Snowmobiling has a way of giving you a rush. Driving down a snow-covered road or trail at 40 mph on the back of a snowmobile feels like you are living on the edge. Snow-covered trees and mountains are framed in front of the machine and deer and elk can suddenly appear to the side. The Rich Ranch near Seeley Lake, Mont., offers winter activities, including snowmobiling, that bring people back winter after winter.
The morning air is crisp and cold. A low blanket of fog filters the sun as it rises in the east. Horses can be seen as black silhouettes grazing in a wood-fenced pasture. Above, blue sky promises a clear, sunny day for riding.
The snowmobiles are lined up and the group is gathering after breakfast at the ranch house. The owner and guide gives operating and safety instructions concerning the machines. Keeping up is not the way to enjoy snowmobiling, he tells his clients. He will ride only as fast as the slowest rider.
The engines start and he leads the machines single file out into a snow-covered pasture to allow new riders a chance to get used to the snowmobiles.
The group heads for high country over a wide, snow-covered road. Speed slowly increases; glancing down at the speedometer the red needle reaches 40 mph and it feels like 100. This is a safe speed, but the air pushing against the body, the engine noise, the bushes and trees flashing past – it’s an adrenaline rush. All the senses are on alert. The sun is on your back, there are high, snow-covered mountains in the distance and you feel very much alive.
The guide slows and turns onto a narrow secondary road and starts up a smooth, groomed trail. He turns onto an ungroomed trail that has become a series of humps and dips from use and is uncomfortable to ride on even at a slow pace.
Finally higher up, he turns onto yet another untracked trail. He stops and explains that the bumpy trail is what happens if a trail gets traffic without being groomed. The new trail with fresh, smooth snow is high in the mountains with stunning vistas of rugged mountains bathed in sunshine. He veers off the trail and we follow him up a steep slope, maneuvering between trees and over some logs. Reaching an overlook, we turn off the sleds and pull out the cameras. Facing west and below is the Seeley Valley with the frozen white lake. In the distance, we see the Mission Mountains. Looking northeast is another group of massive mountains in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The valley is undeveloped enough that grizzly bears, wolves and other wild animals regularly pass through it to reach protected wilderness on either side. This is a wild and beautiful area to behold.
Reluctantly it comes time to leave. We mount our snowmobiles and start the trip back to the ranch.
But the show is not over. As we descend, the Bob Marshall Mountains remain in view while the sun falls behind the Mission Mountains behind us.