Posted by: Dave Neads | December 7, 2009

Breaking Trail, Precipice Style

It has been a busy few weeks.  November padded in softly and then turned into a regular clawed devil.  On the evening of the 15 th it started to snow; wet, almost rain, big heavy flakes.  By mid-morning the next day we had a foot on the ground and started thinking that it might be time to get the vehicles out of the valley before they got snowed in for the winter.  But by noon it was clear sky, so we figured no rush.

Then about 1 o’clock, it really started to come down, a full inch in half an hour, so we decided to get out while we still could.   I chained up our vehicle, Lee followed in his one ton flat deck chained on the front, and our new neighbour, Fred who had no chains, brought up the rear in his pick-up.

I had no trouble clawing through the snow, but we had to cut a lot of trees out of the way, dragging the bits and pieces to the side in the deep snow.
All in all,  the trip out to the road took about 2 1/2 hours and we were back home just as  darkness fell.  It continued to snow all night and by the next morning we had a new winter blanket 30 inches thick.

Now the real fun began.

With 18 to 20 inches of new snow over the vehicle tracks, the conditions for snow machining were less than ideal. Our road is only one lane wide at best, usually more like a foot on either side of the vehicle particularly in the first 4 to 5 miles  out of the valley.  Lee’s duals on the flat deck take the full width, leaving no place for the skidoo to travel but in the tracks.  The trouble is that the skidoo stance  is just a  little wider that the space between the tire pathway. This means that you have one ski in the rut and the other one on the high middle ground.  With a foot and a half of new greasy snow on the tire track and 30 inches in the middle, the imbalance makes he machine want to either snake along or slide off into the boonies.

To keep things under control you have to “cowboy” the machine.  That means you kneel on the seat with one leg, and stand on the running board with the other, using your  weight to leverage the sled, steering it where you want, well, most of the time anyway.  It is very similar to water skiing, using your balance and body mass to maneuver on a single ski.

Or course there were, literally, dozens more trees down. This snow was the heaviest and wettest I have ever seen. When you looked into it was blue, like the innards of a crevasse.

I was the lead machine breaking the trail, thus I came to the fallen jumbles first. The guys behind me would catch up and off we would go, wading through thigh deep snow, using chainsaws to cut a path through the fall down.  Wet, messy work.  If you don’t get drenched by  falling snow, you get soaked with sweat.

You have to break all the rules: no falling pants, no helmet, no safety gear at all.  Sometimes  holding the saw with one hand, cutting over your head, or cutting into the deep snow at your feet, not knowing where you bar tip is.  Trying to judge where the dead pine will whip to when it snaps near the end of your cut, where the dead alder will fall when you cut the base, or guessing how the 30 foot tall willow will land as the snow comes off and the mass comes cracking down.   Cutting blow down is the riskiest work, especially under these conditions.  But with experience, a slow steady pace and concentration, the job gets done safely.

It is a 1,500 foot climb over 10 miles to  get out to the ploughed road,  with three long ugly hills to negotiate.  One lift has a 100 degree plus turn part way up, just what the doctor ordered for tricky timing.  If you go too fast and spin out and  miss the turn, the track digs a pit in the now three feet of new snow.  If you go too slow you power out, stalling half way up, the same thing happens, you gouge a hole to the bottom.    Neither case is good, because when this happens, you  have to take the shovel, excavate around  the machine  and build a sloping ramp ahead for 20 or 30 feet,  jump on the sled, take a deep breath and “give ‘er”.  Luckily,  I got it right this time and broke trail up the first hill without incident.

That was it for day one.   We managed to get half way out, 5 miles in 4 hours.   Wet and  tired, but feeling we would get the job done in one more day, we raced home on the new trail, what a thrill.

Day two was sunny, only minus 5, a good day for finishing the trail work.  And so it was.  The timber type changes at about 3,800 feet, with no alders or willows, the beetle kill is less and the road is a little wider, so we only had a few trees to contend with and got out to the road in just a couple of hours.  The vehicles were barely recognizable under all the new snow.  Generally, if we get two feet in the valley, there is three feet “up top”, and this time was no exception.

Normally you just have to do this routine once a year, usually sometime between late November and early January.  Some years it is a slow transition, just several gentle snows, with gradual accumulation, no big amount of dead fall, simple easy moving from season to season.

Not this year though.  Just a week after we had cleaned out the trail, just when I thought all was going smoothly, just as all the in valley trails were laid in and cleaned out,  just as things were getting winterized, along came another storm.  I knew we were in for it when I saw that Bella Coola, to the west, on the coast, was going to get heavy rain over the next  24 hours, as much as 90 mm.  Late in the afternoon, it started to snow,  so thick we couldn’t see down to the meadow.  It snowed all night and by next morning another 20 inches lay on the ground.  The snow this time was fluffier.  In fact, it was like the treasured powder the alpine skiers love.  While this type of snow is a treat for them it is  not so good for snow machines, especially pushing up hill.  The traction is very poor and even though I have a machine  designed for these conditions, it was having a tough time of it just to get down the driveway and across the bridge, let alone manage the steep slopes in the first few miles.

The thing to do under these conditions is just hunker down and wait, there is no sense in fighting it even if we could.  Because none of us had to go anywhere, we waited a week before tackling the trail again.  During this time it got colder which really settled the snow; the new 20 inches compacted to about 13 by Friday,  so we decided to make a mail run Saturday morning, leaving about 11 am.  This time the conditions were a little better, only about 15 trees and willow/alders crashes to cut through.  Only two hours out to the vehicles and then to town.

Now we have a good trail, a lot of base and, I think, all of the fall down dealt with.  It is minus 25 here this morning, the sun is crisp and clear in a cerulean sky, the forecast is for much the same over the next week.  If our luck holds, the winter high has set in and the November storms are over, for this year at least.

I hope so, because I really don’t need another bout with brown alders, yellow willows, deep blue snow and black fallen pines, although I do get a great sense of achievement when these challenges arise and we are able to cope with them.  Such is life in paradise.


  1. Great story Dave…and people complain around here when they have to plow a 30m long driveway!!

    • Thanks Chris. Yeah, sometimes I wonder about my sanity, or lack thereof
      What is a plow??


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