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We Are Sled Renters

Published online: Dec 29, 2007 Feature John Isackson
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We want to snowmobile in all the places on SnoWest's Top 15 list but we don't own any snowmobiles.

My wife and I are a sled renting couple and we live in North St. Paul, MN. Together, we have snowmobiled 12 places that have been on SnoWest's Top 15 list for one very scientific reason-it is a total blast.

I am John Isackson, am 41 years old and have lived in Minnesota my whole life.  My wife, Cassandra, is 37 years old and lived in Alabama until we got married in 1998 after which I rescued her from the punishing heat and humidity of the Deep South. My Norwegian great-great-grandfather, Lars Isackson, fought for the North in the Civil War. Lars is probably spinning in his grave since I am now sleeping with the enemy.

When I was about 7 years old, I rode on the back of a friend's Ski-Doo Olympic 399 and I fell in love with snowmobiling. That early 1970s Olympic also taught me that riding on the back of a snowmobile can create a lot of back pain for the passenger.

I harassed my father to buy some snowmobiles. He bought a Herters, a Mercury and a Sno-Jet and we rode them around our farm near Lowry, MN. Wrenching time and riding time were almost equal in those days. We had many winters with poor snow which limited our riding time. A family of rich kids on my school bus went out to Yellowstone every winter. The rich kids raved about mountain riding and I was very jealous of them.

Even though I am an adult now, my passion for snowmobiling is the same as a young kid. After riding in the mountains the first time in 1996, I was hooked on the western experience.

The Twin Cities only average about four feet of snow each winter and there are no mountains in Minnesota.  Therefore, more winter fun is to be found out West.  From 1998 to 2007, we have rented snowmobiles at the following Top 15 places: Snowy Range, WY, West Yellowstone, MT, Island Park, ID, Cooke City, MT, Logan Canyon/Cache Valley, UT, Stanley, ID, McCall, ID, Diamond Lake, OR, Grand Lake, CO, Grand Mesa, CO,  Alpine, WY, and the Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail (CDST), WY. I went to the Big Horns in 1996 with a friend so I have actually visited 13 places on the Top 15 list.

Trip Planning

A guy in my office named Ron says, "It takes ambition to have passion" and he thinks I have plenty of ambition for snowmobiling. Trip preparation requires time and effort. I use the Internet, snowmobile magazines, tourism offices and the local chamber of commerce to get information about sled rental places. Sometimes, pesky insurance people like to limit snowmobile rentals to tame family sleds. Therefore, I try to search for the sled rental places with real mountain sleds. Make sure you ask the rental place exactly what clothing and equipment they provide. Sometimes, the rental place can recommend reasonably priced lodging.

I try to avoid December sledding because snow conditions are too risky for us. January is usually better but February is our favorite time because snow conditions are typically good and there is more daylight. We make sled reservations at about the same time we buy our airplane tickets. We usually rent a 4-wheel drive SUV at the airport. There is a lot of expensive lodging in the West. We prefer to stay at cheap hotels and spend our money on the most expensive sleds or other fun activities. There is nothing wrong with a $40 room at Motel 6 and a $200 mountain sled rental. We don't mind driving half an hour in the morning to the rental place if it saves on lodging costs.

If you only snowmobile a few times a year, it doesn't make sense to buy your own fast-depreciating toy. Since we don't own sleds, we are not limited to a small radius of riding areas. We have always gone unguided and we each have a rental sled to ride. I have seen too many guided groups puttering around at low speeds on the trails.  If you have never snowmobiled before, you should get a guide. Big rental places usually operate like a systematic machine with their customers and some of them aren't that personable. Small rental places can vary from not so good to great. I usually try to stop at small places the night before we rent and meet them face to face so that there are no surprises the next day.

Clothing And Gear

You should use performance long underwear to wick away moisture from your skin. You can never own too much polypropylene, Windstopper or Gore-Tex fabrics. One of my favorite pieces of gear is my Windstopper balaclava by Klim. It is thin but it keeps the cold wind off of my neck. We both have Gore-Tex coats and gloves which keep us dry on warm wet days. It is best to purchase minus 100 degree F boots with wicking liners in case you are forced to spend a cold night stranded in the mountains. In 2002, Olympic wrestler Rulon Gardner lost a middle toe to frostbite after being stranded while mountain snowmobiling in Wyoming. Good boots will save your toes. It is best to avoid boots that have metal buckles that can cut expensive snowmobile seats.

We have always had fogging problems with flip-down shields provided on rental helmets. Therefore, we purchased motocross style helmets with breath deflectors and goggles. We own Polaris helmets for one very scientific reason. At a snowmobile show, we tried on about a dozen different brands and Cassandra said the Polaris helmets were the most comfortable. The golden rule of marriage is "If momma's not happy, nobody is happy." We bring our helmets on the airplane with us so that no baggage handling gorilla jumps on these delicate giant eggs.

