Drifting Through the Longest Season with the Fort McMurray Sno-drifters
In the Wood Buffalo region, winter is the longest season, but as with anything, it’s what you make of it!
Exploring the incredible Boreal forest that surrounds the area on a sled is a true adventure in a winter wonderland, and thanks due to the largely volunteer efforts of The McMurray Sno~Drifters, riders can enjoy 275 kilometres of some of the best groomed trails in all of Alberta. That distinction was borne out in 2012 when the club took four awards in the 14th annual SnoRiders Rider’s Choice Awards put on by SnoRiders West online magazine.
This volunteer operated non-profit group earned a gold for favourite groomed trail riding in Alberta; silver for favourite overall snowmobiling area in Alberta and bronze for favourite are for family snowmobiling in Alberta.
At 83, Elburn Bean still rides and loves it.
“I’ve put on quite a few miles over the years,” he chuckles. His wife Freda can usually be found riding alongside him.
The Sno-Drifters formed about 1980. The club has gone through a few changes over the years, evolving from more of a racing focus into a family-friendly club.
The club’s Mission Statement is: “To provide safe and enjoyable snowmobiling for all residents of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.”
Moving to Saprae Creek in 1987, Bean’s involvement with the Sno-Drifters began in 1996 when an Alberta Snowmobile Association (ASA) Jamboree was held locally. At that time, the club had 40 members. Last year, 597.
Three years later, Bean became a member and started working on a trail to Anzac.
“We made a trail just out and back, and then we made it into a loop. It took about two years for us to do that.”
The club already had the Stoney Mountain Trail in place and a trail out at Peden’s Point just across the river from Fort McMurray was closed after two years as oil sands development made it inaccessible.
There were also two trails in the Thickwood area: one along the power line (since closed) and the remaining Tower Road trail.
It’s challenging to create the trails on the north side of town given oil sand activity including pipelines, acknowledges Bean.
Back in the earlier days, he remembers the trails being ungroomed because it didn’t have the needed equipment.
“We didn’t have a machine for grooming the trails and I was business at that time so I bought a groomer and started grooming in 2001 with a real groomer for that job.
“We went out the other day to clean the trails and put 60 miles on; a nice day’s ride.”
The grooming helps keep the trails smooth and free of potential hazards. In addition, GPS-mapped signs line key points along trails; signs that can be a rider’s lifeline if calls for help need to be made – whether for mechanical breakdown or a medical emergency.
Other signs mark the trails warning of steep hills, S-curves or sharp turns while others are common sense messaging like Make Tracks Not Trash or Ride Safe, Ride Sober.
“We have five trails now that are really active and they’re all groomed; some are a little more challenging than others. It’s very family friendly.”
He cites the Anzac Trail as an example of an easy ride. It goes from Saprae out to the northeast and ends up at Anzac before looping back along the power lines just north of Gregoire Lake. Riders can make their way back to Saprae or to the Sno-Drifters clubhouse off Highway 69.
It’s about 75 kilometres all the way around.
Two fire pits are along the trail where riders can have a warm and maybe some smokies cooked over the fire or maybe a pee break in the washroom facilities. And if riders are lucky enough, they can catch a glimpse of some wildlife such as a caribou or moose.
That’s another job Bean, the Anzac Trail co-ordinator, gets done: chopping and stacking firewood.
In recognition of all he and his wife have done for the club, the warming shed at the clubhouse as well as a warming area on the Anzac Trail are dedicated to Elburn and Freda.
Bean unreservedly admits sledding is something he loves to do.
“I like to be out in the outdoors and cutting wood and stuff like that. It’s just nice to have something to look to.
“It’s peaceful and away from everything. It’s just the greatest thing.”
It’s an outdoor adventure he highly recommends to anyone and everyone. He points out sledders using the club’s trails should have a trail pass which helps cover costs such as the guy hired for the grooming.
“The other reason to have a trail pass is for insurance in case anything happens,” explains Bean, referring to personal liability and property damage.
“Because they’re trails, we have to have trail insurance and this trail pass helps pay
Insurance is also why ATVs are prohibited from the trails.
“ATVs, even with tracks on them, would cost us five or six times the amount if we allowed them on there because they have so many more accidents than snowmobiles.”
The prohibition is also a stipulation from the ASA.
Also, most of the club’s trails can’t be used in the summer because of muskeg.
The cost of a trail pass is $70 for the season.
At a time when the Sno-Drifters look to expand its trail system, Bean mentions the Conklin Trail expansion, which would link the area to the Cross Canada Snowmobile Trail.
“It would just open so much more; would make it so much better.”
While he acknowledges it is long distance travel, 100 miles is nothing with the sleds of today – “Just a good day’s ride.”
The idea of a trail that would connect northeastern Alberta snowmobilers to the rest of the province is not a new idea, adds Ron Fetzko, Sno-Drifters president. The original founders of the club identified the trail in the long-range business plan as far back as 1985-86. It came close to fruition during discussions to close the railway north out of Lac La Biche, but once CN reclaimed the rail bed, the plans were again shelved.
“The discussion started again a few years ago once new cut lines were discovered south from our Stoney Mountain Trail loop and with the addition of the new hotel, restaurant and gas station at Conklin Corner, logistically, it is now looking like a reality,” explains Fetzko.
Plus, the snowmobile club of Lakeland County, home to the Iron Horse Trail, is looking to push north to connect the Sno-Drifters to that trans Canada snowmobile trail network.
The Iron Horse stretches 300 kilometres between Waskatenau to Smoky Lake and is a network of communities between stretches of wheat fields, forests, wetlands, lakes and rivers.
“Last season, three daring Drifters equipped only with a GPS and 3G Google Earth, took a shot at getting to Conklin without using pipelines, powerlines or highway ditches. The result was a three and a half hour run, 75 miles each way, proving it can be done,” says Fetzko, himself an avid sledder.
Fetzko and his wife Donna, have been members for eight years.
“Sledding is an escape for the brain of everyday pressures. Being a part of the Drifters gives us the satisfaction that we are contributing to maintaining access for our choice in motorized recreation.”
From Conklin, the trail will proceed down to Eleanor Lake which will be the connection and lodging at the Iron Horse.
“We’ve also started more in-depth discussions with the RMWB, industry and other users of the back country to come up with a secure safe route,” adds Fetzko. “Our hope is to start construction the winter of 2016-17 on the Conklin leg.”
The 2016 ASA Jamboree – Northern Strong being hosted by the Sno-Drifters next year “Is the first step we are taking as a club to start to raise awareness and funds for the new trail venture.”
The jamboree is being held March 4 to 6 and includes the popular Poker Rally. All sledders and non-sledders are welcome to the family-friendly event. For more information visit sno-drifters.com.
“The jamboree is a great opportunity to welcome the 32 other ASA clubs to our trail system and show that we are more than just oil plants and camps. This is our home and we love it here for all that it has to offer our members’ families.”