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Backcountry groomers pave the way

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LAKE OF THE WOODS — George Gregory putters down the snowy trail near Lake of the Woods at one-tenth the speed he normally does, and the view is decidedly different.

The Tucker Sno-Cat snow groomer he’s powering meticulously pounds and blades the snow tight and flat for snowmobilers who later will zip by too busy to see the lava flow cloaked in snow or the Ponderosa pine seedling protruding through the white like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.

Sometimes when the snow flies, Gregory feels like he’s driving in a giant snow globe encompassing the forest of flocked firs around him.

“When you come up here after a snow, with snow on all the trees, it’s really beautiful,” Gregory says. “You’re running around at 3 to 5 miles per hour, so it’s a unique way to see the backcountry at a different pace than on a snowmobile.

“And when you get a day off, you have groomed trails to ride.”

Before snowmobilers can go fast, they need volunteer groomers such as Gregory to go slow while grooming thousands of miles of Oregon trails that are at the heart of the backcountry winter recreational experience.

Gregory, Lake of the Woods Resort general manager, is a member of the Klamath Basin Snowdrifters, a snowmobile club affiliated with the Oregon State Snowmobile Association. Using grooming machines bought with gas-tax money funneled through the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department, the snowdrifters take turns packing, leveling and widening more than 300 miles of trails around Lake of the Woods, encompassing trails in both the Rogue River-Siskiyou and Fremont-Winema national forests.

The trails go to Pelican Butte, Brown Mountain and several lava flows in the region. Other trails in the Hyatt Lake area are groomed for both snowmobiles and cross-country skiers.

“There’s about 12 of us now who groom trails on the forest,” Gregory says. “We don’t get paid, but we like to do it because it is a great, fun way to get out and see the forest and help out the community.

“And there aren’t too many jobs where you volunteer and they hand you the keys to a $250,000 piece of equipment,” he says.

The Klamath Basin Snowdrifters and the Medford-based Rogue Snowmobilers are two of the 25 snowmobile clubs in Oregon whose volunteers groom about 32,500 miles of trail a year in the program run by the LaPine-based Oregon State Snowmobile Association.

The groups maintain about 6,000 trails, some of which are multipurpose and whose status is determined by the federal land managers.

Under state law, the OSSA gets money from state gas taxes — a refund for the gas burned by snowmobilers — and some all-terrain vehicle funds, all meted out by the Oregon Department of Transportation. The group received about $1.02 million in 2018.

The money is used to buy sno-cats and other gear for the various clubs, including the purchase of the 27 sno-cats owned by the organization, says Peggy Spieger, OSSA’s executive director.

Many of the trail systems groomed by the various clubs are loosely connected, allowing snowmobilers to travel great distances if they choose.

“You can ride a snowmobile on groomed trails from Lake of the Woods to Bend, if the conditions are right,” Gregory says.

Would-be groomers need to join the OSSA as well as a local snowmobile organization, then go through training that includes about 10 hours riding shotgun to get a feel for the job, Gregory says.

“Then we put you in the driver’s seat and teach you how to drive this awesome machine,” Gregory says.

Groomers operate eight to 12 hours a day, covering anywhere from 30 to 50 miles at roughly a gallon of diesel per mile, Gregory says. They travel in pairs and often carry chainsaws for downed logs and a beacon should the sno-cat suffer a breakdown they can’t fix alone.

Chris Boivin travels to Lake of the Woods from his Klamath Falls home about once a week to groom trails, enjoying the almost entrancing views.

“It’s clean, positive and you get absorbed in it,” Boivin says. “It keeps you engaged and you see the forest in ways you never do on a snowmobile.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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