To hear about old times and old adventures from a silver-tongued snowmobiler is akin to hearing fish tales, war stories and poetry about long gone, simpler times. It's the stuff of legends: open trails that stretch farther than the eye can see, and the things that make life worth living for riders who know the importance of respect for the trails and for their fellow outdoorsmen and women. It is a time that 80-year-old Zee Miller remembers like it was yesterday, although in actuality, it was somewhere around the 1960s.
Way back when, Miller and his wife owned Miller's Marina where, for 35 years, they sold snowmobiles, ATVs and other outdoor sports machines and equipment.
"It was a big kid's toy shop," Miller says.
Asked how long he'll continue to ride trails, Miller answers with a joke: "I'm 80 years old. I may give it up if I can't hold onto the handlebars anymore."
When it comes to the old Highway to Heaven trail, which used to be the only mountain passage in the West that began in a major city, stretching for over 150 miles from Boise through Idaho City to Lowman and on up toward the Sawtooth Mountains, Miller gets nostalgic again.
"In the '80s we used to take people up and we rode right at the top where the highlands are at," he said. "We'd go all the way over to Lowman and have lunch. We'd take the kids too. It really was the Highway to Heaven. It's not like that now."
What exactly happened to the trail that once lured outdoorsmen like bees to honey? Encroachment, development and evolution.
"BLM put up a gate on Eighth Street prior to the parking lot, so there's no place on Eighth Street to park in the winter for snowmobilers," Miller said. "The next problem that we had with that is at Clear Creek Lodge to Grimes Creek. They now plow that road for the school bus, and they gravel, so there's no way for us to get down there to where the groomed trail used to run. It just doesn't exist anymore. Where it exists is in the Idaho City area. There's a lot of trails, probably over 200 miles of trails. They start in Idaho City."
Fellow rider Greg Davis agrees with Miller, whom he's known for over 20 years. The Highway to Heaven trail is not really very viable anymore, Davis says. About 20 years ago, Davis says, it was touted in articles, and a groomer from Idaho City used to work the route.But, Davis says that so many people have moved into the Clear Creek area that probably five or six miles of the middle of the trail have been lost.
"[A lot of] trails are broken now from development and there doesn't appear to be any way around it," he says.
He believes that for riders to really be more effective and proactive in the preservation of the trails and the sport, they need to join clubs, which are the most active groups out there grooming trails. Davis and Miller both volunteer their time and labor, maintaining the trails during the summer.
Gates don't stop all riders from utilizing the Eighth Street Foothill trails though. Jeremy Whittington of Boise has been snowmobiling since he was 12. Whittington describes his most recent trip up the Eighth Street Foothills, taken earlier this month.
"It was one of those challenging trips that was only fun because we survived. There were a couple of gentlemen up there who do the professional hill climb circuit, and even they had difficulties, and they had modified, souped-up sleds to take this kind of terrain. Taking the Eighth Street Trail, we got to the top there, and on the way up, about halfway up, the road had been really windblown and was impassible. The wind was blowing so hard up on the hill that there wasn't any snow, just stumps and rocks."
Whittington was disappointed by the conditions of the Highway to Heaven, considering it is still listed on some Idaho tourism and trail Web sites as a viable trail.
"You pay like $40 a year per sled for license fees, and that money is supposed to go to maintain and groom the trails," he says. "I have a feeling a lot of that money is going somewhere else.
"The thing is, when the conditions are the way they are, you need a groomed trail to get in, to get to the places you want to when it's so powdery and deep," Whittington says. "If it's labeled as a trail, I expect it to go so many miles and come back, even if I can't get off the trail this year. The trail is a nice connector to some areas where you can find a flat to play around in, but with the trails not groomed, you can't get there because the snow is so deep and so powdery and windblown that when you get around a corner where the wind has blown the road has completely disappeared and it's just a sheer cliff, which makes it really spooky. Or there are big huge ditches right on the trail, which you can get sucked into, and that makes it very dangerous. It's one thing to not have a trail at all, but another to not even have a road you're traveling on."
Davis and Miller disagree with Whittington's assessment of the snowmobile fees.
"They raised the fees to $32 a machine this year. I think it's very fair," Davis says. "Most of it does go to grooming. Groomers are very high maintenance pieces of equipment, so it takes a lot of time and money to operate them.
"If you get up past Idaho City they have a whole lot of groomed trails back there that they try to keep groomed. When the trails are groomed it's great," he says. "This year the conditions are such that it's so amazing how much snow they've gotten up there, there's no riding up there, the trails are off limits until they settle."
Miller said that with all the recent snow, there hasn't been a chance to groom all the trails. In areas like the Pilot Peak area, there's too much avalanche hazard.
"We didn't want people to get into the areas where the avalanches are," he says. "There's a lot more to it than the state or Parks and Rec being responsible [for grooming]. It's about a rider's responsibility. It isn't my problem that someone runs off the trail and gets stuck—they need to know how to ride."
You won't catch Miller or Davis shedding any tears over losing the Highway to Heaven trail. They maintain that there are several areas that are groomed and just as beautiful to ride, including Pilot Peak and Jackson Peak area around Idaho City and the Pine and Featherville and the Cat Creek Summit area around Mountain Home.
If you haven't been able to experience these trails for yourself, there's still plenty of riding season left. Some of the best riding is done after the snow settles a bit and conditions are less windy (and less dangerous). Not got a speedy snowmobile of your own to ride? There are plenty of outdoor sports rental facilities and outfitters around just waiting to help you get your snow on.
For more information on snowmobile clubs and events, visit IdahoSnowBiz.com. For local rentals in Boise, contact Outdoor Adventures at 6776 Warm Springs Ave., 208-386-9846, or visit their Web site at BoiseOutdoor.com.