The challenge with the winter trails and my struggles with the snowmobile
My team of 12 sled dogs runs silently through the snowy winter landscape of northern Sweden. Only the sliding of the sled runners and the steady trot of the working dogs on the freshly fallen snow can be heard. The cold winter air cools my cheeks, the rest is wrapped in warm clothes from head to toe. I stand on the sled and enjoy being pulled through the white landscape by my beloved dogs. Together we are an unbeatable team.
It’s just a wonderful feeling to be out and about with the dogs. To explore new areas and master challenges together. That creates a special bond between the dogs and the musher.
In these moments, all the previous exertions are forgotten. No, I do not mean the work and care of the dogs. I would never call this exertion.
What I mean is preparing the trails! Because anyone who thinks that you can just drive off with a team of dogs and a sled is wrong (at least not in our region and not if you are training for long-distance races). Of course, everything is possible. Walking in front of the dogs with snowshoes – to fight your way forward meter by meter. But you don’t get very far that way. At least not where we live. We have so much snow that the dogs will sink up to their ears if we did not prepare the trails.
And yes, preparing the trails can be exhausting. I like to drive snowmobiles when it serves a purpose. Those who have known me for a while know that I like physical exertion and hardly shy away from any challenge. I am particularly motivated by the thought of great training routes for our sled dogs. At the same time, preparing the trails is associated with an unbelievable number of curses and swear words on my part.
Worst snowmobile tour
It was not that long ago that I did the worst snowmobile tour this winter. During this tour, I decided to never drive a snowmobile again and wanted to hang up the key until next winter.
The plan was to open an easy trail. We have been using the route for several years which leads through a lot of uncleared forests and over forest roads. I can usually open this route much earlier. The opening means that I am driving it for the first time and practically pressing the first track in the snow. But this year the beginning of winter was very warm and the streams froze relatively late. Since I have to cross some of them, I was not able to open the trails as early as the last year’s.
Opening a tour sounds pretty easy and fast. However, this is not quite the case.
First of all, especially for a new area, I have to study the terrain maps. It works very well online. There are terrain maps and satellite images. This makes it easy to see whether there are paths at the edges of the forest, swamps, lakes, streams, and forest roads that can be connected to around – as large as possible, at least 40 km, preferably 60 km.
We can only drive where there is space and no forest will be destroyed, like newly planted trees. Sometimes I have to prepare routes in summer or autumn so that it works in winter. For example, clear paths of bushes or fallen trees.
Forest roads are not my preferred choice when making trails. While it is practical, it is also unsafe. Because they are often suddenly cleared, as the clearing work here in the north takes place a lot during winter. It is often easier for the heavy machines, the ground is frozen and significantly less damaged because it is covered by snow.
If a forest road is cleared, it is unusable for us with the sled and even dangerous. The sled’s claw brake cannot claw into the hard frozen ground and it becomes difficult to slow down the eager huskies. It is often icy too! A dangerous combination. Therefore I try to avoid forest roads when planning the training trails, which is not always possible.
So that a trail can be used for dog sledding, I have to prepare the trail with the snowmobile, preferably even with a snow mover. But first I have to make it wide enough.
A snow mover is pulled behind the snowmobile to prepare the tracks – the snow is compressed and bumps are leveled out.
How to prepare trails
Snowmobiles have different widths of the track, the mat with which the vehicle moves forward. The wider the track, the wider the trail will be. First, you drive the first lane. Then you drive once to the right and once to the left of the first lane, the second and third width, preferably slightly overlapping. For the best result, several times on the same day. With an average trail length of 40 km, this takes time.
When the trail has the desired width, I drive over it with a self-made snow mover. The slightly lighter version consists of a euro pallet and the really heavy version is a large iron part. Depending on the conditions, I choose the right one. The more I compress the trail, the better the conditions for setting the anchor. No, not the boat anchor, the snow anchor. The handbrake on the dog sled.
And if the whole thing were not already complex enough, the moose now also come into play. In winter there are particularly many moose in our region. Because the snow is deep and the moose have to save their energy in the cold season, they are very happy when people make such nice, hard-pressed trails. Some stretches quickly become a moose highway.
These are wonderful to walk on while you can eat at the edge of the trail or make a place to sleep next to the trail in the snow.
The moose does not bother me, on the contrary, they are great animals! But unfortunately, they are REALLY HEAVY. The result is holes, deep holes in my trail. Holes that dogs can step in, twist ankles, in the worst case, they can even get a muscle strain or torn ligament.
Since the moose are not very communicative and even less insightful, the only thing left for me to do is to prepare the trail as hard as possible. Because then it even carries a moose.
Initial grooming when there is around 40 – 50 cm of the first snow is great conditions for the perfect trail foundation. If I have prepared the trails well, fresh snow can come later. Then I do not have to drive over it every time with the snowmobile but can open the trails with the sled dogs. So I also offer the dogs varied training conditions.
You are starting to understand that I sometimes just want to hang up the key from the snowmobile, don’t you? At the same time, the challenge fascinates me and I always try to learn new things. The more effective I am at making trails, the more time I have with the dogs.
Challenges with the snowmobile
This winter has been challenging in many ways.
It was warm for a long time, the creeks and swamps just did not want to freeze over and then a lot of snow came all at once. This will delay the freezing of the creeks and swamps by a few weeks. When I was finally able to cross the creeks, the planned easy tour was different than usual.
The route was partially covered with more than a meter of powder snow and the top was hard-pressed by the wind in the open country. That made it incredibly exhausting. Nevertheless, I was motivated and had decided to do a nice extra lap at the end of the route; a bit up the hill, over the swamp, and around back again to the forest road. A great plan, I thought.
In reality, I got stuck several times on the one-way route. I slid into the ditch with my snowmobile, and it fell over twice. It is extremely exhausting to free the machine from all the loose deep snow. Much more difficult than if you only have 50 cm of snow.
Sliding into the ditch means that I deviate from the planned track and slide sideways into a huge pile of snow. Once there, you are stuck in a snow hole, in a ditch. Then I have to take a breath first. Breath. Think. Only the right technic and experience can help here. I learned that the hard way during my first winters in Northern Sweden.
Just accelerating is a bad idea. Then the hole just gets deeper.
Anyone who has never driven a snowmobile will probably find it difficult to imagine. There are different types of snowmobiles. Racing machines with lots of horsepower, light and short. Others, like mine, are work machines. Big, heavy (500 kg), wide track, and powerful motor. Perfect for making trails and for pulling heavy loads.
In general, you can steer with the handlebars, but shifting your weight is also part of it. Especially in deep snow, where the snowmobile tends to swim. The mat brings forward movement, the runners under the engine keep the vehicle straight. But bodyweight determines a lot where it goes. You shift your weight while you have your hands on the handlebars. Sometimes it is enough to get up and put your weight on one foot, but sometimes you have to lean out to get in the right direction.
Your weight plays a major role. With my not quite 70 kg, the effect on the 500 kg of the snowmobile is often only very small. The only thing that helps is to hop on the side step and balance on the side while the snowmobile works its way through the deep snow.
So imagine: 500 kg snowmobile drives through the one-meter deep powder snow and leaves a 50 cm wide lane. So far so good. With the second lane, just next to the first, the whole thing gets tricky. A bit like riding a mountain bike on a mountain ridge, always keeping your balance. The hands hold the handlebar and the throttle, the weight completely on one side of the snowmobile, with both legs hopping on the footboard. Just don’t stop. And if the hop is not enough, I hang myself with my butt and one leg out as far as possible, balancing halfway over the side. This is how I move forward, meter by meter. You do not believe how often I wish I would weigh more! And having longer arms.
How to free the snowmobile if stuck
Well, and sometimes it just does not help. Then you slide into the ditch, the deep snow hole. Now it is time to shovel. The solution is ALWAYS to shovel. Shovel, shovel, shovel. And trample. Firmly trample the snow under the snowmobile track.
The snow under the runners, the snow next to the snowmobile, in front of the snowmobile and behind it – shovel away. Then, with a little movement and a sensitive throttle, I can drive the machine out of the snow hole. And continue my mission.
There are various other scenarios of how you can get stuck. It always boils down to hard work. Mostly it costs me about ½ to ¾ hour and LOTS of swear words and screams.
Snow wall in the way? Shovel away. Sapling in the way? Saw away. Tree stump in the way? Cut into kindling with an ax. Water under the snowmobile? Big problem.
