Thanksgiving day is the unofficial start of the snowmobile season. This fourth Thursday of the month, the caravan from points east snakes through downtown before light breaks and heads out Three Creek Road the 11 miles to the Upper Sno-Park. By 6:15 a.m. there are already 13 rigs being unloaded. Within an hour, some 50 are packed up in the plowed lot. The later arrivals I am told needed a thermos refill at Dutch Bros, who strained to keep up with orders.

Among the first are Ty Walker, 39, and his 16-year-old son, Cody, from Bend. I ask them why Sisters when they have so much terrain closer to home?

“Less crowded, more friendly,” Ty tells me.

They explain further that there is less conflict between cross-country skiers and snowshoers, or with people like me, just out romping with my dog.

“Folks over here are just more laid back,” Cody says. “It’s a tradition for us every Thanksgiving.”

Not every rig was headed to Three Creek. A good number were driving to the Benson Sno-Park virtually at the summit of the Santiam Pass. There is vast and more open terrain which translates to more sledders. When Hoodoo resort is open, traffic is an issue and even more reason why Three Creek and its neighboring 6,500-foot surroundings are so desirable.

Ty had his first ride when he was 11 and Cody soloed at 8 — much to his mother’s chagrin.

The gate at the Upper Sno-Park closed three weeks ago. There are barely two feet of cover, but that doesn’t deter the diehards. The riders inform me that they only need six inches, especially if it’s at all packed. I am also surprised to learn that you can get from Three Creek to Dutchman and even Wanoga on the Bend side of the Cascades. It’s Wanoga that is like a freeway, Cody tells me, in defense of the longer drive from Bend.

That’s a long slog even on a powered machine. Today, sledders will be content to range 20-30 miles. The desire is to get an early start, like skiers wanting to make first tracks. And while there are plenty of signed trails, everybody seems keen on getting off the beaten path and into virgin snow, dodging trees and hunting natural moguls and drops for added thrills.

There’s an obvious fellowship among the sledders, otherwise strangers to each other. Lots of help in offloading machines, map sharing, and the frequent boasting of how much air was caught on the last outing; plenty of advice, usually unsolicited, in getting a cranky machine started or what kind of lubricant to use; what kind of clothing or goggles to wear.

It’s a balmy 20 degrees by 7 a.m., but the sun’s out and everybody’s stoked. A light dusting last night makes the ground sparkle. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting of sorts for the era. The pristine morning scene is broken only by the sound of a horde of 800cc, 150hp beasts eager to take off.

The Warrens’ only regret they claim is that Sisters coffee shops and watering holes are not open for apres sledding during the pandemic.