By Craig Nicholson. (©2005 by Craig Nicholson. All rights reserved.)
Over eager snowmobilers everywhere strain at the leash to get their first ride in. Some jumped the gun early and laid rubber to snow, most likely in far less than ideal conditions. So the arrival of pre-Christmas snow across much of Ontario begs the question: when will the trails be open?
The easy answer is when club-grooming operations are regularly underway. The commencement of this action varies from region to region and club to club, but what it all boils down to is having enough snow to make a hard packed base of snow.
The objective of early grooming is to fill all the holes and compress the snow so it can freeze into a solid foundation that will last the season as subsequent layers of snow are compressed on to it. Creating this base requires that the frost be well into the ground first, so that the earth is as cold as or colder than the snow that falls on to it. Until it is, the base won’t set up properly.
This operation is far from simple. Early snow is more of a tease than anything useful for grooming. Usually there’s not enough of it. Most times, it’s too light or fluffy to have much substance. More often than not it melts within hours. It normally falls before the ground freezes and then acts as insulation to slow that process. Frequently, just enough accumulates to cover and hide, but not cushion, obstacles that can damage a groomer or sled. On farmland, sleds riding prematurely on too little snow may damage crops, which can result in the club having to permanently close that trail. Worst of all, early snow tempts snowmobilers to give it a try, sometimes with tragic consequences.
As soon as snow falls, clubs are under tremendous pressure to start grooming and open their trails. As avid riders, club volunteers are torn between wanting to get trails open fast and waiting to make a trail base that will last. Each winter, over eager clubs relearn the hard lesson that grooming too soon can result in very expensive equipment repairs — paid for with dollars that should have been used to pay for grooming later in the season.
Another factor determining the start-up of grooming is ice conditions. Many sections of snowmobile trail are impassable after spring thaw, because of standing water, creeks, run off or bogs. Until all water on the trail is frozen solidly enough to bear the considerable weight of a multi-ton groomer, these sections of trail remain unreachable and ungroomable.
Again, clubs have paid the price of being too keen. Sunken groomers have to be laboriously (and expensively) recovered with heavy equipment, then reconditioned to ensure that all moisture is eliminated before being put back into service. So pre-season snow is a very dicey proposition. On the one hand, it heralds good times ahead. On the other, it causes considerable frustration, unnecessary expense and even tragedies.
Clubs are also reluctant to list their trails as “Open” until they can safely say this about their whole system. Meanwhile, some clubs list some trails or parts of trails as “Limited”, meaning they are marginally passable for snowmobiling, but require cautious riding. “Limited” trails mean that connections and linkages are probably not open either.
So what’s an eager rider to do when pre-season snow falls? The best bet is to keep the sleds parked until trails are open. The risks of riding anywhere before then are enormous. Sled damage (expensive), bodily injury (perhaps season ending), death (definitely season ending) and/or trail closures (decreased riding options) often result. Conditions are never predictable pre-season, and certainly not as good as they will be later. So whether you choose to ride off trail or buy a permit and ride on trail, assessing and understanding snow and ice conditions properly can make the difference between life and death — and how much you are able to enjoy the rest of the season!