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Wintry Cascades get some grooming

We were cross-country skiing up the snow-covered Forest Service road toward Fourmile Lake. The trail offered mostly good conditions, although the main route had obviously been traveled by snowmobiles and a few other skiers.

The setting was serene. Mike Reeder and I glided along the steady but gradual uphill trail, glad to be outside in the idyllic winter setting. Because it was a weekday, we had the trail to ourselves, the quiet swoosh of our skis only infrequently interrupted when snow-burdened tree branches suddenly unloaded loads of snow.

A couple of miles into our ski, the stillness was broken by an increasingly louder sound of an engine. Into sight came a large snowcat slowly making its way downhill, carving and leaving in its wake a broad path and a crenulated corduroy track. We stepped aside as it passed. Its operators, Ken Crutchfield and Jim Goosen, paused long enough to exchange greetings before forging on. Their snowcat was a 2015 PistenBully, one of two owned and, during the winter months, operated by the Klamath Basin Snowdrifters.

As Dan Riblett, the Snowdrifters president and grooming chairman later explained, the Snowdrifters Club is part of the Oregon State Snowmobile Association. “We are a ‘grooming’ club, which means OSSA provides us with a snowcat and money for maintenance and fuel.”

The two snowcats — the other is a 2004 Bombardier — are operated by volunteers and groom designated multi-use trails leading to Pelican Butte, Buck Peak, Lake of the Woods, Surveyor Mountain, Fish Lake, Robinson Butte and down to the Howard Prairie/Hyatt Lake area. The PistenBully is kept at the club’s shed at the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Lake of the Woods station, while the Bombardier is housed at the Bureau of Land Management campground at Hyatt Lake.

The Snowdrifters are an active group. According to Riblett, during the winter of 2019-2020, 22 different volunteers helped operate the snowcats. In a good snow season, volunteers groom more than 2,000 miles and log more than 600 hours.

“In a good snow year we will attempt to schedule grooming operations daily Monday through Friday on the 230-plus miles of trail system in our area,” Riblett explained, noting grooming is usually not done on weekends to help avoid conflicts with trail users.

The entire trail system is groomed for multiple use, including snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, snowshoers and fat-tire bikers.

“We try to groom the trail to Fourmile Lake and the west side of Lake of the Woods at least weekly to allow for good skiing for those folks,” he said. “Those trails are very popular to skiers, as are the ones south of the Pederson Snow Park.”

Over the years growing numbers of cross-country skiers have taken advantage of the groomed trails. Many skiers routinely check the Snowdrifters website for their grooming schedule, then plan outings the following day to take advantage of freshly groomed trails.

The focus is on winter, but Snowdrifters volunteers also perform fall and spring trail maintenance to remove unwanted vegetation growing on the trails and road right-of-way.

“We also work at keeping trails open in the winter by removing trees that have fallen across the trail system or removing small trees that are leaning into the trail that could cause issues,” Riblett said.

“The club also provides firewood for the three snow shelters at Fourmile Lake, Big Meadow and Brown Mountain. We cut, split and deliver about four cords of wood a year for use by winter recreationalists. Some cross-country skiers have even joined our club to assist in maintenance and grooming operations and assist in cutting and splitting firewood for the shelters.

Having occasionally used those shelters, that wood for warming fires is welcome and appreciated.”

Snowdrifters members are also responsible for building maintenance and improvement at the cat shed, which was purchased with Recreational Trails Program money, and for the snowcat’s minor maintenance and repairs. Maintenance, Riblett said, includes oil and filter changes, fuel filter changes, hydraulic fluid and filter changes, gearbox fluid changes, and DEF filter replacement.

“We try to maintain the equipment on schedule to minimize expensive repairs that could occur due of lack of maintenance,” Riblett explained, noting the oil is changed once a season and the chassis is lubricated every 100 hours, or about once a month.

He said volunteers work under OSSA guidelines and under permit and direction of the Fremont/Winema National Forest, Rogue/Siskiyou National Forest, Lakeview District of the BLM, and Medford District of the BLM.

To become a groomer, Riblett said, a person must be an OSSA and Klamath Basin Snowdrifter Club member. New operators ride with an experienced operator to learn to drive the snowcat. After training, which can be as long as three years, a trainee is allowed to act as a lead operator.

“The club has a core group of about eight folks that are at the ‘lead’ operator level,” Riblett said, noting most operators donate one day a week to ensure there are well-groomed trails for the winter recreationalist.”

Mike and I didn’t know those details while we were skiing. But as we continued up the smoothly groomed track, our kicking and gliding made easier, we appreciated the difference.

Eventually we turned and skied back. Or, rather, mostly double-poled, letting gravity — and the near perfect surface — speed us back to the Fourmile Lake Trailhead, and gave thanks to the Klamath Basin Snowdrifters.

Grooming reports from the Klamath Basin Snowdrifters are available online at www.kbsnowdrifters.org/groomerreport. As of Thursday, however, grooming efforts were being discontinued because of marginal snow. The report also notes that many people in four-wheel-drive vehicles have been stuck on the Fourmile Lake Road. “Two of those stuck had to spend the night in their vehicles before getting out,” the report cautions. “Consider the risk folks. And be prepared for winter.”

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

A PistenBully snowcat makes it way along the Fourmile Lake Road. Photo by Lee Juillerat