● By Keri Hirsh
by Keri HirshIt was a bluebird winter morning, and the eager guides at Steamboat Snowmobile Tours stood proudly by their Polaris RMK snowmobiles – one boot planted on the snow, one knee on the seat of their sled, and a hand on their hip. Behind them was a single-file line of unclaimed, shiny black, fueled-up sleds. Dressed in complete snowmobile armor, snowmobile visitors anxiously waited to ride. Young kids, teenagers, adults, and a fegrandparents, wrapped in goggles, inch-thick clothes and hoods, resembled pleasure-seeking Storm Troopers from Star Wars. Without much delay, families and friends were assigned sleds and experienced guides for their journey. Youngsters doubled-up on sleds with their folks. The guides gave an explanation about the safety, operation, and signaling of sledding, followed by a “thumbs up.” Drivers reached down to the ignition chord of their vehicles, grabbed the pull chord, and gave a force-full tug. The motors roared, and like a pack of Iditeron wolves, they were off on their backcountry adventure. ‘Tis the sledding season. Winter is here and for powder-hounds who smell freedom in backcountry adventure, fresh tracks, high speed, big air, or a combination of it all, one of the best places for a thrill ride is in Steamboat Springs’ backyard – Routt County, Colorado. Over the past decade, the U.S. Forest Service has seen a steady increase in snowmobile use in the Steamboat Springs area. “When out-of-state snowmobilers come to the Steamboat area for the first time, they have a blast. They return home and tell their friends and the word spreads, then more people come here to snowmobile. Routt County often has some of the best snowpacks in the state, and veteran Colorado snowmobilers, who normally play closer to home, come here when snois marginal in other areas. They too become hooked, and many end up making Routt County their first choice in snowmobile destinations, despite the extra travel time,” says forester Ed Patalik. Local snowmobile tour operators report growth in this winter activity. Several thousand people joined snowmobile tours last winter, a leap from previous years. The undeniable reason tourists flock to the area to snowmobile is because the snoconditions are close to perfect and the scenery is spectacular. As one tour operator said, “You hold on to a revving snowmobile, zip up and down groomed trails, explore aspen-filled meadows and float into hills of fresh champagne powder. There is no other way to take in so many sights in one day like you can on a snowmobile.” A short drive from downtown Steamboat, many sledders motor up well-known Buffalo Pass from Dry Lake Campground. Depending on the day’s visibility and the group’s mountaineering skills, the surrounding peaks, ridges, and valleys showcase the Colorado Rockies. To the north and east are Wyoming’s beautiful Medicine BoMountains and the jagged peaks of Colorado’s Never Summer Mountain Range. To the southeast is the magnificent Gore Mountain Range and the groomed ski trails of the Steamboat Ski Area; to the Southwest is the 82-mile-long Flattops Wilderness Area. Those backcountry hawkeyed gurus can make out Capitol Peak, the Sawatch Range, The Elks, and Mount Sopris on the distant horizon. For snowmobilers, it’s a matter of hobest to enjoy the dazzling scenery: breaking trail through the powder, taking an easy cruise on a groomed trail, or tilting the adventure meter. Snowmobile enthusiasts fall into three basic categories: adrenaline hounds, experienced high-throttlers and novice sledders. Adrenaline hounds Typically, these riders are young men who come from a motorized sport background. Many of these riders are highly skilled and tear up the fresh snoat full throttle. They zoom at high speeds and launch off everything in sight – from frosted wind-lips to snow-covered rocks. These hounds go big and hope for a safe, soft landing. Not surprisingly, a competitive streak runs deep in these diehard enthusiasts. Steamboat rider Johnny Bushman took second place in last year’s X-Game Qualifier Race on the See Me run at Steamboat. Not unlike drag racing and automotive circuit racing, quality equipment is a key component. Last winter, after laying out $7,000 for a nesled, Johnny spent another $5,000 on repairs and “souping” it up. This year, he spent $9,100 on a Polaris ProX 800 with a 136-Long Track Kit and plans to invest another $10,000 to soup it up. “It will be ported, polished, piped, clutched, and it will also have (custom) heads and reeds as well,” Johnny says. High Throttlers Those zealous, experienced snowmobilers who aren’t looking to star in the next X-Games form the majority of the snowmobile community in Routt County. Whether these sledders are visitors or Steamboat locals, some will say that they need their “throttle therapy.” Bear Ackerman, long-time local rider explains the term. “When we take the snowmobiles out for the day, or on an overnight trip, it’s an incredible relief from everything. There is no type of therapy like the relief you feel from snowmobiling,” he says. Bear and his wife, Rayne, are typical, local, experienced sledders. They enjoy the all-day adventure, have the backcountry knowledge, and crave a fix of horsepower. Safety and well-being play an important factor in their adventure. Rayne looks forward to their overnight adventures at Dutch Creek and their traditional Valentine’s Day Trapper’s Lodge expedition. “I like to pack up the sleds like we may not come back. We’re going out there for an adventure with our friends. There’s no better way to spend a weekend then cruisin’ on the snowmobiles, drinking some wine, and enjoying the beautiful scenery,” she says. For another style of experienced sledder, the snowmobile is more of a means to an end. They, too, want to make fresh tracks, but on skis or a snowboard. The best way to access primo powder is to fire up their machines and head into the backcountry. “There have been days we’ve skied about 4,000 vertical feet – that’s 4,000 feet of untracked fresh powder,” says Jay Epstein of Boulder about sledding and snowboarding on Buffalo Pass. Novice Sledders Oftentimes the traditional family ski vacation includes one day off from the ski hill, when the group decides on an alternative activity. “If it wasn’t for Mom, Dad and their two little kids, we wouldn’t be in business. This is where a majority of our business comes from. This is a place where kids ski free, kids ride for free, too,” says Don Markley of Steamboat Lake Outfitters. Father-and-son teams are common in the snowmobile community. Josh Radcliff and his father, Phillip, took a sledding tour with Steamboat Snowmobile Tours last winter. Although Josh may want to drive his own sled, he’s not old enough. Since Colorado requires snowmobile drivers to have a valid driver’s license, Josh will have to wait until he’s 16 years old. But for the time being, Josh and Phillip enjoy riding together as a team. And just as Josh and Phillip ride together in the tour group as a team, that’s also hoX-Game competitor Johnny Bushman became involved in the sport. “When I was a kid, my dad had an old, ‘70s, green John Deere snowmobile. He used to take me for rides. I always wanted a snowmobile. It’s been a family activity since I can remember,” Johnny says. While sledding may be in some family genes, it’s an unsung option for others seeking nethrills. Whether you want a quick jolt of adrenaline or a nice ride through the mountains, you come in contact with it all when you snowmobile here in snowmobile heaven – Routt County, Colorado.