AUGUSTA, Maine — A Presque Isle couple whose son was killed in a snowmobiling accident earlier this year joined Gov. John Baldacci and game wardens on Wednesday in reminding sledders to ride safely and responsibly as Maine’s season gets under way.
With snow already blanketing much of the state and another storm expected this weekend, Maine’s $300 million snowmobile industry is hoping for another strong season after two robust years.
But the early snowfall may also hide dangerous conditions on lakes and ponds that appear safe yet lack sufficient ice to support a sled. On Wednesday, the Maine Warden Service urged snowmobile riders — as well as ice fishermen and other recreationists — to check the thickness of ice before venturing onto a lake or pond.
While they did not speak at Wednesday’s event, Gerry and Carol James of Presque Isle, whose 22-year-old son died in a snowmobile crash last April, appeared alongside Baldacci and wardens at the snowmobile safety event.
Gerry James also appears in a 30-second public service announcement produced by the Warden Service and the Maine Snowmobile Association urging riders to use caution and follow the laws.
“But sometimes bad things happen to good people,” James says in the PSA. “My son Brian came home from college for one last ride. He failed to negotiate a curve and struck a tree, which killed him instantly.”
Brian James, who was a service member with the Maine National Guard, was one of nine people to die in snowmobiling incidents last season. During the 2007-08 season, a dozen snowmobilers were killed in Maine, including five during a single weekend.
“No one should lose their life enjoying one of Maine’s most popular sports,” said Roland “Danny” Martin, commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, who knew Brian James personally. “Snowmobilers: Ride right, ride smart and ride responsibly.”
Last year, nearly 100,000 snowmobiles were registered in Maine. The Warden Service conducted about 46,000 safety inspections, resulting in 850 violations, including 30 arrests for operating under the influence.
Col. Joel Wilkinson, the state’s top warden, said the majority of the incidents and fatalities involve people riding too fast or on unfamiliar trails. Wardens also searched for 41 sledders last year who were reported missing.
“When we receive a call that there is an overdue snowmobiler, it is serious business,” Wilkinson said. He reminded sledders to leave an itinerary or planned route with someone before heading out to assist search and rescue teams, if necessary.
Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, called on riders to stay on marked trails, never drink and ride, operate at a safe and reasonable speed, always stay to the right on trails, use caution when approaching hills, curves or intersections, and “if you don’t know, don’t go” on ice.
“Mother Nature is once again ready to cooperate with us and some of the best snowmobiling in the world awaits visitors this winter,” Meyers said.
With more than 13,000 trails in the state, Maine has become a top destination regionally for snowmobiling. More than 75 percent of the snowmobiles registered in Maine last year were by Maine residents.
The registration fee for Maine residents will rise by $5 this year in an effort to funnel more money to the nearly 300 snowmobile clubs — most run entirely by volunteers — that maintain the state’s trail network.