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Last winter, I was riding a familiar trail without a care in the world. Abruptly, it came to a dead end at a road crossing. Where the trail used to continue on the other side, I spotted a new gate with a large sign saying “Trail Closed”. Then another one that read: “Detour – Follow Road To Trail” with an arrow pointing right. More than five minutes of bare pavement later, I picked up another trail and continued on my way.

Somewhere in the back of my lizard brain, another closed trail registered. But frankly, it didn’t really hit home until I was planning a tour to re-visit a favourite destination and discovered a major connecting trail missing from their online map. With that trail gone, I’d either have to re-route far out of my way or go someplace else. What a pain!

Then I noticed more social media posts from snowmobile clubs and other riders alerting about recent trail closures in various parts of the snowbelt. Most occurred because snowmobilers had wandered off trail to track fresh powder, ignored signs, cut corners, taken shortcuts, run down stake lines, broken through fences and closed gates, damaged crops, or harassed livestock. Some shut downs were even caused by noisy pipes.

Taking Trails For Granted:

That’s when I realized why it’s becoming more difficult to get from here to there by trail in some regions. It seems the snowmobile trails we’ve always counted on and even taken for granted are increasingly uncertain, with more closing every season. Sure, trails appear as if by magic and few snowmobilers really appreciate the massive, behind the scenes effort to keep them happening every winter. Small wonder, when only a small percentage of riders volunteer for their local club. Those that do soon discover just how hard it is to keep trails in place. Much less to try to replace closed ones.

Most of us don’t appreciate the inevitable consequence of continuing closures. Because once trails go, they’re usually gone forever. So I began to wonder, what would winter be like without groomed snowmobile trails to ride? What if we could only ride on roads, in ditches, across lakes or on unmaintained (and ungroomed) road allowances, old trappers’ tracks and other cow paths?

Impact of Closures:

It wouldn’t happen all at once; more like death by a thousand cuts. Typically, when a designated trail or section of trail closes, the most immediate impact is local. Snowmobilers in the area who previously used that closed trail frequently are upset and inconvenienced. The local snowmobile club has to deal with an angry landowner and complaining riders, while also trying to find a workaround detour if available.

But make no mistake. The repetition of this local closure scenario across every part of the snowbelt is building like an invisible tsunami. Its leading edge is already eroding the underpinnings of organized snowmobile trail networks across North America. So what are the many consequences of trail closures and how will they affect you?

Riding Restrictions:

One closure can prompt other local landowners to reconsider a trail on their own land. That can initiate a domino effect resulting in many other shut downs, fewer places to ride and more trailering, thanks to broken links and loss of critical connections. We’ll see an increase in “pocket riding”, with snowmobilers confined to local areas cut off from others by closed trails – maybe still good for short day rides, but heralding the demise of multi-day touring, weekend overnighters and many loop rides. Either way, snowmobiling will involve lots more road running, with more wear and tear on sleds and less safety for riders.

Less Reliable Grooming: Clubs will have greater difficulty grooming because closed trails can block groomer access to open trails. Sometimes a groomer can detour there by road. But that can involve more risk, more wear & tear, and extra travel time that could have been used actually grooming another trail. So even one trail closure can impair grooming consistency, quality and effectiveness.

What’s more, when a trail closure occurs, club volunteers are called away from their other trail responsibilities to find, get permission for, and prepare a new route, if possible. Then the club has to ante-up the additional cost for creating the new trail, while swallowing the trail pass dollars wasted on improvements already made to the now closed trail.

To say nothing of the volunteer burnout caused by the frustration, anger and extra work required to try to fix a problem that should never have happened in the first place. Indeed, how many trail closures can organized snowmobiling itself survive? But that’s not all being threatened.

Economic Fallout:

Snowmobile trails are laid out to access services on route and link communities. So another consequence when a trail connection disappears is that some may be cut off from their winter livelihood. When enough trails close, spending by snowmobilers may dry to a trickle in some areas. As a consequence, we could see shorter business hours, fewer days open, loss of winter jobs and even business shutdowns. So now where are you going to find gas, food and lodgings?

Let’s not overlook the fact that plenty of other businesses depend on spending by trail-riding snowmobilers. From the snowmobile OEM’s and aftermarket companies to tow vehicle and trailer manufacturers to gas companies and tourism regions, snowmobile trails generate big dollars annually. Given that as many as 90% of so-called “flatlander” snowmobilers self-identify primarily as trail riders, how much will their spending decrease with fewer trails to ride? How many of your relatives or neighbours would lose their jobs?

