Hitting the trails at the Prince Albert Winter Festival

A pair of snowmobile riders return to the Prince Albert Wildlife Federation Hall during the 2020 Prince Albert Winter Festival Snowmobile Rally on Saturday, Feb. 15. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

“For us, it’s -15 C to -20 C,” Prince Albert Trail Riders president Gerry Dolezsar says. “It’s pretty much when the machines run best.”

Dolezsar, himself isn’t out in the cold. He’s keeping watch inside the Prince Albert Wildlife Federation Hall, where the sun pours in through a row of windows and the furnace keeps everyone warm. Outside, nearly 100 riders clad in thick gloves and heavy coats have just started the first leg of the Prince Albert Festival Snowmobile Derby. You can still hear the high-pitched whine of the engines from the last few stragglers zipping up the trail.

“We hope they have a great time out there,” Dolezsar continues. “They’re on their way this morning. They went out to the Glenmore Shelter, which is near the town of Holbein. They’re going to go out there and have a hot dog lunch, and then from there, they can make their choice. They can go to Shellbrook. They can come back and cross the river and go up into the Nesbit Forrest. They can circle the city and come back here.”

Outside of dog sled races and beard growing competitions, snowmobiling might be the most quintessential Winter Festival activity. It was a mainstay in earlier editions, when it was organized by the Prince Albert Snowrunners, but that ended in the 1970s. The PA Trail Riders revitalized the event a few years ago, and officially partners with the Winter Festival for the first time last year.

Dolezsar says they love being a part of the Winter Festival again, but most importantly, they’re just happy to see the support. The 30-40 member club maintains roughly 160 km of trail in the Prince Albert area, along with two shelters. They’re hoping to expand to 200 km of trail, and add another shelter, and proceeds from events like this one help pay for any costs.

“We’re all volunteers,” Dolezsar explains. “There’s no payroll. Everybody just gives of their time, and some of the guys are giving hours and hours to make this all happen.”

That volunteer work has only grown in importance this year. The club has to quick and easy way to track how many people use the surrounding snowmobile trails, but all their indicators point to a steady increase in riders.

Wood piles are their most noticeable measuring stick. If club members see wood running low at a trail shelter they know they’re getting a large number of riders, and likely a large number of families, who are driving out for a day of riding and hot dog roasting.

Dolezsar says good winter weather and adequate amounts of snow have helped spur that development, but it’s not the only reason. The Trail Riders have made an effort to get more families involved in the sport, and setting up shelters closer to the city is a big part of that.

“Some of them are within four or five or six miles of the city, so you can get out there, light a fire, have a hot dog and make it into kind of a family event,” he explains. “We all want to get out there and rip across the field, but it’s more about getting the families involved in the whole sport.”

Saturday’s snowmobile rally ends with the wail of engines growing louder and louder as the returning riders get nearer and nearer. They’ll have a hot supper to eat and a warm hall to eat it in when they get back.

For a snowmobile rider, it’s the perfect end to a perfect day.