Thousands of sleds frequent the Paradise Area’s snowmobile trails each weekend of the sport’s season. Some may be there to visit Tahquamenon Falls, others are passing through on a journey from one side of Michigan's Upper Peninsula to another. Each of them is trying to get as many miles in while the season lasts. However, when those visiting snowmobilers put away their sleds for the season, a behind-the-scenes operation continues: snowmobile trail grooming.
The Paradise Area Night Riders (PANR) work several hours a week from August to March, removing brush before the snow comes, then using three grooming machines to maintain four sections of trail totaling 120 miles daily each winter. Believed to be the first official grooming club in the U.P., the group started in 1970, maintaining one of the most traveled trail systems in Michigan. Today, six volunteers split up the work in the course of the week. Occasionally, others step in when they can. They work anywhere from six-to-10-hour shifts a few days a week running the grooming machines. And that’s on top of the full-time jobs they have off the trails!
We spoke with PANR groomer Chris Saunders about the behind-the-scenes operation that makes snowmobiling a possibility in his region of the U.P. Here’s what he had to say.
- How long have you been volunteering for the Night Riders and how did you get involved?
- Can you explain the process of snowmobile trail grooming? What goes into making sure they are ready for sleds?
- Once the snow has fallen and the trails are ready, what is the routine to maintain them throughout the season?
- How many days a week are you out grooming trails personally?
- How have you managed to find a balance in the last 20 years between volunteering for the Night Riders and owning a business yourself?
- In the free time you do find, are you a snowmobiler yourself?
- With the experience you have spending that much time on your snowmobile trails, what makes them so unique?
- What tips do you have for snowmobilers coming to the Paradise area?
- What else has to happen to keep the club going?
How long have you been volunteering for the Night Riders and how did you get involved?Back to Top of List
I heard these guys needed help, so I showed up one day 20 years ago and have been coming ever since. My wife and I have owned a little resort here, Saunders Sunrise Cabins, for 21 years. I volunteer on behalf of my business, and a few others do, too.
Can you explain the process of snowmobile trail grooming? What goes into making sure they are ready for sleds?Back to Top of List
It's a really involved process and most people don’t realize that. As soon as the season is done at the end of March, we get a couple of months off. But by the end of August or so, we're back at it. Guys are running out on the trails with their own trucks so they can clear the brush and trees that are down. We check that the DNR’s mandated signs are up. And that’s just the start.
In our area, we have a lot of low land, so once it starts getting cold and we get a little snow, we have to work real hard freezing up the swamps, which takes hours and hours and hours. We take the groomers out to push snow into all the waterholes. They turn it into a kind of slush that freezes better. A lot of people don't realize swamp water is actually warm because of the vegetation rot. So it's tough to get everything to freeze solid. It’s a lot of man hours.
Additionally, because we come across a snowmobile crash every now and again, all groomer operators have been certified in emergency first aid and CPR. As far as I know, we are the only club around that has those certifications throughout.
Once the snow has fallen and the trails are ready, what is the routine to maintain them throughout the season?Back to Top of List
Once the snow gets going, we're pretty much grooming all the snowmobile trails every day.
We have four different sections of trail and three grooming machines. A lot of the time, we start at 9 a.m. and we are out there until sometimes 2 or 3 a.m. We try to hit every trail every day but on the weekends especially. The four sections take a six-hour run, seven-hour run, eight-hour run and 12-hour run, individually.
How many days a week are you out grooming trails personally?Back to Top of List
At least three days — sometimes four. It depends who is available. Keep in mind, this isn't our full-time job. Most of the guys have full-time jobs. One of my buddies works at the prison, and he works 12-hour shifts there. Everybody works on top of snowmobile trail grooming. So how often we each groom individually depends on who is available with their own work schedules.
How have you managed to find a balance in the last 20 years between volunteering for the Night Riders and owning a business yourself?Back to Top of List
Busy busy. I am a busy man, especially in the wintertime. It’s just me and my wife running the resort. It piles work onto her when I'm grooming. We’re both getting up there in age, too. But, as far as I can see, I plan to keep on grooming until I get too old or something.
In the free time you do find, are you a snowmobiler yourself?Back to Top of List
I was when I was younger, but I sold my sled last year because I just didn’t have time for it anymore. I’m spending at least 20 hours a week, if not more, sitting in a groomer.
With the experience you have spending that much time on your snowmobile trails, what makes them so unique?Back to Top of List
Personally, I think we have the best trails around compared to downstate (in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula). Our snowmobile trails are so much better. I'm originally from the Muskegon area. The trails up here are 100% better than what was down around there. The amount of snow definitely helps. And our trails are much wider and seem to be smoother.
What tips do you have for snowmobilers coming to the Paradise area?Back to Top of List
Before coming to the area, map out your route and verify it is all on public property. Especially if you plan to go off-trail riding, you’ll run into private property. Otherwise, it will cause a lot of trouble.
Another tip I tell people, even on my reports, is it's best to come up during the week. We get a lot of our trails pretty heavily traveled on the weekends. And most of the snowmobilers are weekend people. I tell people that if they can get off from work on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, that's the time to come. The trails are 100% better with less traffic and smoother because we can keep up easier. They do get pretty choppy on the weekend otherwise. On Saturday nights, it's not unusual to see 200 to 300 sleds on a six-hour grooming run. That's just on one section of trail, too. With three other sections, you're talking thousands of sleds a weekend. On a Tuesday though? Maybe you’ll see 40 sleds on a trail section. The weekends will stay that busy as long as there is snow for it.
What else has to happen to keep the club going?Back to Top of List
We have maintenance on the grooming machines as well. We’re one of the only grooming clubs that does all of our own maintenance. If something breaks, we’ve got a couple guys that can weld real well. Most of the guys are pretty mechanically inclined. Our guys can take care of hydraulic hoses and flat tires. The work runs the gamut and we've rebuilt a motor. We are funded by trail stickers the DNR sells to Michigan snowmobilers each season. Each day, we fill out tons of paperwork to turn in to our DNR contacts so they can dole out how to spend that money on snowmobile clubs across the state.
We just put up a brand new grooming barn that we built ourselves after spending over 20 years raising money to fund it. We’re all pretty proud of that barn. It’s 48 by 100 feet. We had a lot of volunteers that helped with some of the heavier work, too. I run what I call brushing parties in the fall. People will come up from downstate and from all over to give us a hand clearing brush. At the end of the day, we have a big cookout. The more the merrier.
Stay updated on snowmobile trail reports and the Night Riders’ activity
When we asked Chris why he and others continued to volunteer after all these years despite the demanding time commitment, he humbly said, “We must enjoy doing it, I suppose. It’s a lot of work but it’s a lot of fun, too. And you find time for doing what you love. Everybody chips in a little bit here and there, too.”
More than maintaining the 120 miles of trails, the Night Riders have maintained a small community within their already-existing Paradise community, and with it, a necessary tradition that many who traverse the trails show their appreciation for. Sometimes with a wave or maybe a comment on Facebook from home after they’ve passed through. Both can be translated to the sentiment though: Thanks for your time.
Find more information and daily trail reports on the PANR Facebook or on their website at http://www.paradiseareanightriders.org/. You can also find a snowmobile trail report for the entire U.P. here.