The Saskatchewan Rough Riders won the 101st Grey Cup in 2013. But when these football champions want it smooth, they look no farther than that province’s snowmobile trails, where there are no rough rides. Since my last visit in 2005, Chris Brewer, president and CEO of the Saskatchewan Snowmobile Association (SSA), has urged me to “come see how much Sask snowmobiling’s improved”. So Johnny Biasi and I flew to Regina last March for four days of sledding. After picking up our rental vehicle, we drove about two hours northeast to Yorkton. There, we connected with our loaner sleds courtesy of Ski-Doo and local dealers, FFUN Motor Sports (2014 Ski-Doo MXZ TNT 800 ETEC) and Lintlaw Service (2014 Renegade Adrenalin 900 ACE). Then we overnighted at the new Day’s Inn before starting our trek the next morning (see Our Itinerary for daily ride info).

 

Our plan was to ride one of the province’s most reliable snow-belt regions. It’s located in Central Saskatchewan’s east side and stretches from Yorkton north to the Nipiwan area, where we stayed at the Northern Greens Resort. During this tour, we also stayed at Fisherman’s Cove Resort in Greenwater Provincial Park, and at the Treeline Motel in the Town of Hudson Bay.

A quick overview of the Saskatchewan Snowmobile Trail Map shows that many of the province’s 10,000 or so kilometres of trails are on the province’s east side. It abuts the boundary with Manitoba, and is known by local snowmobilers as SSA Zone 2. Another swath of trails, in SSA Zone 1, connects from north and west of Prince Albert, running west to Alberta. There are also trails in South East Saskatchewan (Zone 3), but their provincial trail map shows none in the southwest (Zone 4), which typically doesn’t get much snow.

Terrain Surprises

What the map doesn’t show is topography. When friends found out I was going Sask snowmobiling, most imagined the riding would be pretty boring, on prairie that’s “flat as a pancake.” But this eastern part of Central Saskatchewan is where the prairie starts rolling over hill and dale. It’s also a transition occurs to boreal forest. We rode north from Yorkton on a clockwise loop. We snowmobiled as far west as Melfort, as far north as Nipiwan and as far east as Hudson Bay before hightailing it south through Preeceville back to Yorkton. We rode on groomed trails through rolling hills, wilderness tracts, road ditches, and prairie fields. There were many ups and downs where this terrain is frequently cut by numerous river valleys. And inland lakes: we were surprised to do a couple of ice crossings, including on Trail 226E across Tobin Lake north of Nipiwan.

To fully dispel that pancake myth, we even came across several scenic outlooks from heights of land. These included Cougar Canyon (Greenwater Lake Provincial Park), in the Wildcat Hills, and on Trail 220Z coming into Arborfield from the west, and again on Trail TC223A at the Ushta Shelter – all of which added visual interest and riding variety to our sledding. So after my return from Saskatchewan, when friends asked if there was anything special about snowmobiling there, and my answer was an emphatic, “You bet!”



What’s With the Ice Fishing Huts?

That’s not to say there weren’t flat areas. We crossed one massive field that disappeared into the horizon with nary a bump. Amazingly, the groomed trail ran like an arrow into the horizon too. That got me thinking: “How does the operator keep it so straight?” We found out later that the groomer driver is a farmer. In the winter, he moves the technology that keeps his spring planting in a perfect line into the groomer!



Many of the flat areas are broken up by numerous clumps of small trees and bush. At one stop, I commented to Johnny: “This seems as if we’re on a huge lake surrounded by small islands.” Imagine my surprise when we came upon what looked like hundreds of ice fishing huts all around us – I was thinking maybe this was a lake after all! Turns out the huts are beehive shelters. They’re empty each winter when the bees are moved indoors to more temperate quarters. Then they’re returned to the fields each spring to pollenate the crops.

Getting Around

When putting our itinerary together back home in Toronto, I’d had a bit of a quandary. On the one hand, our Snow Goer Canada crew doesn’t usually ride with guides. My operating principle is that if we can find our way around without local help, then you can too.

Our regular touring crew usually consists of about six riders. This way, there are lots of sleds for the photos and extra hands to help if something goes wrong. But because we flew there, this Saskatchewan tour would be just Johnny and I. That would mean only one sled in my photos. So I compromised. I asked Chris Brewer to put me in touch with some club folks who’d be available to ride along each day. My only proviso was that they’d let me lead so I could be sure that visitors could follow their trails without getting lost.

