OLNEY — Sometimes it takes a cat to survive in grizzly country.
The logo of Great Northern Powder Guides looks suspiciously similar to Montana State University’s mascot, and the family owners even have a live pet bobcat. They build custom cabins for snow grooming machines (commonly called snowcats) which they fill with backcountry skiers intent on raiding the deep powder stockpiles where grizzly bears roam (when they’re not hibernating).
Shepherding skiers keeps the Sandelin family busy every day between Dec. 1 and April 1 as Montana’s only snowcat guide service. Maintaining those snowcats and crafting the cabins that hold their skiers takes up the rest of the year.
It’s a deeply family business. Father Jay Sandelin oversees the cabin construction and snowcat maintenance. Mother Kylanne handles the booking, marketing and administration. Son Tarn drives the snowcats deep into the Stillwater State Forest for thrilling days of powder-hunting, spends his evenings repairing whatever broke during the day, and his summers doing custom excavation and improving accesses to the backcountry ski area.
Jay Sandelin’s fiberglass skills grew out of his skiing life. He spent several years as a world-class speed skier, tucking down mountains at 141.4 mph. Speed skiers wear special aerodynamic helmets for protection and to help them break terminal velocity — they can ski faster than the fastest skydiver can fall.
“I couldn’t find a helmet I liked, so I learned how to make my own,” Sandelin said. “I was one of the fastest people, and everybody thought it was the helmet that made me go faster. It wasn’t, but people asked me to make helmets for them. That paid my way to go to races.”
It also opened a new career. Every major ski resort has a snowcat to groom its runs. But those powerful machines only hold one driver, and possibly a passenger. A lot of potential capacity remained unrealized. Sandelin put that fiberglass experience to work making passenger cabins.
“It’s nice to have the market cornered, but the market is about this big,” Sandelin said, pinching his fingers around an imaginary pea. “We sell five to eight cabs a year.”
Customers range from the Izaak Walton Inn, which wants to transport hotel guests around its cross-country ski trails, to private ranch owners who want a luxury ride to their backcountry cabins.
“The first one I made I sold to a Wyoming guy,” he said. “It had a flat-screen TV, surround sound, carpeting, heat. He was watching 'Crocodile Dundee' with fresh popcorn, just like a movie theater.”
Cabs alone can cost from $20,000 to $70,000. Throw in the machine, and you'll need to add $45,000 to $200,000 to take one home.
Cab design evolves from snowcat characteristics, which may be the weirdest things on wheels.
Tiny snowflakes pile up into snowpacks weighing tons, and a snowcat pushes them around like a bulldozer. But a bulldozer would disappear in the dozen-feet-deep snowfields where the Sandelins roll. Those snowcats have to be light enough to float on the snow yet powerful enough to simultaneously shovel roadways and drag groomers. Their rubber-and-aluminum treads would disintegrate pushing dirt.
The front blade moves up and down, side to side, over and under, and has wings on either side that angle independently. Positioning the blade not only pushes the snow where the driver wants it, but also affects the traction of the treads as they maneuver around corners. The Sandelins control all this with a right-hand joystick that would terrify a video-game addict.
Befitting the “snow” in snowcat, the machines operate in the cold. The $4,000 windshields have almost-invisible wire screens to keep them defrosted, and the windshield wipers are heated. Hydraulic lines run everywhere, and adjusting the way the snowcat moves affects the hydraulic fluid temperature. A few degrees difference can improve the machine’s effectiveness. Misjudge the traction, and the hot engine will help the snowcat melt itself straight into the ground.
Then there’s the question of exactly where to put everything. A snowcat’s driving cab sits disturbingly far forward. Tarn Sandelin has a sphincter-clinching habit of swinging into empty space as he spins the snowcat 180 degrees on a skinny logging road, confident that the center of balance lies safely behind him.
Positioning a cabin full of seats, video screens, stereos, coffee-makers and a dozen human bodies therefore must be done with care. The Sandelins tried making one out of metal and wood. The daily toll in blown tires and ripped treads killed that design quick.
A fiberglass structure weighs much less than a metal one. And it gives Great Northern’s craftsmen lots of leeway for custom fittings.
“The clients all want something different,” Jay Sandelin said. “It’s more than just a box. We build in tissue holders and trash cans and cup holders. There are lights that shift from red to blue to green, all controlled by a console. The ceiling is carpeted and soundproofed. One we made for Aspen needed champagne and wine-glass holders.”
The Sandelins take advantage of a unique situation in their corner of Montana: the Stillwater State Forest. The 93,000-acre swatch of the Whitefish Range northwest of Whitefish has an ideal combination of attributes: excellent snow slopes, easy highway access and a willing government partner.
“The state’s really good to work with,” Sandelin said. “Five percent of our gross goes to the Montana school system. If it was the feds, we wouldn’t ever know where the money went. And we’d never get all the permits we’d need for grizzly bears and wolverines and whatnot.”
Great Northern’s permit from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation limits it to a season between Dec. 1 and April 1, to limit impact on grizzly bears. It includes a shared responsibility for grooming snowmobile trails in the state forest, although Great Northern gets exclusive access to some of its more technical routes. The cats have 20,000 acres to prowl. They can haul skiers 50 miles a day and never hit the same slope twice.
“These folks are spending a lot of money to ski,” Sandelin said. “You’ve got to do everything you can.”