The head of Maine’s largest snowmobile organization said snowmobiling isn’t an inherently dangerous sport, but he urged caution around early-season hazards, such as unstable ice.

Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, said snowfall totals for this season have generated a lot of excitement among sledders, especially after last season’s mild winter hampered the sport, and this year’s enthusiasm could translate into risky behavior.

“Everybody’s very excited, but they need to remember basic safety rules,” Meyers said. “Know where you’re going. Stay off ice that you’re not familiar with. Keep control of the sled.”

Last Sunday, five snowmobilers in Rangeley drove into open water on Rangeley Lake in whiteout conditions. One died and three others are presumed dead. The search for the three missing men was suspended Thursday because of wind and extreme cold weather. They were the first fatalities of the season in Maine.

Those accidents — happening at the start of the snowmobile season — have forced people to consider safety issues even as officials try to broadcast that message through public service announcements on TV and the Internet, said Cpl. John MacDonald of the Maine Warden Service.

“Something like this early in the season shocks people and makes them think, ‘This can happen to me, too’ and that itself can kind of be a powerful message,” MacDonald said.

During the past 11 years, there have been 79 snowmobile-related deaths in the state, according the Maine Warden Service. The winter with the lowest number of deaths was 2009-10.

The highest number is 16 in 2002-03, which is also the highest number in any season since record-keeping began in 1970. MacDonald recalls working in the field as a warden during that deadly year and theorizes that so many deaths occurred because it was a long winter season of heavy snow statewide, prompting more people — some of them not as experienced as others — to hit the trails.

“Conditions were good in southern Maine too, which quickly put people on trails in southern Maine that typically don’t see traffic,” MacDonald said. “We had a lot of snow and a lot of traffic in December right through March, April.”

Meyers said the sport isn’t dangerous. Recklessness or poor judgment are responsible for many of the deaths.

“Sometimes there’s a disconnect between the brain and the thumb,” he said.

BAD ECONOMY A FACTOR

Lee Libby, a snowmobile guide in Rangeley, thinks some people engage in risky behavior to get their money’s worth out of their sled.

A snowmobile and related gear are a major investment, sometimes approaching $20,000. When people spend that much money on equipment, they want to use it. That may lead people to drive sleds in even unsafe conditions.

Cliff Kramer, co-owner of Kramer’s Inc., a snowmobile retailer in Sidney, said entry-level sleds begin at about $7,000, while high-performance ones run as high as $14,000 at his store. Sledders can expect to pay another $1,000 for good quality gear — such as a waterproof snowsuit and helmet — to stay warm at temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero.

Sledders who don’t have access to trails from their property will need a trailer, which can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000.

About 80 percent of Kramer’s customers finance their snowmobiles — many at five-year terms — which means owners are making payments throughout the year, even though the snowmobile season in Maine is generally less than three months long.

But Meyers believes early-season accidents are caused by excitement, not economics.

MacDonald said snowmobile safety education has improved in recent years — the Maine Warden Service creates public service announcements about snowmobile and ice safety to air on network TV channels and on its website. That message, he said, is promoted through partnerships with Brookfield Power and the Maine Snowmobile Association, a group comprising nearly 300 snowmobile clubs, which together maintain more than 14,000 miles of trails throughout the state.

SAFETY COURSES OFFERED

There are also six-hour snowmobile education courses offered statewide on topics such as proper operation and safety, laws, emergencies and survival, map and compass use, first aid and land ethics, according to the website of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The safety courses, which offer a certificate after completion, are conducted by regional safety coordinators whose contact information is on the department’s website.

The courses are optional — as they are for boat and ATV use — though MacDonald recommends all snowmobilers take the courses.

“I know it’s difficult for people who have been doing it quite a while to enter into a course,” MacDonald said. “But anyone new, youngsters, it offers a good spectrum of safety and riding.”

MacDonald would not say whether he thought safety courses should be required, saying that’s a department policy position.

Doug Rafferty, spokesman for the Maine Warden Service, said the department is not considering any policy that would require safety courses. Department officials believe that it should be kept voluntary, he said.

“We have no way of knowing who has and hasn’t had training on snowmobiles and experience riding them, and we would hate to jump into it at this point, making it a mandatory program. It’s just not feasible,” Rafferty said. “But we would certainly recommend it to anyone who’s just bought one and is new to it, because every year we have a number of snowmobile fatalities and we’d like to see that at zero. So, we’d highly recommend it to anyone getting into snowmobiling from the start.”

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Ben McCanna can be contacted at 861-9239 or at:

bmccanna@centralmaine.com