Fun and danger seem to go hand in hand. Both of us carry a compass and a trail map. When the sky is clear, I try to use the sun to keep my bearings so I that can limit the amount of times I need to pull out the trail map and freeze my hands. If the sleds don't have much storage room, it is good to have a bag with tie-down straps.

Have the rental person show you how to change a drive belt and find the tool kit. A broken belt could make you spend a cold night in the mountains. Have the rental person mark your trail map for all fuel places, warming huts and restaurants. Make sure you have their phone number in case one of the sleds breaks down. Have the rental person tell you the weather forecast and if any of the peaks get dangerous weather conditions that should be avoided. Ask about the hand signals required for the trail. Rental insurance is about $30 per day and it is usually a good purchase.

We put many small water bottles in the back of a sled. High elevation areas will make you very thirsty. Hard food items like beef jerky, candy bars and peanuts also work. Don't put soft items like bananas in the back of a sled unless you want gross pudding. It doesn't hurt to wrap duct tape around a water bottle a dozen times for miscellaneous uses. Toss a lighter and a Leatherman tool into the zip loc that holds your food. If there is enough storage room, we bring extra goggles and gloves.

Riding Area Comments

My impressions of riding areas may not be as good as what the locals will tell you. Grand Mesa is unique because it is the largest flat topped mountain in the world. You drive through a snowless high desert and then climb switchbacks to deep powder on this monster mesa. You snowmobile at 10,000-11,000 feet at this place and your lungs will work overtime. Grand Lake may be the second most scenic place in Colorado after Glenwood Springs. When we snowmobiled to a high elevation lookout, I was surprised by the impressive scenic view. Climbing Super Chicken Hill at Grand Lake is exhilarating.

Island Park is a large riding area. From a small bridge, we tossed many crackers into a river and created a fun battle between the trout, muskrats and ducks. On Mount Two Top, there was a frightening lack of visibility in which we could barely see more than 30 feet. After one frightening mile at very slow speeds, we popped out of the blizzard and were delighted to be together. Since my wife is 60 percent trained, I was scared to lose her in a blizzard at the peak. It is hard for me to rate McCall because it rained during our visit, the snow was soggy and most sledders had face shield fogging problems. We snowmobiled to a wonderful place named Burgdorf Hot Springs so bring your swimsuit.

Stanley is located in the stunning Sawtooth Mountains. Stanley is a remote small town with log cabins and a cowboy feel to it. Our hotel had its own private hot spring that was wonderful.  Stanley is a very special snowmobiling place but it can get quite cold here. Call ahead because the road to Stanley gets shut down sometimes during storms. I think Idaho is the most underappreciated state in the United States for scenery. Many Idaho citizens don't want people like me exposing their secret paradise.

The Cache Valley (Logan Canyon) was wonderful. We were also able to snowmobile into a great area of southern Idaho from Logan Canyon.

On the CDST, we sledded out of Togwotee and had nice views of the Tetons. The CDST is huge and it has a lot of varied terrain for all riding levels. Alpine is the most scenic riding area we have ever visited. We think Alpine is like being in a fairy tale. There are many off-trail riding opportunities. If you haven't snowmobiled in  Alpine, you need to put it on your travel schedule. The Snowy Range is flat out great. It has a lot of snow and we saw many moose here but not many other sledders. The Big Horns had such great dry powder during my visit that I may too biased to accurately appraise this place. For Midwesterners who like to drive, the Big Horns provide a shorter trip than other riding areas.

From West Yellowstone, we headed east into Yellowstone National Park and spent the day viewing many wild animals and the greatest thermal area on earth. From our other travels, we know that the thermal areas in Iceland and New Zealand don't compare to this masterpiece. The other option is to head west from town and have a great day of snowmobiling without the restrictions of the Park.

To enter Cooke City, you must drive through Yellowstone National Park. Cooke City is the most challenging riding area we have ever visited. My wife fears the steepness of Cooke City. You should have a group of strong guys at this place to pull out stuck sleds. If you are a first time rider, avoid this place because it only has about 60 miles of trails. If you are an advanced rider, Cooke City is dynamite. The steep mountains at Cooke City are as frightening as making a commitment to your girlfriend.

Diamond Lake had wet snow and I only could find family sleds to rent. The saving grace is that we got to sled into Crater Lake National Park and sit on the rim of this massive volcano. Mount Thielsen has a stunning peak.

Other Good Riding Areas

I like some riding areas that aren't on SnoWest's Top 15 list. Revelstoke, BC, is a powder monster. It is a special place with unbelievable snow depths and big avalanche risks. It usually gets about 40-60 feet of snow each winter, which makes Revelstoke the "Powder Snow Capital of Canada." The sharp mountains of the Canadian Rockies are very scenic. We think Revelstoke should be on the Top 15 list.

In 2005, we had a great day snowmobiling at the Strawberry Mountains in Grant County, OR, with a great guy named John Bastian, who at the time was the president of the Oregon State Snowmobile Association. Grant County has more than 800 miles of trails. In 2002, we had a wonderful time snowmobiling at Crowsnest Pass, AB, on a weekday and we didn't see one other sled the whole day. In 1996, a friend and I had a scenic day of sledding at Duck Creek, UT, and we drove to the edge of the amazing Cedar Breaks National Monument.

