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Playing in the Snow
Jamie Petrick was 10 years old when he first rode a snowmobile, spending the winter months puttering around the eastern South Dakota flatlands and lakes on a 1974 Yamaha 292.
“It wasn’t overly fast or good-looking but my brother and I rode that sled for 10 years,” Petrick said. “And then for reasons I really don’t remember, I quit riding. Six years ago, I started riding again.”
Jamie, a Sioux Falls Financial Advisor and one-time recreational plains rider, is now an avid mountain snowmobiler.
Though to many people mountain riding might seem like just a challenging hobby, Petrick has instead found mountain snowmobiling to be more of a lifestyle. He’s rekindled relationships with childhood friends, met many new ones, and found a way to interact with nature while developing a profound respect for it, as well. He’s honed his skills and, with that, comes all the fun.
“I don’t know what I would do with my winter time now if I didn’t get back into snowmobiling,” Petrick said. “I probably would be doing something outdoors. I don’t know why it took me this long to get into it but I am so glad I did.”
ROOKIES IN THE ROCKIES
Petrick and his good friend Lane Pletan grew up in Clear Lake, SD. Even after growing into adulthood and leaving the town, they kept in touch and Petrick would travel to visit Pletan after his move to Bozeman, Montana.
During a 2006 visit, the two decided it was time to take a crack at snowmobiling in the Rocky Mountains.
On their first try in the mountains, Petrick and his equally enthusiastic friend showed up in the wrong clothing, virtually none of the equipment vital to the sport and, of course, no experience. But they brought the right attitude and everything else fell into place.
“That first trip was one of the best times we’ve ever had in spite of not having a clue what we were doing,” he said. “I’m sure it was comical to watch but we had smiles on our faces all day long.”
They rented a couple of Arctic Cat 600s, but learned right away that those involved in mountain snowmobiling were pretty particular about their sport. Petrick showed up wearing a pair of Carhartt overalls and the guy renting the sleds said he wouldn’t allow him to ride if he wore the bibs. Petrick recalls, “The owner of the rental company strongly encouraged me to rent his gear. It turned out to be a smart decision since I spent a good part of the day digging.”
“We rode up this hard, bumpy trail to reach the deep snow up the mountain,” Petrick said. “We tore up the very first meadow for a couple hours and then we had to ride that horrible trail all the way down because we didn’t pack a lunch. We each had a burger and went up again to ride in the same meadow for another couple of hours.”
They didn’t employ a guide. They sat on their sleds instead of standing, which is a surefire way to get stuck. Often. “I won’t name names but one of us even got stuck on the trail,” recalled Petrick. They didn’t know how to cut the snow. They didn’t carry even the rudimentary equipment, like shovels, so when they crossed paths with another rider who was bogged down, the best they could do was use their helmets to dig the guy out. They were rookies in the Rockies.
But while the Clear Lake buddies learned quickly that they were out of their league, they weren’t discouraged. They were, in fact, hooked, determined to figure out their new sport and do whatever was necessary to master the art of riding in mountain snow.
BETTER EQUIPMENT, BETTER SKILLS
In 2007, they both bought mountain sleds and picked up another rider, Pletan’s Bozeman, MT buddy Jim Norlander. They experimented and eagerly picked up pointers from any other rider who was willing to share their love for the sport. Their last run that season, they hooked up with another friend and talented rider, Joe Horner, who turned the novices on to Arctic Cat mountain machines.
“After the first couple of years, we started riding with some really talented snowmobilers and continued to learn from them,” Petrick said. “There is a trick to riding snowmobiles in the mountains. This style of riding is way different than riding in the ditch or on a lake or an open field. Deep snow is a whole different animal.”
In 2008, the trio returned to the Rockies on Arctic Cat mountain sleds they’d just purchased. They were reaching the peak of their learning curve. They learned to keep shifting their weight and manage the throttle in deep powder to avoid getting stuck.
“I used to try and climb big hills by picking a straight line and sticking to it,” Petrick said, “I buried myself several times before I figured out my balance and how to turn out of a climb.”
Petrick, Pletan and Norlander all currently ride Polaris Pro RMK 800s. They are purely mountain snowmobiles as they have very long tracks and thick paddles to keep them moving in the deep snow. The sleds weigh in at a very light 417-435 lbs and they have plenty of power. Petrick says these are the best machines he’s ever been on and he plans to stick with what is working.
“You need to throw these sleds around,” Petrick said. “Mountain riding requires you to stand up a lot and move the machine with your body instead of simply steering the skis. Because this sled is so light and nimble it allows you to do that much easier.”
