On the Trail: Sled dogs need not apply

 

By IKE FREDREGILL

Wind cut through my balaclava Jan. 31 as I dodged the ice spitting from Sam Trautman’s snowmobile track.
Back off, I thought, this isn’t a race.
My speedometer, however, told a different story. The digital readout jumped from 30-65 mph with only light prompting from the throttle, and the sled’s screaming engine cried foul whenever I slowed down.
Whipping across Medicine Bow National Forest’s groomed trails, Sam led Mike Gray and I away from Albany Lodge and deep into the forest squatting below Medicine Bow Peak.
For Mike and I, this was our first snowmobiling experience, and as the sun glistened off the drifts lining the road, it felt like it was living up to the hype.
Before we hit the trails, Albany Lodge owner David Wright supplied us with three brand new sleds — an Arctic Cat XF 6,000 High Country ES, an Arctic Cat M 8,000 Sno Pro and a Polaris Pro-RMK 155 — from his rentals lot for the adventure.
His staff walked us through each sled’s features, controls and warning indicators. Perhaps because it was red or simply it was the one closest to me, I chose the Polaris. The control panel featured a large screen with a map option I thought might come in handy, but quickly forgot about once we started the engines.
As a Harley Davidson owner, I was overly confident about my ability to steer the sled, so I didn’t ask many questions, for which I spent the next few hours chiding myself.

Figuring it out, sort of

Right out the gate, the first thing I learned about snowmobiles was hang on and keep your feet firmly planted.
I ride a heritage. It’s a big bike intended for touring, often referred to as a bagger. My black beauty can speed down the highway with the best of them, but its throttle was designed for gradual acceleration.
Not so with the Polaris, which uses a finger throttle rather than a rolling grip.
The first time I pressed that button, I nearly fell off the sled. My second mistake, and immediate reaction, was releasing the throttle, which almost sent me flying over the shiny red front end.
I continued this rodeo for sometime until I fell into the groove of manipulating the Polaris’ acceleration.
Heading west out of Albany on U.S. Forest Service Road 500, we quickly entered the turning tutorial. As the snow-covered road ascends the mountain, it makes sweeping turns punctuated with steep drop offs. I’d driven this way several times in my pickup, but never fully appreciated the wide turning radius until now.
With a motorcycle, turning is about pushing and leaning, but those concepts didn’t directly translate into snowmobiling.
Sam tried to explain the proper dynamic to me several times, before I finally shook my head and told him I would simply have to figure it out for myself — I never did.
Regardless, I could manage going fast up the straightaways and slowing down in the turns. At some point, this strategy must’ve annoyed Mike, because it wasn’t long before I found myself at the back of the pack.
Leaving Albany around 8 a.m., we rode winding trails for a couple hours, passing the frozen Rob Roy Reservoir and a handful of other snowmobilers before turning north toward Medicine Bow Peak.
The warm sun beamed down on us through a clear blue sky, keeping the biting wind at bay.
Conifers, green with needles, contrasted the otherwise dead and snow-blanketed landscape.
The adrenaline of speeding over the groomed trails juxtaposed the serene setting, and I found my attention was evenly split between the thrill of the ride and awe-inspiring terrain.
Around 10 a.m., we pulled into a glen and dismounted for a break.
Sam pulled out homemade breakfast burritos, so we set to building a small fire in the snowbank to warm them.
Satellite connections can be spotty in the national forest, and my sled’s onboard map had trouble pinpointing our location, but based off geographic landmarks, we were about halfway between Albany and Medicine Bow Peak.
“I’m not going to regret this later, am I?” Mike asked through a mouthful of burrito as he started to unwrap his second.
Sam shrugged, and I chuckled.
Suddenly aware I’d left my toiletries at home, I empathized with the sincerity in Mike’s question, but Sam’s recipe was delicious, so I ate two and decided Future Ike could deal with the potential consequences.
Our bellies full and whistles wet, we extinguished the fire, hopped back on the sleds and continued north.

Ascension

One of the hardest aspects of riding a snowmobile vs. a motorcycle is the perception of stability. Whether sitting in the saddle or standing on the rails, I never lost the feeling the sled was both unresponsive to my weight distribution and overly responsive to the grooves in the trail.
By the time we arrived at the bottom of the peak, I was no closer to understanding how to drive the contraption than when we left the lodge.
“I can get us up to the peak rather quickly,” Sam said, pointing to the westernmost ledge of the range. “We’ll have an excellent view from up there.”
I admit that I was against the idea at first, cursing under my breath after my snowmobile dumped me in a hefty drift on our ascent, but once at the top, I was glad Mike decided otherwise.
At 10,000 feet above sea level, it truly felt like we’d reached the point where sky and earth met. As far as the eye could see, winter gripped the land in an icy embrace. Atop the peak, we stood on rocks jutting through the snow and laughed in the wind burning our cheeks. It was a crowning triumph and an excellent climax for our little foray.
But it wasn’t long before the bone-chilling cold drove us back down the mountain and into the safety of the tree line.
The ride up took nearly three hours, with frequent stops and breaks included. But on our way back, we opened our throttles and were sitting in Albany Lodge again, waiting on burgers and hot coffee within 40 minutes.
“That’s some way to see the Rockies, eh?” Mike opined, rubbing the numbness from his hands.
Sam nodded, adding, “It’s the only way to see the Rockies this time of year.”