The snow was air-light. Bottomless in places. Like ridding on a cushion of cotton too thick to walk on and in places deep enough to bury a snowmobile.

The open playfields tucked away in the Strawberry range west of the reservoir were perfect for riding, but no different from others around Utah. They go on and on . . . over the next hill, around the next bend, down the next ravine. Riders have come to expect it.Best part now, though, is getting to these areas. Snow-coated trails that should be rough are smooth as a freeway. Routes that a decade ago would have been open only to rabbits and squirrels are taking racing snowmobiles as comfortably as falling snow.

It is, by some accounts, the beginning of snowmobiling in Utah. Others call it a rebirth. More say it's long overdue support for a sport that up until three years ago got little attention.

Trails in Utah have never looked so good, nor been so smooth, nor offered more opportunity . . . even though there are not many more of them than there were five years ago.

But they are, as Scott Behunin, off-highway vehicle coordinator for the Division of Parks and Recreation, said, "in a lot better shape."

Five years ago Utah was plodding along with a total off-highway vehicle budget - for everything from motorcycles to snowmobiles - of around $80,000. It had five state-owned groomers that were older than many of the trails and were spending more time in the shop than on the trails.

All this to satisfy a community of what started out at more than 18,000 snowmobilers in the early 1980s. By the mid-1980s, the number dropped to just over 10,000. The difficulty and discomfort of traveling, and the lack of facilities, took a toll.

In 1987, a joint effort by off-highway groups and state agencies put the first real money into the off-highway vehicle programs - $250,000. Last year it was up to $400,000 and this year the same groups are attempting to get legislators to increase funding to $600,000.

That sum, group officials point out, is less than half the money off-highway recreationists contribute to care of the highways through gas tax.

Increased funding has greatly improved snowmobiling in Utah. Evidence of this is in the fact that registration is now back up to more than 15,000.

The state now has five modern groomers tending to more than 550 miles of trails in eight areas of the state - Logan Canyon, Hardware Ranch/Monte Cristo, Wasatch State Park, Mirror Lake Highway, Vernal, Joe's Valley/Scofield, Cedar Mountain and Fish Lake area.

Also greatly improved, pointed out Behunin, are the grooming techniques.

"We used to think it was good to groom while snowmobilers were out. For one thing they could see we were out working. What we found was that the trails wouldn't hold up. We never had a solid trail base.

"Now we groom at night. This gives the snow time enough to settle and firm-up. Doing it this way trails stay smoother a lot longer. This is something you learn over the years," he said.

Working under the old budget, Utah was falling out of the winter picture for snowmobilers. Under the existing budget, Utah is just now getting to a position where it can finally start to expand.

The new money will allow Utah to join other states, like Idaho that has more than 5,000 miles of groomed trails and a fleet of 25 groomers, as a destination stopover for visiting riders.

Craig Cazier, president of the Utah Snowmobile Association, said he would like to see more facilities, such as trailhead areas with rest-rooms and parking, and more trails.

"Especially more linking trails. I know there's interest in this type of riding because a lot of people, especially out-of-staters, are asking me about these kinds of rides," he said.

Behunin said that this was one of the matters under consideration.

"Do we groom a few long trails? Or, do we groom a lot of shorter trails and then link them? It's something we're going to have to look at," he said.

Cazier pointed out also that people, both inside and outside the state, are casting an interested eye towards Utah's snowcovered mountains.

"And for a lot of reasons. This is unique snowmobiling country. It's beautiful, the snow's good, and there's variety . . . you can stay on groomed trails, or hit the playfields, or make a trip," he added.

Behunin also pointed out that the support is there from communities around the state.

Before the new groomers were put into operation, he said, some of the communities had gone out and prepared for them.

"They had areas laid out, trails marked, restrooms in place and signs made. There's a lot of money to be made in winter tourism. Winter is a slow time and this could help some communities," he said.

Cazier noted that there is a growing interest in snowmobile vacations, where riders start in one location and travel to another, stopping and staying overnight in communities along the way.

Last Saturday, winter riders - those with machines and those taking demonstration rides - were part of the annual Governor's Day at the Strawberry information center.

Led by Gov. Norm Bangerter, they sampled the improved riding conditions.

What they found was that the trails to play areas were lengthy and well groomed, and that getting there was half the fun.