December 13, 2001 11:00 pm
TRAIL BLAZING: A Tucker Sno-Cat is used by the La Grande Sno-Drifters to keep 300 miles of snowmobile trails groomed. (Photo by DEAN HATLEY).
TRAIL BLAZING: A Tucker Sno-Cat is used by the La Grande Sno-Drifters to keep 300 miles of snowmobile trails groomed. (Photo by DEAN HATLEY).

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Union Countys snow weavers are at it again. Members of the La Grande Sno-Drifters snowmobile club are weaving tapestries of trails into Northeast Oregons snow-covered landscape.

Theirs is a program that started in 1976. The Sno-Drifters have groomed trails every year since then. Today the Sno-Drifters are in charge of creating and maintaining approximately 300 miles of snowmobile trails.

The Sno-Drifters essentially maintain two trail systems. One runs from Ladd Canyon to Anthony Lakes and on to the North Fork of the John Day River. The other system runs from the Mount Emily overpass about 19 miles west of

La Grande to Fox Hill just outside La Grande.

Initial grooming work for the 2001-2002 snowmobile-riding season began on Monday and will be completed today.

Grooming work started sooner this season because of early snowfall. Last season there was not enough snow to begin trail grooming until January, said Larry Folston of the La Grande Sno-Drifters.

We already have more snow in some places than we did last year, he said.

Folston is one of the volunteers who logs long hours on the Sno-Drifters Tucker Sno-Cat groomer. He and others often put in 10- to 14-hour days operating the groomer.

It is hard work, but there is something about it that we like, Folston said.

Those operating the snow groomer see striking vistas. They also get to see what the heart of a forest looks like right after a snowfall. There is a pristine quality that is almost indescribable.

There is not a mark anyplace, Folston said.

The initial grooming work of the season is usually the hardest. Often trees have fallen across the trails over the past nine or 10 months. The trees have to be cut before they can be removed.

About 180 trees had to be cut from the trail at the start of last season. Most were in the Mount Emily area, where a heavy wind storm had hit. Relatively few trees have had to be cut from trails this season.

The Sno-Drifters groomer has a blade that cuts trails 10-feet wide. If space allows, groomers will turn around and go back over the route and expand the trail to more than 10 feet. Portions of some groomed trails are at least 14 feet wide.

Folston and other groomers rarely see wildlife while operating their machine. However, they have the satisfaction of knowing that deer, elk and other animals make significant use of the trails. Folston said that once he saw evidence that a herd of 25 to 30 elk had traveled on groomed trails for about 30 miles.

The La Grande Sno-Drifters groomer was obtained four years ago. About 6,200 miles have been put on it since then. The groomer normally travels about 6 miles per hour.

Snowmobilers sometimes encounter cross country skiers on the trails. Folston said snowmobilers and cross country skiers have a good relationship in Northeast Oregon. He noted that the La Grande Sno-Drifters regularly do trail grooming work each winter, specifically for the annual Ladd Canyon Loppet. The 30-mile cross country ski race starts at Anthony Lakes and ends at the Ladd Creek parking lot. This is part of the regular trail network groomed by the Sno-Drifters.

We really appreciate their help, said David Axelrod of the Grande Ronde Nordic Club.

Folston said that Oregons volunteer grooming program is one of the most successful in the nation. He said representatives of states throughout the nation have come to Oregon to see how its grooming program works.

Grooming work is done by clubs that belong to the Oregon State Snowmobile Association. The clubs receive money for trail grooming from gasoline taxes paid by snowmobile users.

The equipment used by the La Grande Sno-Drifters today is much better than it was 25 years ago when the club started grooming trails. The equipment the club used then was harder to operate and less effective than todays, said Fred Zachow of Island City, one of the founders of the La Grande Sno-Drifters.