Smoothing the snow: A look inside the process of winter trail grooming
On a bitter Sunday morning following the three-day December snowstorm, Shane Taylor was at work clearing knee-high snow from Lake Mitchell's bike trails.
After shoveling an inch of snow from a section of the biking trails near Camp Arroya, Taylor fired up his gas-powered snow rig to begin what he and other brave winter trail riders call winter trail grooming.
"You have to kind of muscle it a bit, and there is some prep work you have to do before you use it," Taylor said. "Where the snow is too thick and drifted, you have to take some layers off for the snow rig to get through."
Also on the snow-covered bike trails near Sandy Beach was Aaron Roth, scooping a section of the trails for Taylor to plow with the trail grooming snow rig, while they worked their way around roughly 75 percent of the bike trails Sunday afternoon.
As two winter trail bike riders themselves, Taylor and Roth put in hours of trail grooming each year, making way for their passion to ride their fat tire bikes around Lake Mitchell, no matter the elements. The two are active members of the Palace City Pedalers, the Mitchell bike club that helps maintain the bike trails and hosts organized group bike rides throughout the year.
"About three years ago, Palace City Pedalers bought the trail grooming snow machine, and it cost roughly a couple thousand dollars," Roth said. "It was definitely an investment, but a good one at that."
The trail grooming snow rig has a snowmobile track underneath with a plate to stand on like a musher's dogsled, along with two handlebars that are manually steered.
According to Taylor, the snow rig essentially packs the snow down, creating a smooth surface that will freeze overnight, allowing for a sheet of ice to cover the bike trails after the grooming process is complete.
After the snow freezes, the bike trails are primed and ready for fat tire bikers, walkers and hikers.
"It's amazing what these fat tire bikes can ride through, and a 5-inch-wide tire helps grip the ice, of course. But riding a skinny tire bike wouldn't be possible in these conditions," Taylor added.
Taylor said it takes three to four people in the winter to groom nearly 12 miles of the trails stretching along Lake Mitchell.
"It's hard work, but we do it because we love to ride," Taylor said with a smile. "No matter the weather, we can always get out here and hit the trails."
While the trail grooming process is something Taylor and Roth bond through, it has its challenges as well.
"If the trails are at an angle it wants to go down hill, so you have to be careful when you're driving the snow machine," Taylor said.
Relying on Mother Nature can add more challenges to the trail grooming process, as Taylor said warmer winter days slowly melt the ice on the trails. The forecast for this week calls for clear skies with highs in the upper 30s, which can potentially melt the sheet of ice that the trail groomers worked so hard to maintain.
"When we get some warmer temperatures in the winter, we sometimes have to re-groom the trails," Taylor added. "It can be a timely process."
While winter trail grooming was originally intended for fat tire bike riders, it paved the way for another winter hobby: trail hiking and trail walking.
"Trail grooming is not just for bike trail riders, because people often walk the trails during the winter. In fact, there are more walkers and hikers than crazy winter bike riders like myself and Shane (Taylor)," Roth said. "I have people who walk the trails that will come up to me and thank me all the time in the winter for trail grooming. It means a lot to me when I hear that."
The increase in riders, hikers, and bikers using the bike trails is rewarding to Roth and Taylor, spurring their motivation to continue the trail grooming work.
"It's just great to see how the bike trails have united the community of Mitchell," Roth said.