FORT KENT, Maine — Snowmobiling has come a long way since 1908 when the first track and ski vehicle — the cumbersome Lombard log hauler — was built in Waterville.
Today’s snowmobiles are exponentially smaller, faster and more maneuverable than the Lombard or the 1913 track and ski conversion built by New Hampshire Ford dealer Virgil White, the man said to have first coined the term “snowmobile.”
Just look at the 2011 prototype Skidoo Rotex 800R E-Tec sitting outside Fort Kent Skidoo.
Streamlined and aerodynamic, the machine looks fast simply standing still.
“Our family’s first sled was a 1966 10-horse model,” said Gary Dumond, former owner of Fort Kent Skidoo. “Back then it was a big trip to go to Eagle Lake or Long Lake and back. It took all day and you knew you’d been somewhere.”
Today, Dumond said, it’s common for snowmobilers to leave Greenville or Millinocket and be in Fort Kent a few hours later.
The first snowmobile he remembers seeing in Fort Kent was a 1961 Skidoo maxing out at 7 horsepower.
Though the machines then were more cumbersome and slower than the sleek models of today, Dumond said, there was a far greater selection with everyone from Sears Roebuck to small, local garages dealing the machines.
“In the late 1970s Skidoo and Arctic Cat were each manufacturing 200,000 sleds a year,” Dumond said. “Today the whole industry doesn’t make that many machines.”
Rather than having last year’s models remain unsold, the big manufacturers of today — Skidoo, Arctic Cat, Polaris and Yamaha — produce sleds based on direct orders.
And those orders seem to be going strong, despite the cost of a new sled around $10,000.
Dumond recalled riding with a group of friends up a local mountain to a popular gathering spot, “feeling bump after bump after bump the whole way because those old sleds had no suspension.”
Today, he said, comfort is key with sleds easier to steer and handle, not to mention faster and more powerful.
“In the mid-1980s the biggest sled out there was a 521cc engine,” Dumond said. “Today the smallest ones are at 600cc.”
Dumond, a former seven-year member of the National Dealers Association — one of only six members in North America — has seen many of those engineering changes first hand.
Skidoo’s test facility is in Cabano, New Brunswick, just 40 minutes north of Fort Kent.
“When I went to visit there several years ago they had every kind of sled from every maker in the market … so they could see what was going on with them,” Dumond said. “The work they do there is top secret. I had to sign my life away to get in and I was with the CEO of the company.”
One big improvement, Dumond said, is sleds in recent years have become both more fuel-efficient and cleaner with newer and quieter engines.
Across town at Audibert Polaris, owner Cliff Audibert has seen many of the same engineering changes as Dumond but has also seen a disturbing trend.
“The economy is hitting everyone hard,” Audibert said. “Our trails are as good as they have ever been but it’s the fewest riders I’ve ever seen.”
Audibert cites a recent snowmobile trip he took up to Escourt Station on the Maine-Quebec border during which he saw no other snowmobilers.
“I stopped for lunch in Allagash and didn’t see another sled in the parking lot,” he said. “So the locals are not riding [and] people who would be riding are not because of the economy.”
Something else keeping the trails quiet in northern Maine, Audibert said, was the presence of good snow throughout the state.
“That could all change now,” he said, following this past week’s heavy rains and warm temperatures in southern and central Maine. “South of Bangor there is zero snow and that could help us.”
Audibert said riders are getting spoiled by the newer, more luxurious machines, adding he never thought he would see the day snowmobiles would sell for as much as a small car.
“These new sleds are cleaner and better on fuel, but you pay for it,” Audibert said. “They are more complicated and all-electric now so you pretty much need a laptop [computer] to fix anything these days.”
Sled models may come and go, but Dumond said the passion of the riders remains a constant and that’s something he does not see changing.
“We know our customers,” he said. “When they come in looking for a new sled we know how they ride and we can tell them just what kind of sled they need.”
Certainly, whatever that sled is it will be more powerful, more comfortable and far more costly than the old 10-horsepower Dumond bumped over the trails four decades ago.