Life of a Groomer Operator (Gerry Balchuinas)
Published on Thursday, January 27, 2011 in Guest Columns, News & Updates
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We all look for them and smile when we find them. No, I’m not talking about the winning lottery numbers. But if you have those and would like to share them, give me a call. What I am talking about is a freshly groomed trail. You know the ones I mean. Flat as a board and set up just right, the kind that squeaks under your boots when you walk on them. Snow crystals glistening on the top of the trail, looking like the sweet crystals on top of a sugar cookie. Yes, those are the trails that we all desire. The feeling you get from riding these freshly groomed trails can only be experienced and not explained.

So, what’s it like for the operators that make these trails the way they are? Let’s take a glimpse into the routine of an average operator’s evening. It all starts the afternoon before the run, constantly looking at the thermometer, making sure it will stay cold enough all day so that you can start at a reasonable hour. If all goes well, you should be able to jump in the pickup and head to the groomer at or about 5 or 6 pm. However, just a few hours of temperatures above freezing during the day and your night will start a lot later than planned.

Running a groomer can get monotonous, so a stop at the local convenience store for a few snacks is a must. After stocking up on some needed supplies, it’s off to the groomer. A quick check of the necessary oils and moving parts, then get it started and turn on the heat! These machines can be quite cold and it takes some time to get them going. Then the fun begins! A typical journey takes about 6 hours a night, and that task is repeated three to four times a week. Some may think that you just set the drag and go, but believe me–this is not the case. You are constantly adjusting the drag to obtain the best results. Some spots are worse than others, but the bigger the machine the easier it is to fix the problem areas. Most grooming speeds hover around 5MPH, it can get pretty boring. My grooming partner Ben and I take turns operating, this gives one of us a chance to rest and really chow down on some goodies.

Unfortunately, I don’t get to see much scenery when grooming, due to the fact that most of it is done at night. One thing I did see and can attest to…the whites of a man’s eyes can easily fill the whole eye socket and about half of the helmet hole. That’s what we witnessed one night on a winding trail as a guy on an old Yamaha came barreling around the corner. In an instant he turned to the right and into the bushes he went. After he gathered his wits, he gave us the thumb’s-up and kept on trucking. I guess he didn’t see the four halogen lights up front and the flashing strobe on the roof of our groomer.

There is a certain sense of pride to be felt when you do a good job on a trail. When you get all the corners in and flat again, and all the bumps smoothed out to perfection, it is a great feeling. Yes, I guess that operating a groomer can be like watching paint dry, but it can also be fun. Nothing like getting a thumb’s-up from a happy rider whizzing by, or better yet, having a rider stop and hand you a couple of bucks for a tip, instructing you to get a beer on him after the run. Finally, around 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., the route is all done, and it’s back to the truck to head home for some sleep.

It takes a lot of money and time to keep these machines up and running. The bigger the machine the more it costs to run. So dig deep if a club is doing a good job on the trails. And don’t judge a trail system by one ride; we all know that two hours of heavy traffic can destroy a trail. Be safe, keep to the right, and watch out for the flashing strobe light.

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