Imagine a machine that sort of looks like the front half of a snowmobile but is pulling a sled where the operator stands up in the sled and steers the machine. That is the Snowdog, a machine initially used by ice fishermen to get out on the ice with all their gear. It’s now gaining in popularity as a means to pack single-track and winding trails that are too narrow for standard Nordic cross-country ski grooming equipment.
Thanks to donations from the local snowbike community, a Snowdog was purchased and recently made its debut on the multi-use trails at Happy Jack Recreation Area on Pole Mountain. The new equipment also included a chainsaw, donated by the owners of Tiger Tree, to help remove downed trees.
Laramie BikeNet members Evan O’Toole and Dan McCoy recently got the new Snowdog up and running and report it does a good job packing the trails.
“It provides a nice 20-inch wide trail,” McCoy said. “It takes a bit of getting used to but it’s handy that it can also go across bare ground without doing the machine any harm. Given the low snow cover in some areas so far this season, that is a plus.”
“It is pretty fun to use,” O’Toole admitted. “It takes some muscle on tight, twisty trails and we may have to shovel snow in some sections to keep it from tipping, but it should be a great tool for cyclists, runners and hikers.”
About six winters ago snowbikes first appeared on the Happy Jack trails.
The number of snowbikes, also called fat bikes due to the oversized tires and beefed up frames, has steadily increased, confirming their use in not just a passing fad. At about the same time snowshoeing increased in popularity and trail runners also wanted a place to run in the woods in the winter.
Seasoned snowbikers know the best riding conditions are on a single-track path with a hard-packed surface. Riding right after a deep snowfall is frustrating since the bikes bog down in fluff. While the groomed ski trails provide this hard-packed surface, the bike tires can cause ruts that create hazards for skiers.
There also was an issue of overcrowding on the trails. Since use was already high with just Nordic skiers, adding yet other user groups was fraught with the potential for conflicts.
The solution started evolving a couple years ago. The maze of trails in the recreation area included narrow routes that were considered “multi-use” trails and were “user-packed” and not groomed for skiing. They were popular with snowshoers and those skiers who preferred a less “manicured” route.
First, with U.S. Forest Service permission, connector routes were established so that the multi-use trails linked together and users no longer had to also go onto some segments of the Nordic groomed routes to complete loops.
Essentially, the winter trails were expanded to allow for separation of recreational modes. The effort has been a collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, Medicine Bow Nordic Association, Laramie BikeNet and Wyoming State Parks.
Paul Gritten, non-motorized trails program manager with Wyoming State Parks, said he feels the solution is win-win for those on bikes, snowshoes and trail runners who like a packed surface as well as those skiers who enjoy the specially-groomed trails.
“The separate trails allow more space for all,” Gritten said. “With the different use trails being apart, the Happy Jack area really helps meet the needs of the different user groups.”
To that objective, Gritten spearhead an effort two winters ago to provide packed trails, especially targeting snowbikers, at Curt Gowdy State Park. Unfortunately, Mother Nature didn’t cooperate.
“We’d have good snow, do some grooming, and then the wind would blow and create drifts across areas we packed,” Gritten said. “Then it would melt and we’d have mud. We had a concern, given that repeating cycle, of causing erosion damage during the mud phase. While it just wasn’t feasible at Curt Gowdy due to poor snow conditions, we are excited to be a part of the effort at Happy Jack.”
Wyoming State Parks essentially owns the machine and will take over maintenance and, if needed, storage. Gritten will be the primary Snowdog operator and he expects to get out on the trails following snow storms that leave at least 2-3 inches of snow on the trails. A few trained volunteers will also fill in for Gritten when he is unavailable or if the new snow arrives during the weekends.
McCoy said the new packing machine is possible thanks to those who donated to its purchase. Significant donations were provided by High Plains Harriers and Cycle Wyoming as well as more than two dozen individual donors.
“All those donors made it possible,” he said. “We heartily thank them for their support. Now all we need is more snow.”
Amber Travsky earned master’s degrees in wildlife biology and exercise physiology from the University of Wyoming. She runs her own environmental consulting company, as well as a martial arts school. She authored “Mountain Biking Wyoming” and “Mountain Biking Jackson Hole,” both published by Falcon Books. She is the tour director and founder of the Tour de Wyoming bicycle tour, which crosses the state every July.