SEELEY LAKE - It's a partnership that's powering Montana's outdoor economy every winter while also making a huge difference in some of the rural communities across the Treasure State.
Snowmobiling is big business in Montana, passing the $100-million dollar mark a decade ago. But riders, many from out-of-state, need places to go. And that's where snowmobile clubs play a huge role, spending all winter grooming thousands of miles of trails.
"Without the state, we couldn't do it because of the grant money, and then basically the support and the operation of the whole system," says Seeley Lake Driftriders President Bill Swain. "It's a win-win for both of us. We get the groomers and get groomed trails. And the state gets a thing for tourists to come in and ride on groomed trails."
Seth McArthur, the Program Manager, says Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) wouldn't be able to offer the trail recreation without the local club support.
"To be honest, without the clubs and the partnerships that we have within the communities of Western Montana, we wouldn't have a snowmobile program. And we're talking businesses. We're talking the community itself. We're talking the club that actually maintains and grooms the trails."
"The machines are so expensive they're all computerized. It takes a lot for those machines to be maintained and kept running, and that's a huge part of what we do," McArthur explains. "These clubs provide a lot of the funding. The parts and pieces to keep those things moving. We wouldn't have a program — like I said — without those folks and they do an awesome job keeping the machines running."
And other agencies help as well. This year, the Lolo National Forest allowed visitors to stay at trailheads for up to 2-weeks to offset the lack of hotels in Seeley. Swain says he saw license plates from all over the west and as far away as Minnesota, Wisconsin, and even Alaska.
To find out what it's like, MTN News hitched a ride with Bruce Friede, one of five groomers for the Driftriders, who spend long, lonely hours, usually well after dark, getting the trails ready.
"The fun part about it is that we get to go out and see the trails both in the dark and in the sunlight from time to time. And we're seeing things that nobody else can see. And we're seeing some, just absolutely beautiful sights. Wildlife, snow, trees. It's just everything this valley has to offer," Friede says with a smile.
The snowmobile club covers a tremendous amount of territory. 365 miles of trails are groomed on a regular basis. And next season, the Driftriders will be adding more than 100-miles to the network, taking over the trail system near Garnet.
"It's tedious," Friede admits. "You're working those banks, trying to maintain where you're at and it's really a challenge."
And not just because of the conditions, but knowing these complicated machines stem to stern, from the plow to the "mogul master" out back. Using the tools to keep trails open for 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's all kinds of recreationists out enjoying. Even just hiking on the trails."
Friede enjoys seeing the varied groups on the trails he's cleared.
"We see skiers, dog sledders. Dog sledding is fairly big around here."
McArthur also says the clubs are a great source of ideas for FWP. In fact, the Driftriders worked with Pittman Machining to come up with this new, improved "drag" which will be shipped to West Yellowstone next season, with improvements born on the local trails.
The Driftriders, which started in the early 80s, are always welcoming new folks, whether you'd like to help with grooming, or just having fun.
"If you want to join up, we'll get you a ride in a groomer. And then in a parking lot, well, that will let you get on the sticks and maneuver the machine around. That pretty much tells you, tells us, where they where they want to be pretty quickly," Friede says with a chuckle.
"The riding is fun," Swain said while showing pictures of decades of the club's events, stretching back to the early 1980s. "The views are unbelievable and the great companionship with all the people that you get."
"We're basically a club that, you know, we ride a couple times a week. But anybody whether they're a member or not can ride with us. We encourage them to join because we need the money to pay for the grooming. But they don't have to. But if they want to ride with us just come on and say 'hey, I want to go with you' and then be there and we've taken 'em on."
If you'd like to know more about the Seeley Driftriders, check out their website.