From the September 2014 issue of SnowTech Magazine. (Aug 2014)
Really? Tough sledding? How can we say this when we had yet another year with over 300” of snow fall down wind of Lake Superior, giving us some of the best low elevation riding one could possibly imagine? How can we say this after we were able to hop on our sleds and ride (403 miles in under 12 hours) from west central Minnesota all the way to the western U.P. of Michigan in a single day? How can we say this after riding over 10,000 miles for the second year in a row? How can we call that tough sledding?
It is kind of odd, but there was actually a period of time this past winter when there was plenty of snow on the ground but we witnessed a lull, or delay in snowmobiling activity. The cause? Extreme cold weather, for a very long time. Now for the best part. When you have a cold run like that, you figure that there is no way it’s just you, that it must be like this everywhere.
Examining the weather and climate maps from this past winter, we discovered there was really only one small area on the entire globe that experienced much below average temperatures for the winter months. Yep, you guessed it, it was right here in the area that stretches from central Minnesota over into the U.P. of Michigan. So literally, we were the only ones on the planet that were experiencing a record cold run of temperatures. It might have been cold in other places, but statistically the Upper Midwest was where it was much colder than average. And once the Great Lakes froze over we lost the moderating effect of the open water. We still had big ice chunks floating in Superior into June. For that matter, there were still places to ride into May – for the second year in a row.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, but this was some of the coldest riding weather we’ve had for an entire winter for a very long time. All the way back to about 1997 as far as we can remember. The difference is back then the sleds were much wider with much bigger windshields. Now days the sleds are much narrower with much smaller windshields, so the amount of rider protection is greatly diminished. For sure, we had mounted bigger windshields to each and every sled in our fleet, but it was still tough for us to stay warm through an entire day of being outside tearing it up.
Even now in late summer, there are still tinges of numbness in some fingers and toes. The frozen parts of my face have since healed, but there was some nasty frostbite as a result of testing a new facemask and goggle combination one day. Lesson learned, do not be testing new gear on a super cold day. Stick with what you know for a fact works. I know better, but really thought it would work good enough, but having that good seal is ultra important on those cold days.
I know of many riders that just simply waited the weather out for a few weeks to moderate, as they just didn’t want to go out and freeze their tails off. Since we are doing this day after day and week after week our test crew was forced to adapt with our clothing selection and dressing techniques. The key, as it has always been, is proper materials and layering. You want to block the cold wind, but you have to insulate and have the layers of air trapped to keep you warm. Keeping the body core warm was critical to keeping the extremities warm. In the case of hands and feet, the traditional thinking might be to grab a thicker pair of gloves or boots, which we did, but the key was really to maintain the core warmth and then the body would allow blood flow to the extremities. If your core temperature starts to drop, the body will reduce blood flow to the extremities and then your hands and feet get cold, regardless of how thick your socks or gloves are.
The other thing was your helmet and facemask. Many of the helmets are well vented to evacuate perspiration, but when it gets really cold out this ventilation sucks the heat right out of your head so we were taping shut all of the flow vents and resorted to thicker face masks, and most importantly, ones that use Gore Windstopper, this really made a huge difference.
A good breakfast was also critical. Your body needs fuel for the fire to keep you warm, and proper hydration. Just keeping the water bottles from freezing got to be strategic, as pouring cold water into your belly wasn’t the best way to stay warm either. Putting the water bottles down at the bottom of the cargo bag, right on top of the heat exchanger, seemed to work best, instead of at the top of the bag like we usually would do.
But even after all of the individual preparation it really boiled down to what sled we were riding that day. Since our test riders are riding a different sled every day we quickly learned which ones were giving us the better wind protection than the others. The wind came right by the really narrow body sleds, but the wider body sleds did more to keep us protected – like the Arctic Cat ProCross and Ski-Doo REV-XS models. The ones with the wider and taller windshields were always the ones our guys fought over.
When we take off for the day of testing we are usually out in the elements for a full day, never setting foot into a warm building for the entire day, so the only chance to warm up is on a rough section of trail or maybe during a rest stop out of the wind. On cold days, we are really in tune to the difference it makes to be riding in the woods, protected, or out in the wide open, like motoring down a rail bed grade for 30 miles. Smooth trails are cold, rough trails are warm. Twisty trails are warm, straight trails are cold. Trails in the woods are warmer, those out in the wide open are colder. It all adds up.
And then there would be a sled with a heated seat, this year it was a Yamaha SR Viper LTX, and I can actually say I used and enjoyed the benefit of having a heated seat. You didn’t want to use it if there was much of any snow swirl around the rear of the sled, but if you were on hard packed trails it was wonderful to help take the chill out, or at least keep it in check for a while.
Tough sledding? That is really tongue in cheek. We’ve had two spectacular winters in a row. The snowmobile industry has sold through their left over inventory, now at its lowest level in many years. For the most part, dealers and manufacturers had a great year the past two winters. Many riders that had been dormant in the past got back into it, simply because the snow and trails were in such great condition over such a wide area. Riders didn’t have to trailer up north to find good snow, they had it right outside their back door and in their local areas. The entire infrastructure of snowmobiling loved it. Tough sledding? Just kidding. It was awesome!