But even with superior equipment and know-how, the group learned that even well-intended mistakes can have consequences when dealing with the fickle ways of nature. An inexperienced rider would assume that, when a fellow rider becomes stuck on a steep hill, he should immediately go to his rescue. Not a good idea if everyone wants to stay alive.
“One time I was buried so bad on a steep climb that the top of my seat was a foot below the snow,” Petrick said. “It took me almost an hour to dig myself out because of the steep slope and trees below me. My buddies could not help me because of the risk of an avalanche.”
The group was in the vicinity of a small avalanche another time and it was a good reminder of the power of these slides, even small ones. It was a lesson learned: Too many sleds, slicing up a precarious slab of snow on a hillside, is a recipe for disaster.
“When we first started riding in the mountains, we would have ridden up the hill to help a stuck rider,” Petrick said. “Our friends taught us not to do this as it could cause a slide and then everyone would be at risk of being buried.”
That threat dictates what equipment riders bring to the mountains. Petrick, Pletan and Norlander now never venture into the mountains without essential equipment. They have layered, high-tech clothing, beacons, probes, and shovels. They’ve even added an inflatable avalanche backpack to their gear.
“The equipment is not cheap but we wouldn’t ride without it,” Petrick said. “We have never had to use the beacon but it is probably the most important piece of equipment. We’ve been told the saying is ‘on at the car and off at the bar,’ which means you turn it on when you get out of the truck to begin riding and you do not turn it off until the ride is done.”
The extendable probe is wrapped up in a small bag that expands to about eight feet. If someone gets buried in an avalanche, the beacon gives rescuers the approximate location of the buried rider. The probe is then used to spear the snow and find the exact location and depth. The AVY backpack is meant to bring riders to the top of the snow if they would happen to get caught in a slide.
They also carry walkie-talkies when they ride and look back on the other members of their group frequently. Checking the avalanche report each morning before leaving is another habit for the group. “Avalanche safety is the number one concern of a mountain snowmobiler,” Petrick said.
“Machines will break, you might get lost, and you will definitely get stuck,” he said. “But they are nothing compared to what could happen in an avalanche.”
THRILLS IN MODERATION
The risk-taking adrenaline of a mountain ride can’t overwhelm common sense. Petrick and his wife, Lexi have two sons, Caden, 4, and Easton, 2. All the fun a rider can have on the mountain does not compare in importance.
“Now that I am married and have kids, I feel I am much more cautious,” Petrick said. “Neither Lane nor Jim have children yet but we all ride with the goal of getting home safely.”
The trio usually rides near West Yellowstone, Montana in their favorite areas Tepee and Carrot Basins. They also like to ride around Island Park, Idaho, because another friend, Joe Horner, has a cabin there. Usually there is no cell service in the mountains so they tell people where they will be riding that day before they take off.
Norlander is a Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Ranger for the Montana Forest Service. Petrick and Pletan sometimes volunteer to ride with him and the other rangers when he is working. They’ve learned a lot from riding with them and intend to keep doing it in the future.
“Our favorite rides are in the trees and play areas and we very seldom ride big open-faced mountains,” Petrick said. “We enjoy all types of mountain riding so we adjust to what the snow conditions, terrain, and weather give us each day.”
CAMARADERIE IN THE MOUNTAINS
The group has encountered the cream of mountain riders over the years. Petrick and Pletan rode with Dan Davidoff, also known as “The Krazy Canadian,” who runs Krazy Canadian Adventures in British Columbia, Canada. They rode with Davidoff in March 2007, the year they purchased their first mountain sleds.
“We were not good enough to ride with him but he double-booked a group so we were fortunate to not only ride with him but also with the Boondockers Crew,” Petrick said. The Boondockers are a group of sponsored riders from the Salt Lake City, UT area. “They were out there to film their new DVD (Boondockers 4) and they chose Davidoff as their backcountry guide.”
“We were definitely behind them the whole day but they were very nice about it,” Petrick said. “Those guys taught us a lot and we had an absolute blast riding with them. It was an amazing trip we will never forget.” Petrick later wrote a web article for the Boondockers and leaders Dan Gardiner and Geoff “Phatty” Dyer.
Petrick has also ridden with the talented Chris Burandt, a professional snowmobiler from Colorado. The group learned a lot from Burandt (and his sidekick Sahen Skinner) who now has embarked on more extreme snowmobiling adventures as the owner of Burandt’s Backcountry Adventure and Cottonwood Country Tours in Buena Vista, CO. Burandt is sponsored by several of the top snowmobile and extreme sports companies in the world, including Polaris, Monster Energy, Slednecks, 509, Boondocker, and Fox, among many others.