Sleds

We don't have any brand loyalty when it comes to snowmobiles. My loyalty is to horsepower. I always want to rent the biggest mountain sled that is available. The best boondocking sled I have ever driven was a Ski-Doo Summit 800 with a 144-inch track. It turned great through the trees. My favorite Polaris mountain sled is the Dragon. Polaris got it right with this one. In 2004, we rented 800 RMKs that straightened out our arms when we accelerated. My wife said driving an 800 RMK is like wrestling a grizzly bear. The biggest fuel pig we ever rented was a 900 RMK. It is too bad that you can't fit a gas station on the back of a 900 RMK. We rented Summit 1000s at Grand Mesa and found out that these beasts will climb almost anything within reason. In 2007, we rented Arctic Cat M8s and were glad to find out that the previous cooling problems have been resolved. I think the future of snowmobiling is four-strokes but they still need to drop some weight. In the UP of Michigan, we rented an incredible Yamaha Apex GT which is my wife's favorite snowmobile of all time but it isn't a mountain sled.

Family sleds usually have tall windshields that smack me in the face when I hit big bumps. My 5-foot tall wife hates trying to look through a frosted windshield. In my experience, too many family sleds have darting problems on trails. Family sleds get stuck too easy in deep snow.

Riding Safety

I am certainly not an expert when it comes to snowmobiling and I learn new things each year about the sport.

There is a degree of risk management on getting stuck. Take small bites at challenging areas. Don't take a big bite and be stranded. Start at an easy area and assess how the sled performs before going to a difficult area where you can get stuck. If you can't see over the edge, circle around until you get a clear view before you dive in. Try to find an exit route before entering the unknown. Take less risks near sunset and when you are far from a trail. When looking at the trail map, think about the high risk places for getting stuck. Ask yourself, "If I get stuck here, can I easily find help?"

You should also do some sidehilling on small areas to check for avalanches. When I drive by big holes in the snow from previously stuck sleds, it gives me a wakeup call that I could be next. When it comes to mountain climbing, our brains our wired differently. I fear steep downhills and my wife fears uphills. Try to visualize the line you will take on a mountain and where you can turn to come down. I turn much better to the right because it is the throttle side and I can hang way off the right side and still control the speed. This is important if you are climbing a mountain and need an open spot to turn back down. When trying to turn left in deep snow, I can't sufficiently hang off the left side and control the right handed throttle. When boondocking, be careful that you don't fall into a windswept hole at the base of evergreens. I have experienced champagne powder at the Big Horns, Revelstoke and Grand Mesa. It is fun and dangerous to be blinded by incredible powder.

Try to visit the warming hut so you know its location in case of an emergency. At half a tank of fuel, I start looking for fuel. Too many times, the trail to the gas station is the highly traveled bumpy one that will pound on your whole body. This is a trail that will make your back muscles sore the next day. I think that 100 miles of sledding in the mountains is a hard day and it may be equivalent to 200 miles in the Midwest.

I admit that we are lacking the safety equipment that we see on some local riders. Some of this important equipment includes an avalanche beacon, probe, shovel, first aid kit, tow rope, folding saw and a stuck sled pulling tool called a Snobunje, which is a spring loaded strap with a D shaped handle.

Other Fun

If you plan to ski on the same trip, try to do it the day before snowmobiling. It is hard to control your skis following a hard day of snowmobiling. If possible, we try to avoid sledding two days in a row because our bodies get very sore. Many times, we plan some fun for our day of rest like visiting a hot spring or doing a scenic drive. A hot spring is great for soothing your sore muscles. An Internet search may help you find a local hot springs. To find a scenic drive, our favorite travel book is "National Geographic's Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways" but some of the best routes are closed in winter.

Conclusion

Mountain sledding isn't for everyone. During lunch on the CDST, a rider from New York on a rental said he hated mountain sledding. He complained that he got stuck and had to be rescued by the rental place. He said it is hard to breathe, the sleds are slow at elevation, it is hard to see in snowy conditions, the trails aren't smooth, he got covered in snow and there isn't enough signs. He said he likes to sled in Quebec where the trails are groomed like a highway and they are perfectly signed. My sledding heaven was his hell.

What's next? I am excited to try out the new 2008 Yamaha Nytro and new lightweight 2008 Ski-Doo Summit 800.

This winter we hope to rent snowmobiles at Mt. Bachelor, OR, and Lake Chelan and Cle Elum, WA.

My wife has really fallen in love with the Rocky Mountains so we purchased a 20 acre lot outside of Whitefish, MT, for our retirement home and it has a lot of snow. If a giant meteor is ever going to strike the earth, I want to spend my last day snowmobiling in the mountains with my Alabama bride.

It is up to you if you want to put the fun meter on 11.