Even before this weekend’s dump of powder, snow had already accumulated a few feet deep in the Caribou Hills. And the high country has been open to snowmachine riding for months, leading some to wonder where the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers have been this season.
Along most of the 100 miles of normally groomed trail, the snow is still in its raw form, its thick cloak covering downed trees and hiding deep creek beds, with drifted mounds in some areas and rock-hard, wind-packed sections in others.
“We’re working on it and should be out there by early next week,” said Cabin Hoppers’ president Rick Northey late last week.
Northey said that a series of problems have worked against the snowmachine club’s grooming efforts this season, starting with a structure fire this fall that claimed the equipment shed and fuel for the club’s grooming coordinator and operator, Gary “Tinker” Anderson. Fundraising efforts to help Anderson trumped trail work.
“Everyone jumped in to help him,” Northey said. “That was the priority over grooming.”
Then winter came and snow fell early, but the snow fell before the ground underneath had a chance to freeze. The fresh blanket of white further insulated the ground, keeping swamps, creeks and rivers too wet to support the weight of a groomer.
“The weather initially worked against us,” Northey said. “We got the big squirt of snow, but with the warm temperatures right behind it, there wasn’t much we could do.”
As winter drew on the mercury finally fell again, but this time a little too far. Weeks of below-zero temperatures caused a different set of problems, most of which related to keeping the club’s two Pisten Bully groomers up and running. One is a 1985 model, while the club recently bought a 1999 model last summer.
“The old machine had a 15-foot-wide track and stance, but this one is bigger. It’s 16 feet wide and we got a good deal on it. They go for about $200,000. We got ours for $34,000 and put another $20,000 into it to convert everything over, such as the rear hydraulics to run the groomers it’ll pull,” Northey said. “That’s where the problems have been coming in. It’s been blowing fuses and having some other problems, but we’re working to get the kinks out.”
Tinker, along with Paul Cooper, the club’s head mechanic, have been working on the issues. They have also had help from club members Cole and Zac Cooper, Ralph Petterson, Bob Windsor, Buddy Crowder, Mike Sawyer, Gary Eoff, Pete Cooper and Roger Williams.
Northey said that dialing in on the problem isn’t the only challenge. Once identified, parts for the German-built motor must be ordered from overseas.
“It takes time waiting for parts to come from across the pond,” he said. “Once it’s up and running, though, it should serve the club for the next 10 to 15 years.”
Having two groomers, Northey said the initial plan was to rely on the old machine to put in trails while kinks with the new machine are worked out, but the old machine has been having pump problems. This is amounting to a lot of work for the club’s all-volunteer mechanical crew.
“When people are working for free, you can only push them so hard before they throw the keys at you,” Northey said.
Warming temperatures and more snowfall will work in the club’s favor, though. Northey said last week that they were able to put in the Gravel Pad Trail, Waterhole Trail, Jeep Trail and the Upper Plateau Trail.
The heavy snowfall over the weekend should allow them to get in the rest of the trails, particularly those at lower elevations — such as Clam Gulch and Centennial Trails — groomed this week, should the groomers not have any further problems, he said.
“Grooming is the club’s number-one priority, so it’s been tough having the machines down, but we’re hoping to get rolling and get to everything (this week),” Northey said. “We’ll be staying busy with the groomers from here on out and helping out with upcoming events that rely on us for groomed trails, such as the (Way Out Women) Ride and the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race.”