Late Start, Changing Boundaries for Snowmobilers

By Beacon Staff

Bolstered by recent snowstorms, snowmobiling season in the Flathead Valley is firmly underway – and under new rules – albeit a little later than usual this year.

“The first day we’re allowed to groom is Dec. 1,” said Robbie Holman, the Flathead Snowmobile Association’s grooming chair. “We didn’t get out until the 10th this year; that’s the first time in a long, long time that we haven’t had enough snow to get out there.”

The Flathead Snowmobile Association grooms about 200 miles of trail, from the Olney Trailhead, to upper Whitefish Lake, Werner Peak, up to Big Mountain and over to Canyon Creek. Grooming is a year-round chore for the group, which also maintains and preps the trails during the summer months.

While local snowmobiling opportunities are relatively unknown compared to state meccas such as the West Yellowstone area and Yellowstone National Park, the Flathead Valley offers some of the state’s more rugged and scenic terrain. Flathead National Forest has almost 800,000 acres open to snowmobiling.

J & L Rentals employee Brock Altenburg, right, unloads snowmobiles from a trailer at the Canyon Creek Trail Head in the Flathead National Forest.

But where that acreage is located has changed in the past year.

The path to snowmobiling access in the Flathead National Forest has been a contentious and winding trail over the past decade. Last March, Flathead National Forest officials moved ahead with a plan that few supported; snowmobilers, conservationists and land-use groups all opposed. The new plan allows snowmobiling on 91 percent – or about 787,000 acres – of the terrain that has historically been used for snowmobiling. It also keeps 52,400 of those acres open into late spring, including 31,800 acres that will stay open until June 1.

Bill Yunk, president of the Flathead Snowmobile Association, isn’t a proponent of the changes, which he sees as part of a larger trend of U.S. Forest Service plans that are restricting land traditionally used by snowmobilers. But he doesn’t think local snowmobilers will have a difficult time adjusting to the new boundaries. “Most of the people that ride in this area are local. They pretty much know where they can and can’t go, and if they violate the law and go somewhere they shouldn’t be, in most cases, they know they probably shouldn’t be there.”

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Alayna Wien peers from her helmet while being outfitted for a snowmobile trip at J & L Rentals.

Denise Germann, Flathead National Forest public affairs officer, said forest officials recently released four updated maps outlining forest routes and including information about groomed trails accessing state lands. Maps are also available from the Forest Service’s Web site. Patrols, which were increased last year to watch for illegal snowmobiling, will remain at a higher level.

“It’s the user’s responsibility to have the maps and know where they are,” Germann said. “We’ll have that information out there, but they need to make sure they access it.”

Both Yunk and Germann also cite the need for snowmobilers to educate themselves in avalanche safety. Last year, a Kalispell snowmobiler beat the odds when he survived nearly eight hours buried under 4 feet of snow when he was caught in an avalanche in the Jewel Basin. The Jewel has been historically off limits to snowmobiling. Just before Christmas consecutive avalanches in the Canyon Creek area left one snowmobiler’s ride buried and another snowmobiler in the hospital with a badly broken leg.

Various avalanche classes are held throughout the winter, and updated avalanche danger and information, as well as class information, is available at www.glacieravalanche.org or by contacting the Forest Service. The Flathead Snowmobiling Association also sponsors avalanche awareness courses during monthly meetings, often held on the second Tuesday of each month, Yunk said.

Spencer Huff, center, is outfitted with cloths at J & L Rental before heading out on a daylong snowmobile trek through the Flathead National Forest. Huff was visiting the area with his family from Texas during the holidays.

And, Yunk said, snowmobilers need to make sure they’re properly equipped and riding with a group. “I don’t ride with anyone who doesn’t have the essentials with them,” he said. “I won’t leave the parking lot if their equipment is not good, because those guys are the ones that are going to find me.”

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