Snowmobilers ride along ITS 84 in Oquossoc on Jan. 12.
By Deirdre Fleming
OQUOSSOC - Even during last weekend's mild weather with a January thaw in full swing, Maine snowmobile riders were not dissuaded. They merely headed north where there is plenty of snow.
Riders from southern Maine and other states travel to western Maine each winter for the wide-open riding, the hospitality in the little towns and because they are allowed to ride as fast as conditions allow.
While some states have speed limits for snowmobiles -- New Hampshire's is 45 mph -- Maine does not. Maine game wardens say the laws in place are adequate to keep unsafe riders in check, and riders say Maine's trails are safe.
But Maine game wardens and conservation officers in other states where snowmobiling is popular also say speed -- along with alcohol and riding at night -- is a leading cause of fatalities.
This winter, the Maine snowmobile season had a tragic start. Four snowmobilers were lost when they rode into open water on Rangely Lake in poor visibility Dec. 30 -- whether speed was a factor isn't clear. One rider's body was recovered and the three others are still missing and presumed dead, making it the first winter in a decade that four snowmobile riders have died before the second week of January.
Maine averages four to 12 snowmobiling fatalities per season. Other states where snowmobiling is popular report up to 20-25 fatalities per season.
"The three common threats are riding at night, speed and alcohol. That causes the majority of fatalities," said Mike Hammer, education coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Maine ranks seventh in the nation in snowmobile registrations, with 60,000 to 100,000 per year. In the small towns of western Maine, fast riding is part of the culture.
Last Saturday, with temperatures in the 50s, few snowmobilers were riding in southern Maine. Even in Rumford, at the foothills of the western mountains, just one snowsled trailer sat in a parking lot that normally holds several. Even in Bethel, where guides had tours booked, just a few local riders buzzed about in the wet weather, said snowmobile guide Luke Gray.
But an hour north, many sled trailers were parked along local roads. At the Height of Land, which looks out over the Rangeley Lakes region, large groups of snowmobilers could be seen.
The tiny village of Oquossoc was teeming with sleds, trailers and helmet-clad riders. Nearly 20 sleds were parked beside one restaurant.
On an old railroad bed that leads into Oquossoc, snowmobilers sped along at up to 80 mph. This is what riders come here for, said Jim Delaney of Boxford, Mass.
FREEDOM OF THE TRAILS
Delaney said the good trail conditions and freedom of Maine's trails are what draw him and his buddies. Delaney, a snowmobiler for 40 years, said he doesn't ride anywhere else.
"It's the main reason I come here. I think it's better than riding in New Hampshire, where the limit is 45 mph," said Delaney, 47. "In New Hampshire, everyone is waiting to pass you. And they don't like you to go by them. Here it goes pretty smooth. I've ridden 1,200 miles so far this year, all right in this area."
Delaney, who said he's ridden as fast as 87 mph, said Maine doesn't need a speed limit. He and his friends said the vast majority of riders are safe, and the trail conditions and signs make it easy to ride safely.
"This is safer than driving on the road, where people are texting and looking at their cellphone. I feel people here are better riders. Here, it's more professional," said rider Scott Spence of Topsfield, Mass.
Along the IT-84 West heading out of Oquossoc -- a trail that runs all the way to New Brunswick -- riders hit speeds up to 80 mph. But Ryan Harvey, who drives here from Sanford with two friends most weekends, said that the culture of snowmobiling in Maine, with dozens of clubs teaching safe riding habits, makes riders feel safe.
Signs along Maine's 14,000 miles of trails clearly describe trail conditions. Other signs show riders how to signal to oncoming riders to indicate the size of their group. And virtually all riders do, Harvey said.
"On that one trail into town you can go 80 mph on that stretch," said Harvey, 33. "But it's an old railroad bed. It's 20-feet wide. And what's a sled? Maybe 4-feet wide? I ride about 2,500 miles a year. I've ridden in New Hampshire plenty. You don't feel safer there. About 99 percent of the riders here are doing what they should be doing."
