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Warm weather means tough sledding ahead

Canadian Press

The old joke about Canadian weather being 10 months of winter and two months of tough sledding seems to have reversed itself this year.

Unusually warm and even wet weather this winter has left snowmobilers across the West desperate for snow. As well, at least two deaths due to poor conditions have been reported this winter.

"What we have is low snow in the majority of the snowmobiling regions of the province," Chris Brewer of the Saskatchewan Snowmobiling Association said yesterday.

"I don't think they're sledding anywhere," agreed Louise Sherren of the Alberta Snowmobile Association. "It's brown everywhere."

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Even the usually reliable deep freeze around Fort McMurray has failed to provide wintry conditions this year, Ms. Sherren said. A few centimetres of white isn't enough for sled-heads, which means that riders are zooming the trails on quads instead of snow machines.

And while there's good snow available at higher altitudes, the snowmobile attractions of the B.C. Interior are hurting as well. Snowmobilers in towns such as Revelstoke now have to negotiate creeks normally frozen over or haul machines up into the mountains to get terrain they can ride in, said Kristy Wilkinson of Snowmobile Revelstoke.

In Manitoba, where Winnipeggers woke up to freezing rain yesterday, only about 1,000 of 11,000 kilometres of groomed trails are open.

Alberta and Saskatchewan are both warning sledders about safety concerns.

"We always include a warning about travelling on water, but we will be emphasizing it more this year because of the weather we've been having," said Jeanette Espie of Alberta Infrastructure, which is preparing an advisory for release in mid-January.

In Saskatchewan, the problem is increased by lakes still draining from heavy rains late in 2005. As the water level falls, hazardous pressure ridges form in the surface ice as it collapses.

Water outflows from some lakes are four to five times normal levels, and some waters are open for the first time in 20 years.

The Saskatchewan Watershed Authority has released a list of seven lakes and their immediate river systems that are dangerous.

"Many areas that are usually safe to cross may not be safe this winter," the authority said.

There have already been two deaths in the province because of the unusual conditions.

The first was a 19-year-old resident of Southend who went through the ice on Reindeer Lake in the early hours of New Year's Day. The second was a 57-year-old Saskatoon resident, who was killed when he was thrown from his machine after striking an ice ridge on Emma Lake, about 50 kilometres north of Prince Albert.

Weather maps show precipitation has been at least normal over most of the Prairies with the exception of north-central Alberta. The problem has been warmth.

Figures recorded for Edmonton show temperatures have been above normal almost every day for the past three weeks.

Southern B.C. recorded rain as high as 2,400 metres -- well above the tree line.

Meanwhile, snowmobilers are flocking to the few areas with snow.

"Our motels are both full," said Rick Dolezsar, town administrator for Hudson Bay, Sask., where nearly half a metre of pre-Christmas snow is still holding out.

Snowmobilers are making the sometimes-eight-hour drive from as far away as Moose Jaw in southern Saskatchewan and Camrose in central Alberta to the small town in the province's rolling, forested northeast.

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