Man engineers first-of-its-kind Rail Sled for Tahoe backcountry exploration
Special to the Sun
Who: Scott Denham
What: Eagle Ridge Outfitters
Location: Staging area is at CA-89 North and Cottonwood Road, 14 miles north of Truckee at the Little Truckee Summit OHV parking lot
TRUCKEE, Calif. — From the top of Mt. Lola — the highest peak in the Tahoe National Forest — the scenery is breathtakingly primitive, with sweeping 360-degree views of the pine-and-snow-covered northern Sierra.
It’s a remote and rugged territory that is steeped with Gold Rush history, and it’s essentially served as the backdrop of Scott Denham’s office for nearly 30 years.
“You can come out here and never hear another snowmobiler or come across a single person all day,” said Denham, owner of Eagle Ridge Outfitters. “Sometimes I forget how great I have it, but people are always reminding me that I have the best job there is.”
Although Denham’s title has changed over the years from snowmobile tour operator to trail groomer to repairman to outfitter, he’s nonetheless spent much of his career exploring the 650 square miles of Tahoe backcountry forest.
“Eagle Ridge Outfitters is kind of an extension of what I started back in the late ‘80s when I was doing the snowmobile tours, but I guess you could say this is more like a labor of love,” Denham said.
For five years, Denham has been laboring over his patented, one-of-a-kind vehicle dubbed the Rail Sled — a cross between a highly-maneuverable snowmobile and a heavy-duty, enclosed Snowcat.
“The whole idea kind of started from the days when I was a groomer out here, and I would have to ride my snowmobile to and from work, sometimes as early as three in the morning, which was pretty cold as you can imagine,” Denham said. “I kept thinking how nice it would be to be in something that was enclosed and warm, but still fast and maneuverable.”
A longtime homeowner in the sleepy backwoods of Russell Valley — located about 10 miles north of Truckee — Denham had to snowmobile in and out of the isolated neighborhood until the road was paved and plowed in 1995.
“There’s still a snowmobile track that runs alongside the road, and a lot of people still ride in and out of Russell that way,” Denham said.
The first of its kind, the Rail Sled is powered by a clean-running, high-efficiency Chevrolet snowmobile engine and can clock speeds of up to 55 miles-per-hour.
As a classic boat, snowmobile and foreign car mechanic for most of his life, the self-made entrepreneur has since built three versions of the high-performance sled with his own two hands.
Each operates as an emergency rescue vehicle, as well as serving as a recreational means for families or people with disabilities to explore the wilderness in the comfort of a spacious and warm cabin.
“It’s built using snowmobile components and off-the-shelf parts, and the motor is world-produced, so it could be built anywhere if need be,” Denham said.
Marketed toward ski resorts as a safer alternative to the toboggan-style method of emergency response, Denham also offers backcountry tours on board the Rail Sled that are chock full of epic views, wildlife sightings and historical information about the northern Sierra.
“It’s about inspiring people to do something different, to see something they’ve never seen before, and to give them a memory of a lifetime,” Denham said.
The first few tries were admittedly trial and error as Denham welded, cut, pieced the machine together, but the painstaking process has been worth the effort and Denham hopes to begin manufacturing the design in the near future.”
I think we’ve lost some of the American entrepreneurship that this country was built on,” Denham said. “It’s important that we get back to that, to inventing and creating American-made products.”
Jenny Goldsmith is a North Tahoe-based freelance writer and a former reporter for the Sierra Sun newspaper. Have an idea for a merchant to feature? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.