“He is the best rider I have ever ridden with,” Petrick said, “and he is also one of the most down to earth people you will meet. We became friends on the first trip and keep in touch to this day. He is a great teacher and sometimes it’s fun to just watch the amazing things he can do on a snowmobile.”
Petrick has ridden with Burandt five times and the experience is one that sticks. “He offers an intense adventure for the advanced rider,” Petrick said. “It will test your skills. I recommend him to anybody who wants to challenge him or herself. When you ride with Chris you need to check your ego and prepared for the time of your life!” Check out www.burandtsbackcountryadventure.com if you want to find out more.
FUN NO MATTER THE CONDITIONS
For the mountain rider, an ideal day would be two feet of fresh powder, sun, and temps in the mid 20s. “The snow stays dry and you’ll be much more comfortable in your gear. Spring riding is very fun but there’s just something amazing about riding in deep, dry powder.”
“We have also ridden at minus-20 degrees,” Petrick said. “When you are riding you don’t feel it but when you stop you get cold because of your sweat and it really hits you then. It is very important to stay dry and the gear helps you stay that way. You must wear layers and the clothing must be light and waterproof.”
Regardless what the weather conditions, the riders remember that the point is to enjoy themselves.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Petrick said. “That’s what makes it fun. We have our routine when we go snowmobiling. Even if we get stuck or beat up our machines a bit, we make it fun. That is just part of mountain riding. You don’t get too excited about getting stuck or breaking stuff, you just enjoy the moment with your friends.”
On one trip, however, Petrick had to work extra hard to have his fun. The group drove 18 hours to ride with the Boondockers crew in Utah. He got sick before the first day of riding and he missed the entire day. The next day, the riders were watching the weather and found out there was a snowstorm predicted for Elko, Nev. So they jumped in the car and drove another five hours to get into new powder.
“I was sick the whole way there but I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ride in two feet of new powder,” Petrick said. “That was some of the best snow I’ve ever experienced. It was March, the sun was shining and the temp was close to perfect. It was an amazing day in spite of not feeling well.”
Snowmobiling is a good way for Petrick to keep fit and enjoy nature. The group has encountered several moose while riding and they routinely see bald eagles, bison, elk, and big horn sheep on the drive to the riding area.
“I don’t hunt and this gives me a chance to enjoy nature,” Petrick said. “I love the snow, I always have. I’ve met some of my best friends through snowmobiling. I also love photography, which is another passion of mine. Snowmobiling gives me a great way to shoot beautiful photos from places I would never be able to access otherwise.”
IT’S A FAMILY THING
Petrick’s wife, Lexi, is very supportive of his “habit.” She has encouraged him to upgrade his snowmobiles and camera equipment and she goes along on the Montana trips, even though she doesn’t ride. “We both have great friends in Montana so the trips are a lot of fun for both of us. I’m very fortunate that she is so supportive and enjoys herself as well,” says Petrick.
Sledding is becoming a true family affair for the Petricks. They purchased Caden his first snowmobile, a Polaris 120, last year when he was only three years old.
“He loves it,” Petrick said. “He jumped on it and took to it right away. He jumps for joy when it snows. We will ride in an area behind our house or go up to my folk’s house in Clear Lake and ride that area. Last year they had a lot of snow up there so it was a good place for our family to ride. They had a late season snowstorm and we enjoyed riding in the snow after that.”
When he sees how happy Caden is on his little sled, Petrick finds as much joy in riding with him as he does on even the best mountain adventure. They plan to take Caden, and eventually Easton, to Montana in the future. Soon, both Petrick boys will be up in the thin air with their father. It’s a good chance the sport will hook them just like it did their daddy.
“We’ll take them out riding some of the logging trails and the meadows and hopefully get them stuck a few times,” Petrick said. “Lane, Jim, and I will be older by the time they ride the deeper stuff so it will be nice to have some young guys to dig us out!”
Easton will jump on the 120 next year. “I don’t worry too much about them riding at such a young age since I can still run as fast as the little snowmobile goes right now,” Petrick said. “I can help them before they get into trouble and I usually just ride my sled along with them.”
“Mountain riding is a passion of mine,” Petrick said. “To someone who has not done it yet, I would suggest they give it a try. Get the right gear and find someone who can guide you in the mountains. But be prepared to become addicted, it’s an amazing sport!” TMM