It’s been a tale of two winters — polar opposites — for snowmobilers in Manitoba this year after last year was pretty much a write-off following unseasonable mild temperatures and no snow.
"This year started out really well with the early snowfall and that got all our hopes up," said Alan Butler, president of Snoman Inc.
Butler said there was an early buzz amongst sledding enthusiasts following a large snowfall in November, and that energy has carried forward, although the Foxwarren resident said he’s hoping to see another good dump of snow soon.
Last year, warm temperature records were the only things falling across the province, highlighted by 7.3 C temperature reading in Brandon on Jan. 5, according to The Weather Network.
"Last year, there we’re no clubs open trails south of Highway 16, so it’s a totally different year already," Butler said.
This year, Butler said most clubs north and east of Brandon are open or partly open, but another good snowfall is still needed in order for clubs to groom trails in some of the more southern regions.
Getting all the trails open this season is a top priority for Snoman, especially considering how the sport has evolved over the past decade.
"Today, snowmobiling is really destination driven," Butler said. "The trails are designed to link communities and there is over 12,000 kilometres of trail in Manitoba, so we traverse the province east to west and north to south."
It’s also important to get the trails open to ensure a higher level of safety for riders who want to take their snowmobiles out.
"There is little risk while you are on a trail," Butler said. "We really promote safety. And the statistics show that 90 per cent of accidents on snowmobiles occur off of a trail and that in itself tells you the safest place to ride is on a trail."
Keystone Agricultural Producers president Doug Chorney echoed those same safety sentiments due to the high number of grain-filled bags located on fields this time of year. Making matters worse, is that the bags are white, causing them to blend in with the snow.
"It’s always important to ask farmers for permission to enter their field with snowmobiles," Chorney said. "However, this year, with the increasing popularity of grain bags for storage, that courtesy becomes a safety issue."
Mike Vodon, owner of Wheat City Cycle, is happy to see the snowfall, using an agriculture metaphor to compare last year’s down cycle.
"It’s like farming, most guys can sustain one bad year, but if you start having back to back years like that it gets tough," Vodon said.
At least three dealerships in the province closed their doors last year, Vodon said, due to lack of sales and high inventory costs carrying the machines.
"People tend to not buy unless they know they can buy in the morning and ride in the afternoon. And that’s what we saw last year, people didn’t buy," Vodon said. "Last year was our worst year since we opened and coming off the year with the flood, the summer was down so it was a tough year. It was a year you want to forget about."
Last year, Vodon was forced to make some tough decisions, having to lay off two of his staff due to the lack of business.
This year, he’s back up to full staff and a good winter coupled with a strong agricultural year plus increased oil activity means this year will be "average."
"If the economy isn’t good we feel it for sure," Vodon said. "Last year, when nobody was riding, then the service (department) is affected as well. There was a lot of guys that might have traded off this year, but because they didn’t ride much last year and put so few miles on the sled, it’s going to last a year longer. This year has been an average year for us, but it feels so much better after last year."