PRAIRIE CITY - On the valley floor around Prairie City, few would suspect that snowmobiling is an up-and-coming sport in Grant County.
In the nearby mountains on the Malheur National Forest, however, a scene emerges of active winter recreation. Snowmobilers plunge and soar through fields of white. During special events, trucks, trailers and snow machines converge at a volunteer-built, heated snow shelter where neighbors and friends can feast on hot coffee and chili.
The problem is, motoring tourists from Bend and other locales tow their snowmobile trailers right through Grant County without knowing what's available in the mountains. Regional snowmobile clubs hope to change that lack of awareness.
"This winter recreation is a totally untapped resource," said John Bastian, vice president of the Oregon State Snowmobile Association and member of the Grant County Snowballers Club. "I've ridden in a lot of regions, and this is as good as it gets."
Grant County Snowballers president Bill Long noted, "The economy of Grant County in the wintertime is dead. There's nothing going on. So the more people we get out here to ride, the better it is for the businesses."
The Snowballers do not stand alone as advocates for snowmobiling. The Burnt River Snowmobile Club, Sumpter Valley Snowmobile Club and the Burns High Desert Drifters also cruise around Grant County's 861 miles of groomed trails, helping maintain this seasonal resource. The Snowballers are responsible for grooming more miles of trail than any other club in Oregon, 536 miles, according to the group's literature. Members of these clubs ride mainly on two national forests, the Malheur and Umatilla.
"We've been worked really well with the Forest Service. We have a good rapport with them. There's some great people in there," Bastian said.
Dick Haines, outgoing district ranger for Prairie City Ranger District, applauded the Snowballers for working so well with the agency.
Lance Delgado, who wears the multiple hats of Prairie City mayor, fire management officer for the Prairie City Ranger District and new Snowballer member, said the club's efforts promise to improve the county's struggling economy.
"I think it's one element of a diversified economy, and albeit it's seasonal, we need to take advantage of it," he said.
Bastian moved from Grants Pass to Canyon City two years ago and discovered a recreation destination on the cusp. He marveled at the growth in interest in snowmobiling while participating in a play day east of Prairie City near Summit Prairie on Jan. 11.
"When I first got here, we had 32 club members," Bastian said. "When we got here this morning, I looked at the books, and I counted 86."
Long, who lives in Seneca, praised volunteers who organize events and maintain trails with a $150,000, OSSA-furnished grooming machine on the county's trails. Volunteers also pitched in to build the Huddleston Snow Shelter near Summit Prairie. The shelter is dedicated to Bettie and Flynn Huddleston, a couple from Mt. Vernon renowned for their advocacy of snowmobiling. In the mid-1980s, OSSA named the Huddlestons "snowmobilers of the year."
The play day on Jan. 11 suggested a new generation of snowmobiling enthusiasts is primed to join the club's ranks.
"It's a good family sport. There are quite a few kids out here today," Long pointed out.
On another front, Bastian promoted the region at the OSSA annual convention in Sunriver near Bend, which he attended Jan. 24-25.
"The main area we're concentrating on is Bend," he said, referring to a Forest Service-funded marketing strategy to promote the region's snowmobiling.
Long said the club strives to include cross country skiers by grooming trails for their exclusive use. There's plenty of snow to go around, he said.
"It's out here for everybody," he said.
Poker ride on tap
SENECA - On Saturday, Feb. 1, the Grant County Snowballers plan a poker ride-radar run from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. in Seneca. The poker ride-radar run will boast a $1,000 purse with prizes for five places in the poker run and $10 per hand.
Other scheduled events for the Snowballers include:
3 - Monthly meeting at the Elks, 7 p.m.
8 - Unity Club poker ride
23 - Bear Valley ride, Gregg Haberly ride leader
3 - Monthly meeting at the Elks, 7 p.m.
9 - Ride to Elk Flat with the Unity Club
23 - Ride to Lake Creek with Burns Club
7 - Monthly meeting at the Elks, 7 p.m.
12 - Annual banquet
For more information about these events or to join, call club president Bill Long at 542-2202, vice president Tom Wilson at 575-2818 or member John Bastian at 575-3640.
Also, see the club's Internet page at www.grantcounty.cc.