You see them all the time in Central Oregon: snowmobilers speeding down a groomed trail, occasionally weaving in and out between trees and catching a little air in the process.
For some, snowmobiles can be an annoyance. After all, the machines are loud, often smell of exhaust, and travel much faster than a cross-country skier.
But even passive observers must admit that the sport looks fun — even fun enough to try.
Snowmobiling IS fun, as the thousands of Oregonians who enjoy the sport would enthusiastically attest. But for even experienced riders, snowmobiling can be dangerous.
So where to start? How about with other snowmobilers?
Central Oregon is home to seven organized snowmobile clubs, according to the Oregon State Snowmobile Association. And all of those clubs are willing to help.
“Get in with a club,” says Bill Rice, grooming chairman for the Sisters Sno-Go-Fers snowmobile club. “They will lead you and look after you and help you. They are a great help for people. They will show you the way and invite you out with them.”
But to start, a snowmobiler must have a valid driver’s license (from any state). If not, a prospective rider must pass a four-hour certification class, which the snowmobile clubs offer.
Once licensed, a snowmobiler is ready to begin.
Here is what snowmobile rookies need to know before venturing out:
Never ride alone
Even a 30-year snowmobiling veteran like Rice says he never rides alone, because changing weather or a mechanical problem can turn a leisurely Sunday ride into a life-threatening situation.
Riding with an experienced snowmobiler can make all the difference for a beginner.
Not only can an experienced snowmobiler help a beginner pull a sled (they weigh about 500 pounds) out of deep snow by maneuvering the machine out of the snow if it gets stuck, but experienced riders are also more familiar with the Central Oregon trails and therefore less likely to get lost.
“It’s best to get hooked up with somebody who has some experience,” says Rick Bice, president of the La Pine Lodgepole Dodgers snowmobile club. “That would be my biggest suggestion to anybody.”
A beginner who doesn’t already know an avid snowmobiler need not fear. Members of any of the local snowmobile clubs will be happy to show a “newbie” the ropes.
Most of the clubs won’t insist that a beginner join the club, at least until they get hooked on the sport.
Wear warm and dry clothing
We all know how cold and snowy or wet Central Oregon can get this time of year, so wearing the proper clothing can mean the difference between a wonderful experience and a miserable afternoon.
Like skiers, snowmobilers wear heavy waterproof and windproof boots, jackets, pants and gloves.
Underneath, a layer of fleece over a foundation layer of Under Armour or similar moisture-wicking clothing should keep a snowmobiler warm and dry.
Layering is the key, but stay away from cotton, warns Susie Wirges, secretary of Bend snowmobile club Moon Country Sno-Mobilers. Cotton absorbs too much moisture, Wirges observes, so stick to synthetic fibers such as polyester.
“It really helps to have good gear,” Wirges says. “I’ve seen a lot of people out there in jeans and such, but if you get cold you are not going to enjoy like you would if you are well-prepared.”
Wearing typical ski clothes should be fine for beginners out for their first ride. For those who don’t ski, this might be a good time to borrow a friend’s gear.
Or, the myriad snowmobile dealers in Central Oregon offer clothing specifically designed for the sport. It can, however, be expensive.
Rent, don’t buy
New snowmobilers shouldn’t purchase a sled unless they have decided to take up the sport for the long term.
A new snowmobile can cost more than $10,000. Even a used sled in good condition — which can be found at some snowmobile dealers, in The Bulletin’s classified section, or on the Web site www.craigslist.com — will run several thousand dollars.
So it’s best to start slow. GK Motorsports in southwest Bend, for instance, rents brand-new Yamaha snowmobiles for $100 for two hours. And, like most outlets, the GK Motorsports rentals come with a trailer, helmet, goggles, trail maps, and a full tank of gas for the sled.
Stick to the groomed trails
Central Oregon has 560 miles of groomed snow trails, with about 175 miles maintained around Bend alone, according to the Central Oregon Visitors Association.
In fact, it is feasible for a snowmobiler to ride from Sisters to Crater Lake — some 100 miles — entirely on groomed trails.
