SEELEY LAKE – It’s a partnership that powers Montana’s outdoor economy every winter while making a huge difference in some of the Treasure State’s rural communities.
Snowmobiling is big business in Montana, surpassing the $100 million mark a decade ago. But the runners, many of whom are from out of state, need places to go. And that’s where snowmobile clubs play a huge role, spending all winter maintaining thousands of miles of trails.
“Without the state, we couldn’t do this because of the grant money and then basically the support and operation of the whole system,” said Seeley Lake Driftriders president Bill Swain. “It’s a win-win situation for both of us. We get the groomers and get groomed runs. And the state gets a thing for tourists to come and ride groomed runs.”
Seth McArthur, program manager for state parks, said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) would not be able to offer trail recreation without the support of the local club.
“To be honest, without the clubs and the partnerships we have within the communities in western Montana, we wouldn’t have a snowmobile program. And we’re talking about businesses. We’re talking about the community itself. We are talking about the club that maintains and prepares the trails.”
“The machines are so expensive that they’re all computerized. It takes a lot to keep these machines maintained and running, and that’s a big part of what we do,” says McArthur. “These clubs provide a lot of the funding. The, you know, the coins and coins to get these things going. We wouldn’t have a program – like I said – without these people and they’re doing a wonderful job. to keep the machines running.
And other agencies help too. This year the Lolo National Forest allowed visitors to stay at the trailheads for up to 2 weeks to compensate for the lake of hotels in Seeley. Swain says he’s seen license plates from all over the west and as far away as Minnesota, Wisconsin and even Alaska.
To find out what it is, MTN News hitchhiked Bruce Friede, one of the Driftriders’ five groomers, who spends long, lonely hours, usually well after dark, grooming the trails.
“The fun thing is that we can go out and see the trails both in the dark and in the sun once in a while. And we see things that no one else can see. And we see some just a few, absolutely stunning views. The wildlife, the snow, the trees. That’s all this valley has to offer,” Friede says with a smile.
The snowmobile club covers a huge territory, 365 miles of trails are groomed regularly. And next season the Driftriders will add over 100 miles to the network, supporting the trail system near Garnet.
“It’s tedious,” admits Friede. “You work in these banks, trying to maintain where you are and it’s really a challenge.”
And not only because of the conditions, but knowing that these complicated machines go all the way to the stern, from the plow to the “tycoon master” in the rear. Use the tools to keep the tracks open to all users, from families to Race to the Sky competitors.
“I mean, there’s everything,” McArthur says. “Dog mushers, cross-country skiers, fat-tire bikers. There are all kinds of recreational enthusiasts having fun. Even just hiking the trails.”
Friede likes to see the varied groups on the trails he’s cleared, “we see skiers, dog sleds. Dog sledding is pretty prevalent here and with the bigger names.”
McArthur also says clubs are a great source of ideas for FWP. In fact, Driftriders worked with Pittman Machining to come up with this new and improved “drag” that will ship to West Yellowstone next season, with improvements born on local trails.
The Driftriders, which started in the early 80s, are always welcoming new people, whether you want to help groom or just have fun.
“If you want to join, we’ll give you a ride in a snow groomer. And then in a parking lot, well, that’ll let you get on the poles and maneuver the machine. That pretty much tells you where where they want be pretty quickly,” Friede laughs.
“Driving is fun,” Swain said, showing footage from decades of club events, dating back to the early 1980s. “The views are amazing and great company with all the people you get.”
“We’re basically a club that, you know, we ride a few times a week. But anybody, whether they’re a member or not, can ride with us. We encourage them to join us because we need the money to pay for the grooming.. But they don’t have to. But if they want to ride with us, come and say “hey, I want to ride with you”, then be there and we’ve got them.”
If you want to know more about the Seeley Driftriders, check out their website.