AUGUSTA — A year ago Monday, four snowmobile riders died on Rangeley Lake after they drove their sleds into open water. The Maine Warden Service and the Maine Snowmobile Association hope that a public service announcement introduced Monday will prod snowmobilers into using common sense to avoid similar tragedies.
Thanks to heavy snowfall and cold temperatures, this winter’s snowmobile season is shaping up to be spectacular, the head of the association said Monday at a news conference. But busier snowmobile seasons can lead to more crashes, some of them fatal.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which oversees the warden service, and the snowmobile association hope that the public service announcement, which will air on the state’s television stations in the coming days, will keep those numbers down this year.
Cpl. John MacDonald of the warden service said the number of crashes has declined over the years, but it tends to fluctuate with the conditions.
Almost 40 snowmobilers died in crashes over the last six years, according to the warden service. There were 186 crashes last year, including 119 that caused personal injury, and five deaths.
Four of those deaths occurred on one night on Rangeley Lake.
Two parties of snowmobilers – a mother and son, and three men in their 40s – fell into open water in the lake in northwestern Maine on Dec. 30 last year.
Dawn Newell, 45, of Yarmouth died, but her 16-year-old son jumped from his snowmobile onto solid ice before his machine sank. Newell’s body was found the next day.
The bodies of the others, Glenn Henderson, 43, of Sabattus, Ken Henderson, 40, of China and John Spencer, 41, of Litchfield, weren’t recovered by wardens until May.
The public service announcement focuses on the dangers of driving snowmobiles after drinking – as well as speed, a common factor in crashes, MacDonald said.
The ad shows a group of jovial men drinking around a table before heading out on their snowmobiles. It then cuts to members of the warden service going to the wife and young daughter of one of the riders at their home to deliver the bad news.
MacDonald said it’s especially hard to see children or others who have done nothing wrong get hurt in crashes. Other times, he said, it’s clear that the victims could have avoided tragedy by making better choices.
“They all stick with you, especially the bad ones,” he said.
MacDonald said the ad is also aimed at family members of snowmobilers, so they will encourage their husbands or wives or children to be safe while riding.
Besides speed and alcohol, common factors in crashes include inclement weather and a lack of familiarity with an area, particularly a body of water, MacDonald said.
There isn’t a speed limit for snowmobiling in Maine, but state law requires snowmobilers to stay within a reasonable and prudent speed.
It’s also illegal to operate a snowmobile under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The legal limit is the same as for driving a car – a blood alcohol level below 0.08 percent.
MacDonald advised riders to make trip plans and let others know where and when they will be out. He said that can help rescue efforts if something goes wrong. Otherwise, wardens won’t know where to search, delaying a chance of rescue.
The warden service did 39 search-and-rescue missions last year, MacDonald said, ranging from brief missions to the almost five-month search for the snowmobilers in Rangeley Lake.
Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, recommends checking with trustworthy people in an area before snowmobiling on bodies of water that might not be frozen. “If you don’t know, don’t go,” he said.
The warden service is the agency that enforces snowmobiling laws. MacDonald said the wardens can’t patrol all the time, so snowmobilers should work together to follow laws and practice safe riding.
“Somebody watching this, it will happen to them,” MacDonald said of the public service ad, “but we hope it doesn’t.”
Paul Koenig can be contacted at 621-5663 or at: