Trail Boss

Grooming snowmobile trails is a lot like field-leveling work: The result is satisfying, but it puts unique demand on equipment.

By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole

Scott Schneider grew up on a dairy in northern Wisconsin, but the farm economy of the 1980s altered his career plans. After spending 35 years as a firefighter, though, he still feels a connection to that farm life. And, he is still climbing into the cab of a tractor.

It’s just that not all tractors are used on a farm.

Schneider now spends his time in the tractor grooming trails for snowmobiles. Snowmobiling not only keeps residents outdoors throughout the frigid winter months in Wisconsin’s North Woods; it draws tourists from neighboring states and means big business for restaurants, hotels and other local businesses that might otherwise shutter against the cold. Instead, they embrace it, and so does Schneider.

“It’s peaceful to me, riding along in the middle of the woods on a snowy night, getting a trail fixed up the way it’s supposed to be,” he says. Riding along with Schneider, you can understand it. Most of his grooming work is on isolated trails, miles from anywhere, and the only sound is the purr of the tractor engine … until the distinctive buzzzzz of a snowmobile breaks the relative silence.

It’s mid-March and the thaw is beginning in the North Woods. The section of trail Schneider will work on today begins at Johnnie’s Resort, a bar the locals know and love that sits on the still-frozen Wabikon Lake in Forest County, Wisconsin. This is one of the most well-traveled trails of the 100 Mile Snow Safari, a 600-member club that names among its missions “to provide the best trails that we can, to keep as many people coming to this area as we can,” says Bruce “Ralphie” Springers, the president of the group.

The 40-degree temperatures have helped to unburden the rooftops of their snowcaps (and made for some spectacular icicles), but the weather is now a challenge to riders and groomers. Springers has been riding for more than 40 years, has an impressive collection of snowmobiles from those years past, and puts “4,000 to 5,000 miles a year on trails,” he says. As president of 100 Mile Snow Safari, he also makes purchase decisions when it comes to the equipment that will keep the trails groomed.

“When you’re out in the woods, miles from any road, you better have something you can depend on,” says Springers. “The comfort of a Fendt cab… it’s a very nice ride.”

Today, the 100 Mile Snow Safari’s Fendt 516 tractor is chained up, hooked to a drag, and ready to create a smooth “ribbon” from these late-season trails. “You get it to be like a roadway,” says Schneider. The drag has six blades that cut into the snow, keeping it moving to the pan in the back, where it is evened out and smoothed. Thinking back to his farm days, Schneider says the process is much like leveling a field.

From pushing snow on the front … (scroll/swipe) … to the drag on the back, grooming trails is not unlike field leveling.

The fine hydraulic controls on the Fendt afford Schneider precision in his work. Blades and pan on the drag can be raised and lowered an eighth of an inch at a time. Again comparing to farm work, Schneider says he can see that coming in handy when working on a road.

And about that “comfort” Springers mentioned? It’s essential when covering some 60 miles of trail every day. “A normal day (in the cab) is 8, 9, 10 hours,” says Schneider. “I looked at my hours so far this year … about 570 hours that I’ve been in the cab. That’s my home away from home in the winter,” he says. “The comfort features of the cab are very good for the driver. The seat is adjustable, it’s air-ride, so when it’s a little bumpy, it is comfortable.”

“We’re real proud to be working in the snow grooming industry, and to have the 100 Mile Snow Safari as a partner,” says Mark Vanderloop of Vanderloop Equipment. The Fendt 516, he says, is a “really good fit” for the operation beyond the comfort and reliability. “We can get that high horsepower package (160hp) in a light enough chassis to go through some tough conditions,” he says.

“(It) purrs along with no problem.”Click To Tweet

The lighter weight helps, says Schneider, in spots where a heavier machine might bog down or break through ice, but “we need that power also,” he says. The CVT transmission maintains the precise speed and engine RPM for both fuel efficient operation and power needs, says Schneider. He says he also remembers “back to the days of the farm, the manual shifting and stopping, downshifting, going up a hill,” he says, while the Fendt “purrs along with no problem.”

Vanderloop says “the ability to stay engaged with the ground, consistent power throughout its travel, minimizes wheel slip. Combine that with the turning radius”—crucial on a trail—“and it’s nimble, high horsepower, really solid on the ground, and just a comfortable tractor to be in.”

Those long, comfortable hours in the cab of the Fendt 516 make a smooth ride possible for snowmobilers. Schneider will occasionally meet riders on the trail and get the “thumbs-up” as they pass. He also shares video updates from the cab on social media as he grooms the trails. “When you get a smooth ribbon like this,” he says, “the snowmobilers appreciate that. It certainly is rewarding.”