Monday, December 29, 2008

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Powder Riding 101

After only a couple of minutes of riding the trail away from your truck, the fresh fields of new powder beckon to you. This is it: the moment you’ve been waiting for. Virgin snow lies ahead, sparkling in the morning light. You ARE the Ski-Doo commercial, living the dream. Off the trail with about half a handful of throttle, the machine sings across the top of the freshly fallen snow. Life is good. The machine dips and pushes the snow away like a streamlined ski-boat as you crest the rolling drifts; it is exhilarating. This is why you bought this sled, no doubt about it, it is worth every penny. A smile broadens across your face.

The end of the field quickly looms: time to turn around. The smile fades as you grit your teeth with determination, lean to the inside of the corner and turn the skis in that direction. The machine pitches to the outside and digs in throwing cold mist over your face and obscuring your vision. You lean inside even harder and pull the machine briefly level with all your might, only to have it roll away from you again. As this wallowing routine repeats itself, you no longer resemble the Dance of the Snow Queen From the Nutcracker Ballet, the action more closely looks like the time you tried to help your 250 pound drunken roommate up four flights of stairs at 3AM.

Invariably the battle ends as you land on your back, looking up at the blue sky. The only thing bruised is your ego. The machine is on its side, all 570 wet pounds of it, stuck. You wrestle yourself onto your belly; in a manner you’d rather not have video taped, to survey your pathetic situation.

Next thing you know a beat machine, wailing pipes and a ripped seat held together with duct tape alone, comes screaming towards you. The rider is not seated but is moving back and forth while the machine plays a tune over the terrain. You are certain the guy can write script across the field with the way he is tossing that thing around. How can he do that? Maybe he is writing, “Time to rescue the newbie!” He completes his dance with a final, steeply banked 360-degree turn in an area about the size of your bathtub, coming to a stop about 10 feet away. Snow all over his machine and an ear-to-ear grin appearing under his helmet: “Need some help, dude?”….

Sound familiar? The riding techniques necessary to turn a mountain machine in the powder are not rocket science, but they are not natural either. We all have learned some very bad habits from driving cars that do not translate well to powder riding. Why is powder riding so difficult and trail riding so easy? Why, when I climb a little hill at even the slightest hint of angle, do I end up making one side of the McDonalds arch instead of going up and over?

When a snowmobile is on a hard trail, it drives like a car. We can all relate to the handling characteristics of a small car in the snow. It brakes, accelerates, turns right and left… no sweat. Powder riding is different because the machine is not firmly supported and this makes it handle more like a canoe and less like a car.

What are the ways we can turn a canoe? One way is to shift our weight to one side. With some forward momentum and a little weight shift, the canoe will slowly turn in a gentle arc. Another way is to paddle on only one side or, more applicable in our case, we can drag one paddle dramatically turning the canoe. Both the shifting of weight and the dragging of a paddle can be applied to powder riding.

Let’s revisit the machine as it glides at half throttle effortlessly in a straight line across a powder field. With the power ON, the machine is being pushed by the track so that the front end of the machine is lifted out of the snow, and rides on top. This is like a boat that has been thrust “on the step”. In this configuration the majority of the weight of the machine is on the track and not the front end. When the power is shut off, all the weight dives to the front and you can kiss powder riding good bye as the snow runs over the hood and into your face.

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