FORT KENT, Maine — This is the winter for which avid snowmobilers have been waiting. In many areas around the state there is snow and plenty of it.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to grab any part of December,” Kathy Mazzuchelli, director of Caribou Parks and Recreation and voice of snowmobiling in northern Maine. “It’s been a tough couple of years but now the ‘ka-ching’ meters are turning in [Aroostook] County.”
A series of storms in December dumped up to several feet of snow around the state and from Kittery to Fort Kent, clubs and volunteers are out grooming trails for what is shaping up to be a banner year for Maine’s $350 million snowmobile industry.
“Things are looking fantastic,” according to Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association. “There is a high level of enthusiasm and absolutely terrific conditions with everything we look for.”
Cold temperatures combined with regular and plentiful snow are creating perfect conditions, Meyers said.
“If this keeps up, this year will be one to remember,” he said.
The only exception, according to Meyers, is a swath of Maine running from the New Hampshire border to Down East areas that was hit by the pre-Christmas ice storm.
“In some areas there was significant damage to the trails and the clubs are scrambling,” he said. “There are downed trees, branches hanging down and other damage.”
In those areas affected by the storm, Meyers said he is asking anyone who rides to contact local clubs and volunteer some time to help out.
“If you are going out for a ride, bring along a handsaw,” he said. “It only takes a minute to remove downed branches and it’s a real help.”
Progress in opening those storm-damaged areas varies, Meyers said.
“In some places they are almost back to 100 percent where others they are still scratching their heads,” he said.
But in areas that are being groomed?
“It does not get any better than what we have now,” he said. “The clubs are out there doing a terrific job and that snow keeps on coming.”
All of this comes as a welcome relief to businesses that rely heavily on the snowmobile traffic.
“Two years ago it was a disaster,” Meyers said. “Last year was a nice recovery year and this year as of right now they are riding as much in York as they are in the St. John Valley [and] you can go on a nice trip right out of your dooryard and that’s when things really get hopping.”
At the New England Outdoor Center in Millinocket, owner Matthew Polstein is optimistic about his season.
“It’s phenomenal out there and we couldn’t be happier,” he said. “We’ve not had snow like this this early in years.”
Trails in the Katahdin area are groomed and ready, Polstein said, adding some areas in the Jo-Mary area are closed or being rerouted due to logging.
“But by next week everything should be fully operational,” he said. “Things are in really great shape [and] we are off to a great start.”
Feelings are running just as high at Mt. Chase Lodge, where owners Sara and Rick Hill predict all trails in their area will be fully groomed by the weekend.
“We have already been getting calls from people who are anxious to come,” Sara HIll said. “Last year we did not start until the end of January so this is a nice early start.”
With conditions favorable over much of Maine, Sara Hill said people can travel north entirely on snowmobile.
“People can come up by sled,” she said. “That is wonderful.”
Logging operations and some as-yet unfrozen sections of lakes are creating some “hiccups in the system,” according to Mazzuchelli, but overall it’s looking good.
“The snow is not perfect, but there is a lot of it,” she said. “For the business community this is some good snow and there is plenty of trail to ride.”
Mazzuchelli and Meyers both urge riders to check with local club members before venturing out on lakes.
“I would advise using a great deal of caution for another week or two to let [the lakes] set up,” Mazzuchelli said. “Wait for the locals to establish the trails, that way you know that section is safe.”
In Portage, in response to last year’s accident in which a groomer went through the ice into Portage Lake, the club has rerouted that trail so it is completely off the lake, Mazzuchelli said.
The interest in Maine snowmobiling is already high, according to Meyers.
“There is mind-boggling interest from out of state,” he said. “On Dec. 27 we put the trail conditions report on our Facebook page and in 24 hours we had more than 8,400 people view and act on it — that is really good news.”
While he has no official numbers on how many are coming to Maine to ride, Meyers said things are looking busy.
“It’s all about the snow,” he said. “People complain about the price of gas driving to work, but you don’t hear any complaints when the conditions to ride are good.”