Opening Trails is Hard Work But Also Has Some Perks

Pictures by Eric Johnson and Larry Gomes
Story by Larry Gomes

December 13, 2014

Most snowmobilers know that they can travel 100-200 miles in a day over snow covered trails that closely resemble a miniature highway system.  What they don't know are the details of how that snowmobile highway had to be built foot-by-foot by volunteers using equipment and muscle power to overcome dozens of problems conjured up by Mother Nature.

So for all of you that have never had the experience of opening a trail system, here is glimpse into some of the problems and pleasures that hundreds of volunteers experience when they open the trails for the first time in the season.

The first thing you learn is that every year is different and trails that may have been fine in the past, could be impassable today.  This is where the experience and ingenuity of the club volunteers play a key role.  They need to be able to think on their feet, solve problems quickly and figure out solutions that will keep trail riders safe.

This year, the weather has given us lots of snow, but very little cold.  That means trails through wet areas that are normally frozen may now be impassable due to mud.   Water bars that normally have a trickle of water are more like small streams.  So if you stuff snow into a stream, it washes out.  Higher elevations had the opposite problem; freezing rain coated everything in a 1/4" of ice bending trees down to the center of the trail.

So with almost 100 miles of trail to inspect, 50 gates to open, 26 junctions to be signed, dozens of water bars to be filled and hundreds of overhanging trees to be cut, where do you start?

The first area of focus is usually on the numbered trails: Corridors and Primary Trails.  This year we used 3 teams of volunteers; some on sleds and some in the groomers.  The sled teams act as forward reconnaissance units, opening gates and assessing the trails for damage.  These teams can get skip through water bars and slip under overhanging trees to quickly figure out the overall condition of a trail and then report back to the club trail master so the groomers can be sent out to focus in on the problem areas.  By the end of the first day, over half the trails in the WMRR system had been inspected and opened and a third of the trails had been groomed and signed.

Unfortunately, this years efforts were hampered by groomer breakdowns.  Out of the three WMRR groomers, only one was operational and that groomer developed a problem after the first day of running.  So the club trail master had to resort to plan B. 

On the second day of trail opening, crews were sent out to open gates using vehicles.  They drove to a road nearest the gate, hiked in to the gate and then shoveled the gate out, thawed the locks out with a propane torch and then opened the gate for the season.   

Other crews were sent out by snowmobile to break open the trail and finish the gate opening process.  This takes far more time than it would take using the groomers, but it does allow riders to gain access to the trail system even if it is not groomed.  By the end of day two, over three quarters of the WMRR trail system had been inspected and opened but still only a third of the trails had been groomed and signed.

It will still take another day to finish opening the gates and completing the inspections.  Getting the entire system groomed and signed could take a few more days (depending on how quickly the groomers can be fixed and put back into service). 

So far in this story, we have focused on the hard work - but what are perks?  Well those are the sights that no one else will ever see.  The beauty of an untouched trail before any one has gone down it.  Seeing a moose family walk by within a few feet of the trail.  Watching rabbits and fox dart here and there for their next meal.  Once the trail system is operational, these sights generally disappear until next year

So check out the pictures below and if you want to experience a trail opening for yourself, then contact your local club and let them know you are willing to help.

Kevin Arling (left) and his brother Craig get ready to depart for their first reconnaissance mission of the day: 
opening gates along Corridor 11 and checking for blow downs, washouts, etc.  In addition to a chain saw with
extra gas, they carried a propane torch for thawing locks, a small shovel and various hand tools.


Eric Johnson gets ready to unload junction signs.



Larry Gomes installs the junction signs using the groomer blade as a ladder.


One of the many untouched trails in Jericho Mountain State Park criss-crossed with moose prints.


Question: What's better than laying down a perfect trail?


Answer: Getting to ride the perfect trail back while enjoying a million dollar view!


Following the tracks of the reconnaissance team along Corridor 11 in the White Mountain National Forest.


The sleds fit through, but what about the groomer?


It's midnight after a long day.  What would you do with this mess?

Step 1: Cut the smaller top tree into sections and carry it off the bridge. 
Step 2: Cut the larger tree where it was laying on the deck and use a chain to drag it off the bridge.
Step 3: Use the groomer blade to push it into the woods.
Total cleanup time: 10 minutes.  The railing will be repaired next fall.


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