“YOU HAVE TO DANCE ON THESE THINGS.” That’s how Dan Johnson, straddling his own snowmobile, describes the circus around us: Expert riders are kneeling, standing, and leaning as their Ski-Doos surf the snow. It’s a dance, all right, but it’s not quite on the machines. These riders dance with the quarter-ton monsters, and they do it with grace.
I didn’t see that coming. Snowmobiles are perhaps the biggest bone of contention in the outdoorsy world, with opposing camps considering them awesome or an abomination. I’m a dyed-in-the-Smart Wool urban tree hugger who leans toward the latter. But I’m trying to keep an open mind about my first snow-machine experience.
The playful scene unfolds on a ridge on the eastern slope of the Cascades. The machining veterans, all members of the Washington State Snowmobile Association, led a handful of beginners up from the Salmon La Sac Sno-Park northwest of Roslyn. It’s beautiful country, with evenly spaced pine trees and a fresh load of fluffy eastside powder. The woods here are a patchwork of land designations: Forest Service land abuts the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, private holdings, and Cle Elum Lake. Out beyond the WSSA riders turning doughnuts and breaching snowbanks, Rainier squats in the distance. If a city-dwelling nature fanatic is ever going to embrace the snowmobile, it’ll happen here.
Sno-Parks in these parts—where snowmobilers park their trailers—fill to capacity even on dismal Saturdays. A century before it became the set for TV’s Northern Exposure, Roslyn was the company town for Northern Pacific Coal. Tourists flock to the tiny historic downtown, anchored by the Brick tavern and the Roslyn Brewing Company. At one end of the tiny town, closest to civilization, is the sprawling Suncadia Resort. The other side is where the real snowmobiling takes place.
Green freaks like me will happily don long undies to snowshoe, cross-country ski, toboggan, bird-watch, or snow camp, but touring the backcountry on a motorized toy is out of the question. The vast white wilderness is about peace and quiet—to snowmobile is to rev a 100-horsepower engine in the face of Robert Frost.
But 10 minutes after boarding a sled (the cognoscenti never call it a “snowmobile”), I no longer care about being politically or ecologically correct. These suckers are fast. There’s a reason there are four sequels to The Fast and the Furious—speed is fun. A beginner might reach 45 miles per hour, while experts push 100 miles per hour. The controls are as simple as those on a golf cart; no clutch, no shifting. Just squeeze one heated handle to go and the other to stop.
Despite the roller-coaster thrill of the snowmobile, the appeal isn’t really in the ride—it’s the mileage. We’ll cover more than 40 miles in one day, and we reached our towering ridge in an hour.
But oh, the noise. It’s a constant roar, something like the burr of a lawn mower. The volume means communication is through hand signals, mostly the universal thumbs-up or frantic hand-waving that means “Hey you, get back here!”
Say what you will about the exhaust—snowmobile engines have been getting greener since a 2001 EPA report noted they were emitting 531,000 tons of carbon monoxide each year—that noise is what the haters hate. Is the view worth the racket and the constant whiff of motor oil? At the viewpoint, on the kind of sunny day that makes the Northwest seem like paradise, yes.
An hour later, when stuck behind a slow driver on the return trip and gulping down endless mouthfuls of exhaust, I consider taking that back.
Hours after that, another change of heart: In the scruffy confines of a snowmobiler hangout, the warmth of the area’s snowmobile culture charms me again. This is the Old No. 3, a tavern where sleds outnumber cars two-to-one in the parking lot, and inside the ceiling is lined with baseball caps stapled to the drywall. Even when you’re not stashing a helmet next to your plate, the spot is as welcoming as the food is fried. (Very.) That snowmobile noise that bothered me so much? A sign above the bar seems meant for me: “Put your Big Girl Panties on and deal with it!”
BETTER THAN “DEALING WITH IT” is finding a haven of peace and tranquility. Everything is quieter in Suncadia. Sure, there is plenty of activity in the immaculate 6,400-acre resort on Roslyn’s south end, but it has the enforced calm of a luxury retreat. On the three-mile drive through private residences, rental homes, and condos to the massive Suncadia Lodge, the speed limit for cars is half what I had done on my snowmobile.
The hotel overlooks a stretch of the Cle Elum River, the centerpiece of a planned community begun in the mid-2000s. Even the snow seems manicured, and sometimes it is—snowmakers from the Mission Ridge ski resort were brought to Suncadia’s tubing slope during the mild early winter. Take that, authenticity.
Here the snow muffles excess sound, except perhaps at the pool’s three-story water slides. Serenity rules at a delicately small outdoor skating rink, the spa’s soaking salt pools, and a winery built atop an old coal mine. Groups gather around fire pits, and the front desk offers a $20 s’more kit. Most guests come for the sweaty satisfaction of a quiet wander in the woods on rented snowshoes and Nordic skis. But that doesn’t mean snowmobiling hasn’t penetrated Suncadia.
“The pull from Seattle to this area for snowmobiling is insane,” says recreation director Dawn Wettig. The resort has secure parking for snowmobile trailers and arranges tours through Cle Elum shop Motor Toys. I ask owner Matt Chambers if he considers himself an environmentalist, and he pauses before replying in the affirmative. “It’s beautiful out there, I love the outdoors,” he says.
Will I love the outdoors from a snowmobile again? With new sleds priced upwards of $12,000, it’s a hefty investment, and I still can’t quite forgive the roar. But while on the ridge, as the WSSA riders noodled around on their sleds, it seemed pretty great.
Dan Johnson, the Seattle-area rider who calls their moves “dancing,” tells me about the volunteer search and rescue work he’s done on his machine. When four hikers were lost on Rainier in January, he joined Forest Service searchers on the mountain’s north side. I’m impressed, by the civic participation, by the view, and especially by the military jets that come thundering by our ridge. They buzz the canyon below, a remarkable sight, but they’re loud and I’m glad they pass quickly. In the woods, on a picture-perfect snowy day, a little bit of big, loud machinery goes a long way.
The Old No. 3
8381 State Road 903, Ronald, 509-649-3301
301 Rope Rider Dr, Cle Elum, 509-674-6555; swiftwatercellars.com
3600 Suncadia Trail, Cle Elum, 509-649-6400; suncadiaresort.com
71 Airport Rd, Cle Elum, 509-674-6807; motortoysofcleelum.com
Roslyn Brewing Company
208 Pennsylvania Ave, Roslyn, 509-649-2232; roslynbrewery.com