Leading a group to the top of the Wigwams at Priest Lake, local rider Gary Smith is set amidst blue skies and fresh powder (Photo by Tom Holman/www.PriestLakeParadise.com)
Bustin’ through the backcountry
Snowcatters ‘boondock’ in winter wonderland
By Ralph Bartholdt
Mark Linscott is a “boondocker.”
The title has less to do with being raised in northern Idaho than with a particular hobby that requires snow – lots of it – and hills.
Mark, 45, and twin brother Matt Linscott grew up tooling around their Sandpoint yard with a small snowmobile called an Elan.
The snow machine was a putter, just the right size for kids, yards and maybe a snow-covered hayfield down the road with a slalom course of young ponderosa pine.
As the brothers grew older, graduated from Sandpoint High and entered the family real estate business, their horizons grew bigger, too.
Their backyard was no longer an urban swath of a few acres. Instead, it became hundreds of thousands of acres of backcountry snow from Priest Lake to the Montana border and north to Canada.
The Kaniksu National Forest is a broad-shouldered expanse of backcountry that includes the Selkirk, Purcell and Cabinet mountain ranges of northern Idaho and comprises 1.6 million acres from eastern Washington to northwestern Montana. This vast playground is a snowmobiling mecca and a destination for riders from throughout the region.
It includes hundreds of miles of snowmobile trails groomed by local clubs and takes in vistas of frozen, high mountain lakes, solitary peaks and the emerald blue waters of Priest and Pend Oreille lakes.
For riders like the Linscotts, the amalgam is reason enough for spending a winter’s day on their sleds.
Take away the trails, and the adventure is pure bliss.
“We do a lot of boondocking,” Mark says. “We hardly ever stay on the trails.”
To a guy with an RV, boondocking means camping away from public pay sites where dogs yip, ribeyes spit on the grill and babies cry at night in the camper next door. To snowcatters it means all hell and gone.
Sandpoint’s Winter Riders club is an organization of about 150 members that caters to riders of all stripes from novice to advanced snowcatters, families, pals and people who push the extremes. Two years ago, membership topped 200 – the largest snowmobile club in the state.
“It’s a great place to meet people, and find people to ride with,” club member Nina Deabenderfer says.
She started riding snowmobiles to get around her rural, snow-covered landscape while living on Hoodoo Mountain near Blanchard. When she moved to Sandpoint, she joined the local club and her riding experience scaled new heights. Her skills went from rudimentary trail riding to deep powder traverses and sidetracking up hills.
“It’s an adrenaline rush to be up in that mountain snow,” Deabenderfer, 49, says.
Idaho, according to the Idaho Parks and Recreation, offers more than 7,200 miles of snowmobile trails with a nice chunk of them in northern Idaho, which, according to local riders, also boasts the best snow conditions, views and the most varied terrain.
Sandpoint snowmobilers, as well as throngs of sled-toting enthusiasts from throughout Idaho and neighboring states, often aim for day rides with jumping-off points within an hour of town.
The newly enlarged parking lot at Trestle Creek is a popular starting point where riders can access 50-plus miles of groomed trails and scale outcrops that loom as high as 6,414-foot Lunch Peak. Snowcatters can play on powder-packed mountain lakes and take in the crystalline, blue views.
“I love taking pictures of the scenery,” Deabenderfer says. “You look out across the snow-covered mountains and peaks and the lakes. It’s absolutely gorgeous.”
Boundary County has two major areas including the Roman Nose area in the Selkirk Mountains with access points on Upper Pack River Road in Sandpoint and Highland Flats Road and McArthur Lake Road at Naples, as well as the Canuck Basin in the Purcell Mountains north of Moyie.
The Priest Lake area with more than 400 miles of groomed trails that climb from 2,500 to 7,000 feet at several Selkirk peaks has long been a snowcatter destination. The lake’s communities and resorts cater to the snowmobile crowds with gas, food and accommodations.
On the other side of the Selkirk Crest, Ray Peck spends much of his winter days and nights grooming trails for his fellow snowcatters.
Peck operates a Bombardier snow groomer owned by Idaho Parks and Recreation. The groomer program is funded by snowmobile registrations. Riders who register for Idaho’s unit 9B automatically donate to the local groomer program.
“The number of registered sleds we have is how much money we get the following year,” Peck says.
He and fellow groomers cut trails out of new powder and flatten moguls on existing trails from Canada to Clark Fork and west to the Selkirk Crest.
“The trails can be moguled out in a day if you get enough sleds on them,” Peck says.
Peck, who runs a seasonal excavation business, started snowmobiling as a Sandpoint eighth-grader. Grooming alone in the outback, busting trails in new powder at night as headlights carve the falling mountain snow, seemed a good fit.
“It fell into place for me,” he says.
Like many fellow riders, the hands on his seasonal clock bend to a different timbre. To Peck, summer means work and winter is playtime.
Fellow rider Duane Nordgaarden, 48, a world-class hill climber who for years competed with the best of the best in the West’s snowmobile competitions, has the same clock.
“There are a lot of people here who can’t wait for the snow,” Nordgaarden says. “They are die-hards for winter.”
