January 19, 2013

In Maine, speed thrills

But sledding on the edge still has limits

By Deirdre Fleming dfleming@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Snowmobilers ride along ITS 84 in Oquossoc on Jan. 12.

Photos by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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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.

Additional Photos Below

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."


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."


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.

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Additional Photos

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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.


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