Fewer trails to ride also means riskier snowmobiling. You can bet that the insurance industry, already skittish about the rising cost of snowmobile-related claims, will raise sled premiums. At worst, insurers could stop offering sled coverage altogether. In some jurisdictions, higher risk could also threaten the ability of snowmobile associations to get affordable trail liability coverage for their trails, clubs, volunteers and landowners. And without it, there couldn’t be any trails at all.

Why We Have Trails:

When snowmobile sales took off in the 1960’s, there were no designated or groomed snowmobile trails. As a result, snowmobilers rode willy-nilly wherever there was snow and soon snowmobiling developed a bad rap for trespassing and dangerous behaviour.

To secure safe, legal and permanent places to ride, early snowmobilers formed clubs and began identifying and building local trail corridors for winter use only by snowmobiles. Typically, they approached friends and neighbours for land use permission and access to private property, as well as local municipalities for access to appropriate public land. Having designated trails was certainly a big step forward that enabled snowmobilers to stay on approved routes, while considerably reducing many safety and trespass issues. At least until now.

What Landowners Expect:

Over the next 60 years, local trails became part of regional networks and then the interconnected trail systems we enjoy today. But virtually all the land currently being used for snowmobile trails is owned by some person or entity, mostly without any compensation. Each landowner has the ultimate say about when, if and where their property is available for a snowmobile trail.

Their expectation – and right – is that every snowmobiler will respect their land and property, by not wandering off the designated trail or ignoring the rules. How would you feel if someone trespassed on your land? Too many riders are not living up to our end of the bargain anymore and trail closures are the price all of us pay.

What’s more, too many snowmobile-only trails are being lost because other trespassing users, especially ATV operators, ride them in the spring, summer and fall, when they are closed until the following winter. ATVs illegally entering snowmobile trails in the winter is also an ongoing problem.

Why Private Land Access is Crucial: In many snowbelt areas, 60% or more of snowmobile trails are on private land. This makes private land crucial as the cement that holds integrated trail systems together. Even in regions with a higher percentage of public land, access to trails is often dependent on being able to ride across some portion of private property. So any section of private land trail that gets closed creates a ripple effect on surrounding trails, whittling away at the overall system.

The sad and unfortunate truth is that no one makes new land. So every lost trail is one that likely can’t be replaced or can only be substituted by a less desirable alternative. That’s why our best and only choice is to act now to stop the creeping erosion of our riding opportunities before it’s too late.

What Riders Can Do:

Snowmobilers can take personal and collective action against trespass by ensuring that we always stay on trail ourselves, making sure our families and friends do too – and by calling out anyone who doesn’t, while refusing to ride with habitual offenders.

Snowmobiling families must also teach their children why it’s important to stay on trail, as should snowmobile training courses. And if you know any newbies or returning riders, please ask them to read this article before they ride.

One simple way for snowmobilers to protect our trails is to instal a set of scratchers. They will help keep your sled from overheating on hard-packed, icy or low snow trails, thereby avoiding any thought of jumping off trail to cool down in snow beside it. Similarly, don’t ride purpose-built mountain sleds on the trails.

Not only do their super long tracks and deep lugs tear up any groomed surface, but these powder-loving sleds tend to overheat more quickly during trail use.
In recent years, drinking and driving have become socially unacceptable. Breathing second hand smoke has become a no-no. Now it’s time for the entire snowmobiling community to stop tolerating abuse of anyone’s property by also making it socially unacceptable to stray off any approved snowmobile trail.

Now that the snowmobile industry is supporting a stand against trespassing with its Take The Pledge initiative, riders can demonstrate their commitment to stay on trail in a concrete way. Without these united, concerted efforts, we’re doomed to be riding trails that disappear out from under us like snow melting in the spring. Until they’re all gone. And that’s certainly not a future I want to imagine. What about you?

Craig Nicholson
Craig Nicholson
Popularly known as The Intrepid Snowmobiler, Craig Nicholson is an International Snowmobile Hall of Fame journalist and Supertrax contributor. Craig has snowmobiled in every region of Canada and many states. His one-of-a-kind tour book, "Canada's Best Snowmobiling – The Ultimate Ride Guide", chronicles his adventures, as does his website and Facebook page.

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