Thursday, April 24, 2014
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.
Snowmobilers ride along ITS 84 in Oquossoc on Jan. 12.
Photos by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer
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.
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.
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Snowmobilers head across a cove on Rangeley Lake in Rangeley on Jan. 12.
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Good trail conditions and freedom found on Maine’s trails are “the main reason I come here," says Jim Delaney of Boxford, Mass.