WARDENS CAN ISSUE CITATIONS
Maine game wardens say the laws here are adequate to deter reckless riders, but they also say speed is a leading cause of snowmobile fatalities.
"Often, speed does occur at night," said Cpl. John MacDonald with the Maine Warden Service. "And I think that is because riders need to operate within the limits of their headlights. It's not as easy to see. It's one of the common contributing factors."
Even though there is no speed limit on Maine's snowmobile trails, game wardens can issue a summons to anyone riding unsafely, MacDonald said.
"We don't have a posted speed limit, but game wardens have the discretion of determining if an operator is driving too fast," he said. "They can determine if they are operating to endanger, if they are too fast for the conditions."
By comparison, all of New Hampshire's 7,000 miles of trails are posted at 45 mph, and game wardens there can issue tickets if it is exceeded. Elsewhere in New England, there are no speed limits outside of state lands except in Vermont, which posts speed limits of 35 mph on its trails and 50 mph across frozen lakes.
MacDonald said in some places in Maine -- especially on the narrow, woodland trails of southern Maine -- even 35 mph would be too fast. He said it's more useful for game wardens to be able to charge either "reckless operation" or "operating to endanger." A warden also can charge someone with riding "left of center" of a trail.
Maine game wardens hand out an average of 600 snowmobile citations a year. MacDonald said the majority are for unregistered sleds, loud exhausts, operating on "a public way" or operating left of center.
Curbing speed in Maine would be difficult because of the vast territory that must be patrolled. New Hampshire has 7,000 miles of trails. Maine has twice that.
Fatalities happen in New Hampshire, despite the statewide speed limit that has been in place since 1981. As many as 11 fatalities have been reported in a single season.
Law enforcement officers there hand out anywhere from 200 to 400 speeding tickets each year, but it's a tough problem to stop, said Capt. John Wimsatt of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.
"Alcohol and speed are the top two factors," Wimsatt said. "Speed enforcement definitely has had a positive influence. But it obviously varies when there is considerable snow. And the popularity of the sport has grown. And the quality of grooming has increased. The trails are smooth and fast."
TOP THREE STATES FOR SLEDS
Excessive speed is also a problem in the nation's three most popular snowmobiling states. Annual snowmobile registrations top 200,000 each in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota.
Wisconsin, which has around 225,000 registered riders, also had four snowmobiling fatalities during the first month of winter.
Snowmobile deaths in Wisconsin increased from 1976 to 2006 with a high of 39, but after a night speed limit was enacted in 2006, the number steadily decreased to an average of about 10.
Michigan, which averages around 215,000 registered riders annually, averages more than 20 snowmobile fatalities per year. There is no speed limit on Michigan trails, but officers say they ticket fast riders.
"The (speed) law calls for 'not greater than is reasonable on the existing conditions.' What it comes down to is someone who is reckless and driving too fast for the conditions," said Conservation Officer Dean Molnar with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Minnesota, which averages 250,000 registered riders annually, has about 12 snowmobile fatalities each winter, and has had as many as 23, said Hammer of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
"If we lose an inexperienced operator, it's typically at night," Hammer said.
Nationally, snowmobile use has been increasing, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association.
Registrations dropped to 1.4 million last year during a poor snow year, but have averaged about 1.7 million over the past decade, said Ed Klim, the association's director.
In Maine, as elsewhere in the country, officials say there always will be riders who break the law or act recklessly.
"As with cars or anything else, a certain small percentage are going to push the envelope in some way, with speed, or texting while driving or drinking while driving. It's the same thing," said Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association.
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:
Ryan Harvey of Sanford drives his snowmobile about 45 mph, while staff photographer Gregory Rec rides on the back, holding his camera out to the side with one hand and holding onto Harvey with the other hand. Harvey said that the culture of snowmobiling in Maine, with dozens of clubs teaching safe riding habits, makes riders feel safe.
Snowmobilers head across a cove on Rangeley Lake in Rangeley on Jan. 12.
Good trail conditions and freedom found on Maine’s trails are “the main reason I come here," says Jim Delaney of Boxford, Mass.