In other words, there are plenty of trails, so beginners should use them.
The snowmobile clubs, through a volunteer force, groom the trails regularly throughout the region, and riding on those trails is not particularly difficult.
“A freshly groomed trail, anybody can ride,” Wirges says. “Going up into the high country and doing boondocking (extreme backcountry snowmobiling) and hill-climbing and stuff, new people shouldn’t be doing that.”
A word of caution, though: Follow the rules of the road. All groomed trails are treated as a two-lane highway, which means snowmobilers should stay to the right as if driving on U.S. 97. Also, most of the trails are shared with cross-country skiers and other snowmobilers, so be courteous.
Watch the weather
Skiers and snowboarders live for fresh-powder days. Experienced snowmobilers do, too. But like beginning skiers, new snowmobilers should try to avoid snowy days.
Fresh snow can cover a groomed track in no time during a hard snow, making the trail nearly impossible to follow. Also, snowmobiles can be difficult to control for a beginner in heavy snow.
All riders, even the most experienced, should be aware of changing conditions.
Bring extra safety equipment
The Oregon State Snowmobile Association recommends taking along extra safety gear in case a snowmobiler gets stuck.
The OSSA recommends bringing: a winter first-aid kit; matches and a fire starter in a waterproof container; extra food and water; extra clothing, including a wool or synthetic sweater, gloves, and a rain shell; a plastic whistle; a map and compass and, if possible, a global positioning system (GPS) receiver; a flashlight with extra batteries and bulb; an emergency reflective rescue blanket; a pocketknife; a long cord or avalanche transceiver when in avalanche country; a mobile phone or radio transceiver for backcountry emergency communication.
In other words, says La Pine’s Bice: “Be prepared to spend the night (in the high country), if need be.”
Your guide to snowmobiling in Central Oregon
If you want to try snowmobiling but don’t know where to start, here are some good resources:
* Oregon State Snowmobilers Association: 536-3668; www.oregonsnow.org
• Moon Country Sno-Mobilers (Bend): 410-4219; www.mooncountrysnomobilers.com
• Ochoco Snow Sports (Prineville): President Lee Romine, 447-6407
• La Pine Lodgepole Dodgers: President Rick Bice, 312-2655
• Walker Rim Riders: President Jack Young, 536-5356
• Sisters Sno-Go-Fers: President Marc Durand, 318-8611
•Sledheads Snowmobile Club (Gilchrist): Scott Weaver, 433-2997
• Chemult Mountain Trail Riders: President Pat Edmundson, 365-2249
• GK Motorsports (Bend): 306-6197; www.gkmoto.com
• Sunriver Adventures Snowmobile Rentals: 593-2855; www.sunriveradventures
• Central Oregon Adventures (Bend): 593.8887; www.coadventures.com
• GearUp! (Bend): 633-7959; www.gearupclub.com
• Advanced Performance Rentals (Bend): 598-7819; www.advanced-performance.com
• Crescent Lake Snowmobile Adventures: 433-2505; www.crescentlakeresort.com
Central Oregon sno-parks for snowmobilers:
• Ochoco Divide: 30½ miles east of Prineville on U.S. Highway 26. Ochoco National Forest.
• Wanoga: 15½ miles west of Bend on Century Drive. Deschutes National Forest.
• Dutchman Flat: 21 miles west of Bend on Century Drive. Deschutes National Forest.
• Edison Butte: Four miles south of Century Drive on County Road 45 (Sunriver Road). Deschutes National Forest.
• Three Creek Lake Road: 9½ and 10½ miles south of Sisters on Three Creek Lake Road. Deschutes National Forest.
• Paulina Lake: Six miles east of U.S. Highway 97 on Newberry Crater Road. Deschutes National Forest.
• East Lake: 10 miles east of U.S. Highway 97 on Newberry Crater Road. Deschutes National Forest.
• Walt Haring: One mile north of Chemult on U.S. Highway 97. Winema National Forest.
• Walton Lake: 16 miles north of Prineville on Forest Service Road 22. Ochoco National Forest.