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Squeezing the throttle: Snowpack conditions help boost snowmobiling's popularity

Published: Wednesday, March 2 2011 6:22 p.m. MST

James Wakefield snowmobiles in the Tony Grove area. Utah is No. 3 in the U.S. in percentage of public lands, where many people snowmobile.

Rod Boam, for the Deseret News

Snow wasn't the problem. Timing was.

Snowmobile country opened up early here in Utah. For the first time in more than a decade, riders were squeezing the throttle and churning up clouds of snow by mid-November, roughly two months ahead of schedule.

To some riders it was simply a bonus, an early Christmas gift, and only meant moving up the timetable for tuning machines and getting winter gear out of storage.

Dean Rossum, president of the Utah Snowmobile Association, recalled that, "Not since

1997 or 1998 have we been able to ride before Christmas. Usually, it's the second week in January before we can get out. It's been a good year and the snow keeps coming."

Good fortune, and good snow, can be traced to a climate conditions known as "La Niña," a flip-flop of "El Niño."

Under a La Niña, water temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific cool slightly. This causes weather from the Pacific Northwest to come into Utah in much stronger storm tracks. This results in above-normal to above-average snowpack, which meant in an early opening of trails and powder fields for snow machines.

The consensus among those involved in the snow sport is it created more interest in the sport this winter.

While there are no official counts, Rossum said on some of his midweek rides he's definitely seen an increase in the number of machines and riders.

Dee Eggett, manager of the snowmobile program at Daniels Summit Lodge southeast of Heber said there have definitely been more people out riding this year.

"The previous two years were kinda slow, probably because of the economy and other factors," he said. "This year there has been an increase in numbers, especially among groups, such as businesses and families."

It is all good news to the Utah travel industry. Luke Peterson, director of Wasatch County tourism and economic development, confirmed the rise in interest.

"We were involved in several different ad programs intended to appeal to different groups — skiing, biking, snowmobiling," he said. "Snowmobiling is by far the one that has drawn the most attention, which kind of surprised me, but it shouldn't have. This is a very popular area for recreation. And, hospitality and tourism is by far the largest sector of our economy."

Utah is far from being a major player in the snowmobiling industry. While Utah admittedly offers some of the finest riding in the country, it falls short on registered machines.

Utah has just more than 26,000 registered snowmobiles, which is down from a peak of around 35,000 in 2005. Reasons for the drop range everywhere from the bad economy to the cost of modern machines to the fact people can rent rather than buy.

Jerry Phillips, sales manager at Honda Suzuki of Salt Lake, which sells Polaris machines, said one of the more popular machines comes with standard equipment like heated grips, a 800-cubic-centimeter engine that produces 180 horsepower and a 155-inch track. Machines such as this one sell for between $11,000 and $11,500. A high-performance machine runs between $14,000 and $15,000.

The greatest number of machines is found in the east. Michigan, for example, lists 301,000 registered snowmobiles; Minnesota 277,000; Wisconsin has 232,000; and New York 146,000. Among those states offering winter activities, Nebraska has the fewest with just 2,100.

Most of the riding in the East is on private lands, mostly on fairly level ground and on a lower snowpack.

Utah offers more opportunities, which would include some of the country's most spectacular scenery, such as the Uinta Mountains, Bryce Canyon National Park, the Strawberry Reservoir area and the open powder fields along Skyline Drive, to mention but a few of the riding options.

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