If the whole shoveling does not help and the snowmobile does not want to move, there is still a joker. My beloved hand winch. I always have it with me, as well as a saw, an ax, a long rope, and a shovel. The winch can be attached to a tree and so the snowmobile can be pulled out. It is only bad if there is no tree nearby or only a small tree that cannot withstand the pulling force …
I got stuck a lot on this particular day. There were a few moments when I wondered if the snowmobile was now at its limit. And for me, it was not only physically exhausting but also mentally, because several times I no longer knew whether I would get out of there again. Sometimes I shoveled and tramped for an hour, but in the end, I always came free. Being stubborn can be helpful.
Where is the limit?
Maybe my form on the day was not so ideal either. The day had shown its weaknesses, too many compromises were made. And then my ambition for a little extra round gave me the rest. I had seen such a great route on the satellite image. A path in the forest – perfect, I thought. And I did not want to let that be taken from me, since everything was not going so well by then. Well, sometimes you should just let it go. Be flexible and simply postpone planned projects – I never stop learning.
Not today. Today I wanted to know. I wanted success. The idea of opening a new route for my dogs was just too tempting. The path was difficult to find and after half an hour of trudging around in the deep snow (at least I was so smart not to take the snowmobile with me), I had to realize: the path is not a path – it is a creek. Very narrow in places, full of undergrowth and unfortunately also water.
What options do I have: Drive back? NO. Now I had already opened so much and I wanted this new route. There must be another possible route to finishing the extra round back to the forest road.
There is always a solution. I just have to find it to be able to complete the project successfully.
Take the bull by the horns!
Although it is slowly getting dark, although I am here for the first time, although I have the swamp in front of me and I do not know whether there is still open water. Yes, I am feeling confident enough to do it, and maybe even a little stubborn. Just a tiny little bit.
I continued my path, over the swamps to the forest road. I saw open water holes several times but they were easy to spot. Luckily I managed to not get stuck badly. Shortly before the forest road, I stopped for a break. To simply enjoy the moment. To be honest, I was very happy to be soon back on the familiar trail, it was almost dark outside and it started snowing. Not the best conditions to find the right way in new terrain.
I got off the snowmobile – and was up over my shoulders in the deep snow. That was unexpected. I have stopped on top of a big snowdrift without realizing it. Just barely I could reach the footboard of the snowmobile with my hands. I thought: “Nobody will believe that!”.
This situation kept me thinking about competition: ” You are first at the finish when you crossed the finish line.” It is a well-known challenge for athletes to keep up focus and determination until the very end of the competition. Especially during a long-distance race.
So I pulled myself up on the footboard and somehow climbed back onto the snowmobile. In that situation, I was really happy that I vaulted a lot as a child. Whether you swing on a galloping horse or out of deep snow on the snowmobile, the movements are astonishingly similar.
Back on the well-known forest road, I got a message from Johanna. She knew it took longer than usual and she wondered if everything was alright. After I told her all the challenges she convinced me to come back immediately. To not drive the second and third lanes of the trail right away.
Back home I realized how exhausting this trip was, my arms hurt and I had several new blue marks around my knees. Questioning myself if I need these challenges, I hang the key from the snowmobile in the back of our wooden key box. Thinking:” This was the last snowmobile tour for this year.”
From the moment I hang the key into the wooden key box, I started to reflect on the trip. First, it felt like a disappointment but then I realized that might be too harsh to myself. I came back home on my own. I opened the easy trail. And I found a new extra round in the end.
Why did I find it so exhausting in the first place?
Mainly my attitude was wrong. In my mind, I was (finally) heading out to open a very easy trail. I did not want to realize the circumstances – of course, I knew that there was way more snow. But I did not want to think about how that might affect my goal. Never thought about re-evaluating my plan.
Sometimes it is good to step back and reflect on the situation instead of continuing. In that way, you can evaluate the situation better and find suitable adjustments. Being better prepared for the possible obstacles and most of all having a focused but relaxed mindset.
Maybe it was not the worst snowmobile trip after all.
“Look for the best. Prepare for the worst.” Markus Aurelius
I prepared the easy trail with the snowmover two days later and went there by dog team several times. It felt surprisingly easy, I was well prepared and enjoyed the ride.
The extra round is market on the map, waiting for the next winter season to become a propper training trail.