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Athens & District Snowmobiles Club

For nearly 50 years, this club has maintained the trails of southwestern Ontario and built memories to last
PistenBully snow groomer with a Mogul Master drag, a brush bar and packer

Snowmobile trails don’t groom themselves. However, if they did, they could probably learn a thing or two from the members of the Athens and District Snow­mobile Club.

Founded in 1975, the Athens and District Snowmobile Club is one of the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC) longest-serving members, having joined in 1978. The club operates out of Athens, Ont., a small town located north of the St. Lawrence River and about 60 miles southwest of Ottawa, and its members are responsible for grooming approximately 100 miles (165 kilometers) of trails that criss-cross through the surrounding rural countryside, evergreen forests and picturesque views.

“If I recall, it seems that pretty much everybody had a snowmobile back then, and the purpose at the beginning was to just enjoy ourselves and have a group to snowmobile with and ride to certain places,” said founding member Kent Mainse. “We didn’t stray too far from the clubhouse, maybe 20 to 30 miles, because [in 1975] those trails were so rough, and we didn’t have the right equipment to maintain them.” 

The club’s first drag was a bedframe pulled behind an old OMC Snow Cruiser, a snowmobile exclusively sold in Canada during the mid-1960s and early 1970s. The bedframe was barely wide enough to clear the path, but its light weight left much to be desired when it came to smoothing out the trail’s humps and bumps.  

“Today, the trails might be better, and the snowmobiles are definitely faster and more comfortable, but it’s hard to beat the times we used to have back in those early days.” 

Kent Mainse, Athens and District Snowmobile Club

The club first held meetings in the Athens Lions Club Hall, at the former site of the old Athens Public School. Shortly after forming, it moved into a new clubhouse made from three decommissioned school buses placed end to end to end.

“We used to meet at this clubhouse and take off as a group of 20 or 30 snowmobiles for a full afternoon or evening, and when we got back, the girls would come out with food they had prepared – it was a whale of a time,” said Mainse. “Today, the trails might be better, and the snowmobiles are definitely faster and more comfortable, but it’s hard to beat the times we used to have back in those early days.”

In 1980–81, the club built a new 66-foot by 30-foot clubhouse on land it purchased west of Athens and then added a 30-foot by 50-foot shop a decade later to house its groomer. 

The Athens and District Snowmobile Club today

The snowmobile club today has a dedicated club executive committee comprised of officers and directors, as well as approximately 30 to 40 other active volunteers who prepare food, clean the clubhouse, perform various mechanical duties, maintain the building, do trail brushing, place signs, repair the trails and do things like culvert and bridge maintenance.

The club has also slowly modernized its trail equipment, going from a small Bombardier BR-100 groomer with a manufactured drag in the early years to a Logan Machine Company groomer a few years later. The club’s current trail equipment consists of a farm tractor used to brush hog the trails, a new 2021 PistenBully snow groomer that comes equipped with a Mogul Master drag, a brush bar and a packer for the early trails – a far cry from the old bedframe it used in 1975.

Athens and District Snowmobile Club clubhouse
Athens and District Snowmobile Club clubhouse

In the winter, when the temperatures drop, the club has four trained groomer operators and a spare on hand to groom the trails at night throughout the week and get them ready for the weekend. Then, when there is considerable snowmobile traffic over the weekend, the groomers will also head out to groom as needed.

“We try to get our trails into shape for when families go out for their family rides,” said club president Darin Williamson. “When you’re out with your family, we want to make the trails as safe and smooth as possible so that you have the best experience you can. And then we’re back out the next week fixing them up again.”

Keeping safety in mind, the club certifies its groomer operators through an operator training program held at a central location. It also provides opportunities for signage training, workplace hazardous materials information system training and more as needed to maintain the trails properly.

“There’s a lot to grooming the trails – it’s not like you go to school for a day and you get a certificate saying you can now put out signs,” said Williamson. “When I first started in the club and was trained, I went with one of the older fellas for two years, putting in stakes and signs before he finally said I was ready to go out on my own. The job is not as easy as it sounds.”

A part of the community

The Athens and District Snowmobile Club strives to play an active and visible role in the community, entering a float in the Athens Santa Claus Parade, which was soon followed by the village’s annual Torch Light Parade in January, where lit torches are used to burn up discarded Christmas trees at the Athens Community Centre.

The club also hosts a Landowner Dinner at its clubhouse every year to show appreciation to the approximately 140 landowners who allow the club members to traverse their properties. From November to April, community members can also come out to attend monthly fundraising wing nights or try their luck with a snowmobile raffle.

One of the shining moments for the club came in January 1998 in the aftermath of the Great Ice Storm that struck eastern Ontario and southern Quebec, causing widespread power outages throughout the region. The ice storm crippled the area for miles, and club members and volunteers stepped up to help those in need.

“Our building had a wood fire stove, so our volunteers were able to come to the rescue of local people by offering them a place to sleep and eat,” said founding member Howard Fenlong. “The army supplied us with cots, and the older people enjoyed hot meals prepared by our club volunteers and, for about two weeks, we were the place where people could come and enjoy card games, and the children could play games inside and out.”

Members wanted

Times have changed since the Athens and District Snowmobile Club was formed. Weekends were once sacred for snowmobilers hitting the trails and spending time with family and friends. Today, the weekend is like any other day of the week, and many riders have less time to commit to the snowmobile club than they used to.

This has made it challenging for the club to attract new members. While it is easier to find people to chip in for a one-time job, it is often difficult to find enough volunteers willing to come back weekend after weekend to run the club and maintain the trails.

Rearview from PistenBully snow groomer

“Our club is getting older, and it’s strange to think that most of the ‘young’ members are now in their fifties,” said Williamson. “Fortunately, we have some friends and family that aren’t involved in the sport who are willing to come out and help to put in stakes and signs every year. It’s just hard to recruit people today because everybody is so busy.”

In addition to being club president, Williamson wears many other hats to keep the lights on; he is also the trail and grooming coordinator and is responsible for reporting club activities to the district and OFSC. It can be frustrating being pulled in so many directions and corralling others to work, but he says it is still a labor of love that has its rewards.

“At our wing nights, it’s so nice to see everyone come out to the club and just socialize,” said Williamson. “They will come up to me and talk about the trails and how impressed they are with them and thank us for all our hard work. This is a great way to make a lot of new friends, and that’s something special.”

Photos courtesy of Athens and District Snowmobile Club