How one snowmobile trip to the mountains transformed a Minnesota kid into a mountain man

You can take your trails and shove ’em up your …,” said my good friend Jeff Ward after our trip to the Big Horn Mountains last winter. I paused, looked him in the eye and tried to come back with a quick-witted retort, but I had nothing. From that moment I knew Jeff wasn’t the snowmobiler I had met a dozen years ago.

Jeff is a colorful guy who grew up in central Minnesota, pounding the swamps, trails and rivers near his hometown of Palisade since he was a kid. But after his adventure boondocking through the Bighorn National Forest in northern Wyoming, Jeff had become a mountain man.

He’d always ridden Polaris and Arctic Cat sleds, but after more than 10 years without owning a new snowmobile, he bought a Ski-Doo Renegade last winter, thinking it would be a nice balance for trail riding and perhaps a deep snow adventure every so often.

We tossed our sleds in a trailer and drove from Minneapolis until we reached Bear Lodge Resort in Dayton, Wyoming, some 12 hours later — stopping only for food and diesel fuel along the way. This was Jeff’s first snowmobile trip to the West, but the 34-year-old used car salesman had been thinking about snowmobiling in the mountains for years.

Our timing couldn’t have been better because U.S. Highway 14 that leads up to the lodge 8,300 feet above sea level was freshly plowed after a foot of snow fell the day before we arrived, and Bear Lodge owner Rick Young had a group of Big Horn veterans ready to share the adventure with us.

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His First Climb
Jeff’s first climb was brutal, he said. It wasn’t a big, mountain-climber’s ascent with a wide-open pull up the mountainside where you try to make the highmark. This was a boondocking climb.

Right out of the gate heading up the mountain we had to carve through tight trees, avoiding branches and hitting gigantic drifts and jumps while trying to maintain forward motion so our hybrid sleds wouldn’t get stuck. But they did. “I remember dying on that hillside,” Jeff said while recalling digging out his sled and mine more than once. The other guys were on real mountain sleds — a few Summits, RMKs and an M.

The slope was inconsistent as the grade increased and then flattened out several times. Ruts dug by the big sleds in our group swallowed our machines’ tracks. Despite the hard work, it was a dream come true for Jeff.

At the top of our climb was Spanish Cave, a place where, according to local legend, pioneers hid from Native Americans back when the West was even wilder. Our group made a short hike to the cave entrance and signed the guest book that’s preserved in a plastic food container. If you go to the Big Horns, have someone take you there.

Even though Jeff lost the handle to his shovel during his climb up to Spanish Cave, it was one of his highlights from the trip. “The whole exploring aspect, wondering what’s on the other side of that canyon,” he said. “You might only be the first or the third or the fifth guy to go [to] that whole un-chartered territory. I can spend all day working to get back in there and there’s not a guarantee that I’m coming out that easy.”

Heavy snow fell while we boondocked to this old logging camp.
Cloud Nine
Powder has become addicting to Jeff.
“Trails are so rough. The rough and the hard snow, I don’t have the desire for that anymore,” he said. But in the mountains, “it seems like you could never have a bad day out there. If an area is all tracked up, you can go 300 yards and find better snow, something new.”

Riding along the bottom of a coulee out to an old logging camp was just how Jeff imagined boondocking would be, and more. “You’re not confined to the trails. It’s the whole … you can be a renegade, you can just go,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like it will get repetitive out there, carving like you’re on a cloud.”

Snow was coming down hard as we picked our way through trees and our path crisscrossed along a river that looked small because it was covered by feet of snow, but peel off its white blanket and it might be deep and wide. After a break near the camp’s tumbledown log house, we searched for a snowy river crossing that wouldn’t collapse and send our sleds into the drink.

Some spots along our route opened up and we could carve through the deep snowpack. Jeff did well, but he didn’t have the form of Leroy, a lanky, gray-haired veteran mountain rider who handled his 163-inch Polaris Dragon RMK like it was a Kitty Cat. Nobody in our group rode as well as Leroy.

Snowmobiling in the Bighorn National Forest offers wide-open spaces and tight paths through the trees to test your navigation and boondocking skills.
Jeff learned that body position is important to not only steer the sled through deep snow, but to prevent pulled ligaments in the knees and feet. He twisted himself up a bit while making a move one day, but injuries heal.

The Transformation Is Official
Soon after our trip, Jeff traded-in his Renegade and bought a Summit. He works long days buying and selling cars and trucks at his dealership in Minnesota, but he rides his sled every night in his head.

“I might only go out west three or four times a year, but the other 48 weeks of the year I’m doing it in my head. I don’t sit there and dream about trail riding.” Snowmobile videos roll at work and Jeff checks websites daily to add to his list of must-see Western riding destinations.

“There’s some breathtaking views out there, let’s not forget. Pull your goggles off and take a look. Postcards don’t look that nice. You can look through your magazine, [or you can] get off your ass and go do it,” he said.

As an editor, I don’t know whether that’s a shot at this amazing, world-class snowmobile publication or a call to action. Either way, Jeff and I agree that a Big Horn Mountains adventure should be on every snowmobiler’s bucket list.

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