Smoothing the way
When the snow falls, volunteer groomers go to work
Mike Barlow grooms snowmobile trails. Recorder/Paul Franz
Submitted by Conway Snowmobile Club
Submitted by Conway Snowmobile Club
Photo by Kathleen McKiernan
Paul Sokoloski and Mike Barlow of the Conway Snowmobile Club with one of their grooming machines. Recorder/Paul Franz
On Shelburne Falls Road in Conway, Paul Sokoloski drove his green GMC truck gently across the snow-covered farmland. Its large, turning tractor treads — mounted where its tires used to be — squashed the white snow and tossed it to the side.
Sokoloski began to reverse the large, green machine. His son, Adam Sokoloski, shouted directions outside, telling him to keep coming beside the picturesque red barn, where a a yellow drag, built by Sokoloski, waited in the snow.
Within seconds, the drag — a device used to groom trails — was hooked up to the truck.
In the distance, a group of four snowmobilers sped by like a splash of color on the white farmland as the Sokoloskis waved.
It was a cold snowy Sunday and 10 to 14 inches of snow had covered Franklin County a few days earlier. It was a good weekend for snowmobiling.
Typically, the two South Deerfield men would also be running their machines on the trails. Instead, they had volunteered to groom trails for the Conway Snowmobile Club, of which they have been members for at least 20 years.
While roughly four significant snowfalls and storms have blanked the farmlands of Franklin County this year, many of them were followed by rain or warm weather, ruining what would otherwise be perfect conditions for sledding.
“Right now, it’s good,” Paul Sokoloski said. “We had snow early on, but it didn’t stay. If we get more snow into March, it’ll be a nice season.”
Snowmobilers can be picky when it comes to snow. They prefer a foot of weighted snow that is easy to pack to the ground. Light snow doesn’t do. It is too fluffy to stay in place firmly on the trails.
On this February weekend, the snow was ideal and many snowmobilers took advantage of that. But for these Conway club members, it was time to groom.
Grooming is one part of the preparation for snowmobiling. From October to the first heavy snowfall, the Conway club members clear the trails for the winter season using brush cutters, chain saws and their bare hands to move aside branches and brush for safe sledding.
The snowmobile club, a volunteer group made up of 400 members, takes care of 120 miles of trails in southern Franklin County.
It is one link in a patchwork of 30 local snowmobile clubs throughout Massachusetts from Worcester County to Berkshire County. Along with membership in a local club, riders must also be a member of the Snowmobile Association of Massachusetts, or SAM, which gives riders permission to ride on hundreds of miles of trails that cross private property.
On that Sunday afternoon, the Sokoloskis headed toward the Conway club’s main route, Corridor 93, in the area of Deer Park, which runs from West Whately to Ashfield.
Most groomers consist of a small drag that’s pulled by a snowmobile. Among the Conway Snowmobile Club’s collection of drags is “super” groomer that’s 8 feet wide and 16 feet long. It’s pulled by the GMC truck, which has the Conway Snowmobile Club insignia on its side.
Inside the truck, on the right side of the driver’s seat, is a hydraulic valve. The value controls the drag. Handled like the stick shift on a car, the value can narrow and widen the drag to fit changing trail conditions. Paul Sokoloski, the Snowmobile Association of Massachusetts’ 2013 trail worker of the year, built this contraption.
As he put his creation to work with his son beside him, the trail was busy with snowmobilers. Often, the snowmobilers had to stop as they approached the large groomer, scoot to the side and then speed past. The atmosphere was amicable. If it wasn’t for the volunteers, there wouldn’t be any sledding in Conway. Grooming makes the snow smooth for snowmobilers.
The sledders did make grooming slightly more difficult. As the snow machines sped by, the snowmobiles tossed the snow to the side, causing hardened bumps in the snow.
“It eats up the snow,” Paul Sokoloski said. “It’s not settling or getting a chance to set up.”
With no traffic, nighttime is the best time to groom the trails, but it is also the worst time to get into trouble, Adam Sokoloski said.
Two nights before, Adam Sokoloski and a friend had gone out to pack the trails. By Fields Hill Road in Conway, the front track came off the groomer. Under the black skies and cold temperatures, the two had to call it a night. They walked up the deserted road and called for a ride home.
Grooming is a two-person operation, Adam Sokoloski said. If the groomer gets stuck in the snow or can’t get up a hill, the volunteers use a winch, which requires the efforts of two people, to pull the groomer out of the forest.
Despite the snowmobilers, the Sunday morning was mostly quiet. In the dense forest, the only sound breaking the silence was the loud groomer moving past the trees, smacking and packing the snow down to the ground. It was slow going given the challenging terrain.
Faced with a steep incline straight ahead, the groomer maneuvered slowly down the uneven ground.
After a few hours in the dense forest, the groomer broke free into an open farmland, where acres of snow stretched before it. Tracks from snowmobiles twisted and turned throughout the snowy field.
Conway club member Wayne Jackman of Conway, who was headed to work the Flagg Mountain area in Buckland, sledded by pulling a small groomer.
Coming back onto Shelburne Falls Road, the Sokoloskis bumped into a four snowmobilers who asked why the two club members weren’t out enjoying the trails.
“We could have gone snowmobiling, but we did grooming instead,” Adam Sokoloski said. “Maybe Thursday or Friday, we’ll take a rip up here and go to the Ashfield Lakehouse.”
Snowmobiling is fun, but it will cost you
Before you rip up the trails, a snowmobiler needs to be ready for bone-chilling, zero-degree temperatures. To do that, snowmobilers need heavy-duty winter wear.
At Ray’s Cycles in Greenfield, owner Tim Pydych offers some tips on how to prepare for trails.
Pydych, a member of Bernardston-Gill-Leyden Snowmobile Club, has been riding for 45 years, since he was a kid.
First and foremost, a rider needs a sled. For beginners, the starter sled is typically something like the Arctic Cat F5, which has 80 horsepower. Sleds run between 60 to 180 horsepower and can reach 75 miles per hour.
Snowmobiling is not a cheap sport. The Arctic Cat costs about $7,500. And top-end sleds range from $13,000 to $14,000. Used sleds can cost about $2,000.
Next, riders need a helmet. Typically, riders wear full-face helmets to help stay warm. The helmets often have layers of insulation and offer eye protection. Helmets start with a $100 price tag.
Once riders get a sled and a helmet, they need to make sure they can stay warm while on the trails.
That’s where the heavy winter clothing comes in. Pydych said riders should have jackets and layered clothing that will survive the wet and cold.
Riders wear many layers of clothing. For their feet, riders should wear waterproof boots with heavy felt lining meant to resist below-zero temperatures. Boots, which can look like work boots, can cost between $60 to $200.
For their hands, riders should wear heavy gloves, which can cost between $20 to $100 for insulated versions.
Luckily, many sleds come equipped with heated grips and heated seats now.
Staff reporter Kathleen McKiernan has worked at The Recorder since 2012. She covers Deerfield, Conway, Sunderland and Whately. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.