As the Snow Melts

It’s 11:00 am, Thursday morning, and the computer tells me that Grave Creek is down to 0.1 inch of snow water equivalent (2% of average), and that Stahl Peak is at 25 inches (66% of average).  Grave Creek is at 4030 feet elevation, while the snow pillow at Stahl is at 6030 feet. 

I’m recalling my last month of snow surveys – Jay Penney had been taken off duty when he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, and Tom Engel had been sent to Arizona, so I was getting both the Kootenai and the Flathead snow courses with assistance from the Forest Service – a new guy every day.  Absolutely essential help in getting the job done, and only one major mishap – when my FNG tried to turn in reverse and broke the ski off the Alpine.  At least we were on the way out when that happened – but I did have to swap machines and drive out another 15 miles with no steering.  As the photo shows, even without breaking the ski off, steering was never the Alpine’s best feature.  (The best feature was two tracks instead of one)

I liked the Alpines – two tracks and a 640cc engine.  A box on the back for equipment.  Snowshoes – I don’t believe I could be comfortable driving a snowmobile across the hayfield without snowshoes.  I’ve broken too many snowmobiles to ever be comfortable without the old-fashioned oversnow traveling tools.  In Kalispell that year, I met my Forest Service assistants at the fair grounds – which were also being used by the movie folks who were filming “Heaven’s Gate.”  Kind of fun – they offered a job when I helped hitch the horses to a wagon, but the May snow survey runs had turned into a full-time job.

Snoriderswest offers an article describing the Alpine: 

“The single-ski Ski-Doo Alpine is somewhat of a classic among old sled enthusiasts. These old sleds build on Ski-Doo’s early heritage of manufacturing a snowmobile or “tracked vehicle” to get “woodsmen through the forest and muskeg and then back home safely.”

Thus the Alpine proved popular as a work sled for utility companies, game wardens, trappers, pipeline inspectors or anyone who needed to check on remote locations or lines in the middle of winter.

Purportedly the double-tracked Alpine was the “world’s slowest” moving snowmobile but extremely reliable and dependable, so it’s little wonder that backwoodsmen, hunters and workmen loved the machines.” 

I think our record week was 5 machines broke down – engines and transmissions turned to trash by mountains in the Kootenai filled with wet powder.  We packed crowbars so we could turn the things on their sides and get the snow out when it filled the tracks – sometimes every half-mile.  The best thing about the Alpines was that when one broke down, it was time to turn it around and head out for the truck on a trail that was already broken and packed.

We didn’t have NOAA climate prediction sites back then – those early electronic calculators weren’t reliable in cold weather, so we still used slide rules in the field and checked our calculations when we got back in the warm.  The photo above is the model I used (along with the Alpine) for snow surveys (though not the same one).  Others like it served on the Apollo missions.  Photo from article at If you grew up without using a slide rule (or even if you did) it’s kind of a fun site to visit.

It looks like it should be a good summer for putting up hay – but I’m betting on less yield than last year.  It amazes me that so much climate data is available just by turning on a computer and checking the internet.

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