Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a three-part series on snowmobiling in Maine.
FORT KENT, Maine — There are 13,500 miles of snowmobile trails connecting Maine from end to end — equal to the number of miles of highway, interstates and town roads.
While the state’s Department of Transportation and town crews take care of the roads, it’s largely up to the more than 290 clubs and volunteers to maintain what many sledders consider some of the best trail systems in the country.
“The clubs and the trail infrastructure are essential to snowmobiling in Maine, [and] what these people do is critical,” Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, said recently. “There are a lot of nice places to stay in the state, a lot of nice restaurants, a lot of nice scenery, but the average rider is com-ing because of the trails.”
Trails with that kind of reputation don’t just happen. Maintenance is a year-round job.
“In a typical year the club members start working in July to identify trail projects,” said Tom McCormack, president of the Moosehead Riders Snowmobile Club. “Over last summer we opened up a mile and a half of new trail, and that meant cutting, excavating and building up the trail.”
During the fall, club volunteers throughout the state work to mow trails, remove fallen trees, prune branches, repair water crossings and plan new routes.
“Usually we start actually grooming the trails in late December,” McCormack said. “Our club tries to maintain a three-day schedule, grooming at night with three sleds and a drag.”
In central Maine, Kevin Lavoie and a core of 10 other volunteers with the Smokey Angel Snowmobile Club of Hartland also start thinking about trails long before the first snow falls.
“Trail work starts every fall with getting permissions from all the landowners that our system crosses,” Lavoie said, adding that talking with landowners lets the club know what kind of rerouting they may have to do.
“Without landowners’ trust and blessing, Maine would not have a system of trails,” Lavoie said.
“Good relations with the private landowners is key,” Meyers echoed.
“One of the folks who lets us cross their land lets us brush-hog across her field,” Lavoie said. “To be grateful I just continue and mow their entire small field. We’ve even helped put up firewood for a couple that let us cross their land.”
Ninety-five percent of the trails in Maine are on private land, Meyers said.
“Maine snowmobilers have a great responsibility to the landowners,” Meyers said. “These folks are trusting all of us to treat their property with respect.”
Bad blood between a landowner and local club can mean miles of trail needing to be rerouted and vital access lost for years, Meyers said.
The major trails in the state are part of the Maine Interconnected Trail System, or ITS, a network of trails providing long-distance riding across the state.
Not all trails are maintained by volunteers, with several of the larger resorts in the state employing full-time paid groomers.
But largely it’s the local clubs — funded by membership dues and state grants funded through snowmobile registrations — keeping the trails open and suitable for riding.
And expectations are high among riders.
“Of the 100,000 or whatever it is registered sleds [in Maine], I’m going to guess only a thousand or so [riders] do anything to make that happen,” Lavoie said.
McCormack agreed that riders are getting a bit spoiled by perfect conditions.
“If the trails are not good enough the sledders will move on and not come back,” McCormack said. “They’ve gotten sophisticated and use the Internet to keep track of trail conditions, so they know what’s good or not good ahead of time.”
One of those who has been working to keep those conditions good for 15 years is Kenneth “Doody” Michaud, Fort Kent’s chief of police by day, volunteer trail groomer by night.
“The guys who groom our trails do it for the money it brings into the town,” Michaud said. “It brings people into our town, into the restaurants and into our grocery stores.”
Michaud pointed out that four homes recently have been purchased in the Fort Kent area by people who had been there to snowmobile, enjoyed it and wanted their own places to stay whenever they return to ride.
“We have some guys who came here eight years ago to ride snowmobiles and now they come back every summer on motorcycles,” Michaud said.
Michaud is known among the state’s snowmobiling enthusiasts for more than his trail work.
On many occasions he has given stranded snowmobilers rides to their vehicles or hotels.
“We had a guy once with a burnt machine so I told one of our officers to use the patrol car with the hitch to tow the guy’s sled to a repair shop,” Michaud said.
When a resident saw the cruiser pulling a snowmobile trailer through town, Michaud said, he received a rather irate phone call.
“He wanted to know what would have happened if there had been an emergency,” the chief said. “I told him the officer would have dropped the trailer and responded to it.”
While Michaud also has given sledders rides to Caribou looking for parts, he’s quick to say he’s not the only good Samaritan.
“Look at Gary Dumond over at Fort Kent Skidoo,” Michaud said. “One time a guy left his sled there to be repaired and Gary handed him the keys to his own pickup truck so he could go get something eat.”
Not everyone is appreciative of the clubs’ efforts.
Lavoie recalls one instance when he was brushing a section of trail after a heavy snow had bent numerous trees over it.
“They just sat there idling for 20 minutes or better,” he said. “Do you think they would help? That’s what we encounter often these days.”
Still, for those who love to sled, they would not trade the grooming experience.
“It’s like being an artist. A smooth and unobstructed trail is a work of art,” Lavoie said. “When people do stop you while you are grooming and go out of their way to thank you, it makes you feel wanted and really good.”
Information on local clubs, trail conditions and maps is available through the Maine Snowmobile Association’s Web site at www.mesnow.com.
Tomorrow: Part 3, the thrills and chills of a cold northern Maine ride.