As with many of his friends, Nordgaarden grew up with the mountains in his backyard. He scooted around on a snow machine as a kid before growing into backcountry riding like most youngsters grow into a pair of big britches. Snowmobiling became an ambition.
Despite his years of competing with world-class riders, Nordgaarden, who lives in Sagle, never really left northern Idaho.
“The most fun I’ve had was right here, riding with my friends,” he says.
Riding in the mountains requires some basic equipment aside from the usual cold weather accoutrements, he says.
A GPS and avalanche probes, beacons and shovels should be part of every backcountry rider’s equipment.
The snowmobile club sponsors avalanche clinics in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service and Idaho Parks and Recreation, and veteran riders share their knowledge with newcomers.
“I’ve been there when avalanches have let off,” longtime Sandpoint rider John Finney, 38, says. “I’ve seen massive results of some massive slides.”
Neither he nor fellow riders, thanks in part to the educational programs they have participated in, have been caught in a slide.
Being in the backcountry’s deep powder, which averages between five and 10 feet, is an experience he has yet to trump.
“I just enjoy being out in the woods, going to different places and challenging my machine with the terrain,” he says.
Newcomers to the sport of mountain riding, boondocking or trail humping who think snowmobiling is for the weak need to talk with Geoff Smith of Sandpoint Marine and Motorsports.
Smith, 40, grew up as a Junior Olympics skier in the mountains around California’s Lake Tahoe communities. For a long time he harbored a dim view of snowmobilers.
“I thought they were wimps,” Smith said, grinning.
After moving to northern Idaho and saddling up a sled for powder in the hills, he changed his mind.
“It’s a bigger challenge to me,” he says. “It’s a full-body workout.”
The best sledding starts in January when the snow starts to get deeper, covering stumps and, in some places, trees, Mark Linscott says.
Some snowcatters prefer spring riding.
“The weather’s usually better and there’s more daylight to the day,” he says. “We’ve ridden in our T-shirts or no shirts sometimes. It’s a good way to get a tan.”
Ask a snowmobiler what is the best part of riding, and the answers vary.
Linscott does not hesitate: Seeing the scenery, he says, and the solitude of the backcountry.
“And grabbing a handful of throttle is just fun,” he says.
Three easy-access Sandpoint area rides and resources
At a new parking lot that accommodates a lot more vehicles and trailers, snowmobilers can offload and ride for an entire day on trails that climb higher than 6,000 feet.
With 50 miles of groomed trails, the Trestle Creek system loops south to Lightning Creek and east to Rattle Creek along the Montana border. The ride offers spectacular views, snow-covered high mountain lakes and plenty of riding.
Head east 11 miles from Sandpoint on Idaho State Highway 200 to Trestle Creek Road. The Forest Service road leaves the highway to the left and trundles three miles to the parking lot where snowmobilers can offload and park.
Roman Nose Lakes Area
The Roman Nose lakes are a premier snowcatting area. The lakes lie just north of 7,260-foot Roman Nose Peak and are an easygoing 9.5 miles from the parking lot at the end of McArthur Lake Road west of Naples. Snowmobilers can ride 80 miles of trails that lead to Harrison Lake, Jeru Creek and Snow Creek.
The area can be accessed by driving north on Highway 95 for approximately five miles to Upper Pack River Road. Turn left and follow the road about six miles to a parking area. Or, drive north on Highway 95 to Naples, follow Deep Creek Loop Road and turn left on Highland Flats Road. Snowmobilers can park and offload their sleds at Falls Creek or Ruby Creek.
For a high-riding adventure in the far northeastern corner of the Panhandle, riders can churn snow on a 45-mile trail system in the Purcell Mountain’s Canuck Basin.
The trail starts around 2,000 feet and climbs steadily until it edges 6,256-foot Ruby Mountain. To the east the groomed trail cuts a track into Montana. A loop trail from Ruby Mountain swings north to Copper Mountain and another trail climbs northwest to Hogue Mountain, just south of the Canada border along U.S. Highway 95.
From Sandpoint take U.S. Highway 95 north to Bonners Ferry, cross the Kootenai River and drive east on U.S. Highway 2 to Moyie Springs. Take Old Highway Two Loop north for approximately four miles and offload at Forest Road 435 where the county road hairpins south.
Trail maps for the Lake Pend Oreille region are available from the Winter Riders snowmobile club; contact president Geoff Smith at 263-1535. http://www.sandpointwinterriders.com
All riders should carry avalanche emergency equipment and be aware of avalanche conditions.
Avalanche classes are available through Idaho Parks and Recreation and the U.S. Forest Service. Contact Marc Hildesheim, 769-1511, or Kevin Davis, 265-6686. For avalanche advisories, go online to http://www.fs.usda.gov/goto/ipnf/ac or call the Avalanche Advisory Hotline at 765-7323. To learn more about avalanche activities, go to the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center’s website: http://www.nwac.us.
Davis recommends carrying a shovel, beacon, and probe and studying these must-reads: “The Avalanche Handbook” (McClung 2006), “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” (Tremper 2008) and “Snow Sense” (Fesler and Fredston 1999).
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