Gallatin Valley Snowmobile Association has a new grooming machine

By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

On Monday night, the last time Ben Flis was out grooming the Buck Ridge snowmobile trail, just south of Big Sky, he had to use a GPS to steer.

“I couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of me for five hours, it was snowing so hard,” Flis said.

Flis moved to Montana from Vermont eight years ago so he could snowmobile more. Now, he’s one of the two grooming operators for the Gallatin Valley Snowmobile Association.

Flis and the other operator, Stu Aasgaard, maintain more than 151 miles of groomed trails. It’s the first year on the job for both of them, and the two groom Taylor Fork and Buck Ridge near Big Sky, Little Bear, Moose Creek, Portal Creek, and Storm Castle in Gallatin Canyon, and Olsen Creek and Fairy Lake, north of Bozeman. GVSA maintains another 104 miles of ungroomed trails.

Their job just got better.

The club now has a new grooming machine, a Prinoth Husky, which should be trustier than the old Bombardier it’s replacing.

The old machine was having mechanical issues, said GVSA vice president Wes Fehrer. “We missed about a month and half of grooming last year, basically because of it.”

The new machine came from Bohart Ranch and had been stored inside all of its life. “The guy that kept it up, he pretty much babied it. It’s got more horsepower, better tracks, newer technology, and it’s a little bit bigger” than the old Bombardier.

The groomers work in remote mountainous terrain, mostly out of cell reception, and often at night. In the past, they always worried their machine would break down, leaving them to snowshoe out to the trailhead, or wait for someone from the club to come pick them up on a snowmobile.

“It’s nice to just get into a piece of equipment and run it, not have to have to worry about anything,” Flis said.

Two days a week, Flis meets Aasgaard at the trailhead at 3 p.m., right around the time Aasgaard finishes grooming Taylor Fork, further south, and they trade vehicles. Most nights, Flis grooms about 30 miles of trail on Buck Ridge. If he does side trails or has to double back, he’ll drive up to 50. He aims to be back to the trailhead by 10 p.m.

Three weeks ago, he saw a herd of 500 elk four miles up the trail. He’s also seen coyotes, moose and a pair of mink.

During a typical day, Buck Ridge can see up to 100 snowmobilers. More than 600 passed the counter over the five days surrounding Presidents’ weekend.

The new machine is part of a state fleet of 20 owned by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The program, administrated by Montana State Parks (a division of FWP) leases the grooming machines to snowmobiles clubs the across the state.

After trading in the old Bombardier, FWP paid $60,000 for the new Prinoth. The money to fund this and other expenses of the statewide grooming program comes from snowmobile registration fees, the state gas tax, grants and individual club fundraising.