safety is also of the utmost importance to new riders, whether they plan on trail riding or backcountry. The danger and inherent risk is what draws many to this thrilling sport, but risks can be mitigated by having the proper knowledge and safety equipment.
Jacob recommends that anyone just getting into snowmobiling get the correct gear, clothing, avalanche pack, emergency beacon and shovel. “Most important is to then learn how to use these tools correctly and proficiently,” he said. “I recommend, at the minimum, to take an avalanche awareness class. There are also more educational classes that can be taken on avalanche safety such as a Level I and also Level II classes.”
It’s for this reason that snowmobilers are encouraged to never ride alone—a mantra that most follow. Avalanches are just one of the major issues that could come up. Injury caused by accident or machine failure would leave an individual stranded and, in many cases, with no easy way back to safety. Group riding not only ensures a safer experience but helps strengthen bonds between riders. “It’s a fun sport, a great way to break up the winter and get together with friends,” said Clayton.
As far as some of their favorite places to ride, North Idaho tops the list for both Jacob and Clayton. There are also several day trips or easy overnighters.
“Western Montana also has amazing places to ride as well. I also enjoy riding Salmo Pass, and Castlegar, Canada,” said Jacob.
“I do most of my riding in this area because it’s close and fun. Other people ride in Montana, McCall, and a few head up into Canada,” said Clayton.
While we are past the halfway point of the season, it’s not too late to try out the sport or get more information from the experts. Outfitters are eager to rent, and clubs continue to have monthly meetings. Sandpoint Winter Riders meets the first Wednesday of the month throughout the winter and is also holding a Sled Scramble family get-together day on February 22. At the conclusion of the ride, there will be dinner and prizes. “We have all different levels of riders in the club and are willing to help new riders learn about the sport,” said Clayton. You can find more information on the club’s Facebook page.
The bottom line for every level of rider is to enjoy the wild outdoors, public spaces and thrill of the ride. “I enjoy the time spent outdoors with good friends and the adrenaline that you get from riding off trail,” said Jacob. “When I snowmobile, it is what I consider to be a stress-free time.”