MIDWAY — The oldest two of Craig and Karen Herzog's 15 grandkids got licensed to ride on Saturday.
They can now tear up the snow-covered hills with the family's six snowmobiles more safely.
"Fortunately, we've never had a bad accident and we've been riding for more than 30 years," Craig Herzog, of Sandy, said. The couple owns a cabin in Midway and regularly enjoys the plentiful trails and meadows in the area. He just likes to make sure the kids recreate safely — including each of them getting officially licensed through the state.
"For most of these kids, this is a special day," said Chris Haller, off-highway vehicle program manager for the Utah Department of Natural Resources Division of Parks and Recreation.
About a dozen kids from throughout northern Utah obtained snowmobile driver's licenses at no cost on Saturday at Soldier Hollow Lodge, as the department hoped to bring attention to and celebrate the annual snowmobile safety week — Jan. 18-26.
The department offers an online certification course for anyone ages 8 to 15, which is necessary to ride on public lands, roads or trails. Hands-on training is also available through various private vendors throughout the state.
"You'll learn how to properly operate your machine, how to treat injured people if you come across them, avalanche awareness and what the various controls do," Haller said. Participants also learn how to correctly use equipment that is necessary to have on-board while snowmobiling, including an avalanche beacon, retractable probing stick and a lightweight folding shovel.
Not all accidents in the backcountry are reported to the appropriate authorities, but recurring issues include people not strapping their helmets correctly and texting while driving, Haller said.
"I am not kidding, it is really an issue," he said. "People are texting while trying to operate a snowmobile."
There are approximately 29,000 registered snowmobiles in Utah, some of which are owned by businesses or tour guides. Out of state visitors bring in an average of about 3,000 machines each year as well.
Haller said there is plenty of space to ride — more than 1,200 miles of groomed snowmobile trails in the state. But being prepared is of utmost importance.
Eight people died from injuries sustained while using off-highway vehicles in Utah last year, including three on snowmobiles, one of which was in an avalanche, Haller said. The annual average number of Utah deaths related to off-highway vehicles is typically around 17, he said.
So far this year, there have only been injuries and no fatalities in Utah's backcountry. But if conditions remain consistent, death is imminent, said Jimmy Tart, a member of the Park City Mountain Resort Ski Patrol and a volunteer with the Utah Avalanche Center.
He said 90 percent of all avalanches are triggered by a victim who gets caught up in it or by someone in the victim's group. After about 15 minutes of being buried in the snow, survival rates drop dramatically.
"Having the right equipment doesn't secure your safety," Tart said, adding that boundaries are pushed with the increasing technology levels available in basic stock sleds. "Your survival is up to you."
The Utah Avalanche Center manages an up-to-date website and smart phone application where detailed information on avalanche conditions can be readily available.
"We make it as easy as possible for people to know what's going on out there," Tart said.
Professional snowmobiler and filmmaker Geoff Dyer, of Farmington, said there's no substitute for safety and riders should be prepared for whatever nature throws at them, which can change by the day.
He said "poor decisions" have led him into sticky situations on many of his excursions.
Lighter and more powerful snowmobiles, Dyer said, "make it easier to get more places. "These machines are so good, you can easily get into situations beyond your skill level and into avalanche terrain."
Dyer has had to help dig friends out of avalanches and said, "It's heart-wrenching and really hard to keep your composure while you are working against the clock."
"It's not something you ever want to experience," said Kerry Hendrickson, vice president of the Top of Utah Snowmobile Association. He said any safety training, even if it is repetitive, can be beneficial to recreationists.
"Being aware of what you're doing, aware of other riders and of the environment can help make it a good experience so that everybody is coming back at the end of the day safe," Hendrickson, of Nibley, said. Some of his best memories were made while snowmobiling with his young sons.
"The experience you have miles away in the backcountry is just wonderful," he said, adding that riding through Utah's snow-covered terrain is unlike anything else.
Access to otherwise secluded areas unlocks innumerable opportunities for Karen Herzog's family, including good exercise from sledding on hills that can't be reached by car.
"It opens up a whole new world for them," she said. Whereas she used to ride tandem on a snowmobile with her husband, Karen Herzog now opts for her own machine because "it's a lot more fun."
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