As it turned out, the SSA has made major progress with navigation. Getting around starts with the annual Saskatchewan Snowmobile Trail Map. It provides a good overview with minimal detail and identifies all clubs by name and location on its guide face. My next navigation step was to go to the excellent SSA website, where I clicked on “Zone 2 – NE Sask” under the “Maps & Conditions” drop down menu. The Zone 2 page includes a complete club list. When each name is clicked, up comes their very detailed local trail map that’s great for planning (and to print out on a colour printer to take with you).

These maps are the same ones we found on the new “You Are Here” map signboards installed at most trail intersections. At first glance, some of these signboards appear to be strangely placed. But the installation rule is that the back of the signboard must be to the north, so that a rider facing the map on the snow can always tell which direction is north. Along with a good trail numbering system (the first three digits indicate the number of the club whose trail you are on and the last letter identifies the actual trail), we found our way no problem.



Gimme Shelter

If we were ever in doubt about getting around, we just did what the locals do. Navigate from warm up shelter to warm up shelter. Saskatchewan probably leads the known snowmobiling world with its system of shelters. They’re a great benefit for riders. Each of their 137 shelters has its name on the building. Each is also named and marked on the club trail map. They vary in size and age, but each has a stove, wood supply, indoor seating and an outhouse. These amenities make shelters good for emergencies and widely used by snowmobilers as meeting & eating places, and rest stops. They are also trail social hubs. This network of shelters gives Saskatchewan sledding a special flair. They go a long way to encouraging and supporting the family snowmobiling that’s so important to sustaining sledding from generation to generation.

Staked Plains

Overall, Saskatchewan clubs do a good job of staking their trails across many fields and other open areas. Staking is another strong navigational aid during fair weather. It can also be a godsend when conditions are white out or worse. The coloured and reflectorized stakes are usually placed close enough together that I could see several ahead in good visibility. Even when the wind blew up the snow into a brief white out one afternoon, I could just make out each next stake in line. If worst came to worst and a sudden blizzard obliterated visibility, the stakes should help riders find the next warm up shelter.



Critter Convention

Another factor that makes Sask snowmobiling special is abundant wildlife – in four days riding there, we spotted more critters than I saw for the whole winter elsewhere. Ten moose.  A herd of elk.  Many deer. Several coyotes and a couple of Great Horned Owls. Squirrels. Chris Brewer. Then there were the timber wolves and that muskrat…

We were riding down a road allowance between two lines of trees. I spotted something ahead. Getting closer, it looked like a couple of dogs trotting along the trail. They weren’t moving aside. Catching up to them, I quickly realized they were bigger than German Shepherds, that’s right – timber wolves! They were now going full tilt, but still not leaving the trail. I rode right up beside the first one, close enough to touch. Then passed them both. As the rest of our group followed suit, I looked back in my mirrors. Those wolves were still on “their” trail, maybe following the stake line too!

Have you ever been held at bay by a muskrat? Johnny had stopped in the middle of a field, far from the nearest frozen creek. It was far from the nearest frozen creek. Sitting on his idling sled, he observed something brown scurrying his way. First off, he thought it was a ground hog or prairie dog. Then suddenly realized it was a muskrat – which proceeded to disappear into his track! Initially, Johnny couldn’t get the little blighter out. It just sat there inside the front of the track giving him the (muskrat) eye, and preventing him from catching up with me. By the time I’d turned around to come back and see if there was anything wrong, the muskrat had taken off again. Across the field it went, probably in search of the nearest water – or a friendlier snowmobiler!

In my experience, Saskatchewan ranks as a topnotch place to go sledding for these and many other reasons. From the very outset, I knew it would be special from the looks I got at Toronto airport security when I showed up in my snowmobile suit to board our flight to Regina. No lost luggage was going to prevent me from going Sask snowmobiling – but that’s another story…

Special thanks to Barry Bradshaw, Kim Bisschop, Chris Brewer, Daryl Demoskoff, Rick Dolezsar, Colin Hartl, Bart Hartl, Terry Orr, Shane Owen, Jason Popowich, Paul Smolinski, and Kevin Verzonowski for assistance with this tour. Craig’s tours are made possible by BRP (Ski-Doo), Gateway Powersport, FXR Racing, Triton Trailers, and Woody’s Traction Products.

Craig Nicholson is the author of “Canada’s Best Snowmobiling —Your Ultimate Ride Guide”. His snowmobile writing also appears in many newspapers, magazines and websites. He also hosts “The Intrepid Snowmobiler on Radio” and appears on SnowmobileTelevision. For more info, visit www.intrepidsnowmobiler.com

 

 

 


This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of Snow Goer Canada Magazine. Be sure to get all the latest snowmobile news in your hands by subscribing today. If you missed an issue on the stands, or would like a copy of the issue this article was featured in, back issues are also available. Snow Goer Canada Magazine gift subscriptions are also available.

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