FORT KENT, Maine — It’s 1:30 a.m. Saturday, and the temperature in northern Maine has dipped to 11 below zero along the St. John River as Dana Thibeault, groomer for the Fort Kent Snoriders, returns after about four hours of grooming the club’s trails.
The engine on the club’s massive Tucker Sno Cat groomer hardly had time to cool down before Andy Jandreau drove up to the garage for his five-hour grooming shift.
Maine has 14,500 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, stretching from Sanford to the St. John Valley, attracting thousands of sledders to the state every year.
Thanks to Thibeault, Jandreau and an army of volunteers across the state, those sledders find some pretty great trail conditions waiting for them.
As a recreational activity, snowmobiling has a multimillion dollar impact on the state, generating funds through sled registrations, lodging, fuel and other purchases, according to Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association.
“It’s really easy to view [snowmobiling] as an ATM machine for tax revenue,” Meyers said. “But there is no other industry in the state where you have something like a $300 million [annual] impact and 2,100 jobs supported by it, and the entire infrastructure is based on the generosity of volunteers and private landowners.”
The average snowmobiler, Meyers said, often has no idea what goes on behind the scenes.
“They really don’t have a clue,” he said. “It snows, they go out and hit the trails and those trails are fantastic.”
The trails are fantastic, Meyers said, because legions of volunteers have spent hours driving everything over them, from state-of-the-art commercial groomers to old sport utility vehicles retrofitted with snowtracks.
“These are people who have families, they have jobs and they have things to take care of in their own lives,” Meyers said. “But they are out there at night, often in the middle of nowhere, by themselves, performing this incredible service.”
For groomers such as Thibeault and Jandreau, the time spent prepping the trails is worth it.
“I’ve been active in the club since 1983 and grooming for about 10 years total,” Thibeault said. “If I tried to explain why I do it, you probably wouldn’t understand.”
Thibeault’s commitment, he said, is part family tradition, part community service and part civic pride.
“It’s something instilled in me by my father, and I just like to support the community and make sure [snowmobiling] continues for future generations,” he said. “It’s not a God-given right, [and] it’s something we have to work for.”
Each section of Maine snowmobile trails are managed by clubs, according to Scott Ramsay, director of off-road vehicle conditions for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.
Ramsay said it generally costs clubs around $300 per mile to maintain trails.
Without those volunteers, Ramsay said, those costs would more than triple.
Ramsay oversees the only sections of snowmobile trails in Maine maintained by the state and paid workers.
To maintain and groom the 150 miles of state-maintained trails in Mt. Blue State Park, Beddington, Evans Notch and the Frye Mountain area costs the state between $800 and $1,000 per mile, according to Ramsay.
“The difference between the state’s costs and what clubs report is our costs are based on employee wages, utility bills and costs of materials,” Ramsay said. “We have no volunteer labor and no donated materials.”
Even with volunteers, at $300 per mile, there are costs to clubs, Meyers said, but a state grant program funded through snowmobile registration fees and a portion of the gas tax is available.
Fuel is one of a club’s biggest expenses, Meyers said.
“They have groomers — that alone can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then there are chainsaws and brush hogs used to clear trails, and those all need fuel,” he said. “Clubs need to get their hands on wood for signs, materials for bridges and culverts — all the things that need to happen for there to be trails.”
Those costs add up.
“The best-case scenario: [The grant] covers 70 percent of their expenses,” Meyers said. “But in reality, it usually covers no more than 50 percent.”
To make up that difference, clubs seek support from local businesses, in addition to holding community suppers and raffles.
“For a lot of these clubs, trails are a year-round operation,” Meyers said. “Things don’t magically happen when the snow falls. They are out there dealing with landowners, getting equipment, brushing trails, putting up signs. [And] when we get big, wet, early snow storms like we did last fall, they go out and do a lot of it all over again. It never ceases to amaze me.”
If those volunteers suddenly dried up, Meyers said, snowmobiling as it stands in Maine would cease to exist.
“Snowmobiling would be done,” he said. “People would not be able to pay the registration fees if we had to pay a hired staff to maintain all the trails.”
Registration is $42 and $88 for residents and nonresidents, respectively.
“Maine is a cheap date,” Meyers said.
There were 60,620 resident and 16,225 nonresident snowmobile registrations in Maine last year, according to information provided by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Those riders, Meyers said, expect a big bang for their bucks.
“The trails are so good in Maine that the expectations of the consumers are right off the chart,” he said. “They paid their [money] and expect a certain standard.”
Those expectations coupled with Maine’s reputation as a premier snowmobiling destination put tremendous pressure on clubs and volunteers, Meyers said.
“When I’m out here late at night or early in the morning, I know there are people sleeping at hotels who are going to wake up and want perfect riding conditions,” Jandreau said as he cruised slowly along the trail leading out of Fort Kent early Saturday morning. “That’s why I’m out here.”
Those riders need to get involved, Meyers said.
“Anybody who is out there riding needs to support these clubs,” Meyers said. “Join the club, buy their raffle tickets, go to their suppers or, better yet, show up on [trail] work days.”
Snowmobilers in Maine also owe a huge debt of gratitude to private landowners, Meyer said.
“Without them, we have nothing,” he said. “It’s important to remember there is not an inch of land in this state that is managed primarily for snowmobiling. We are a secondary activity on land people manage for farming or for trees, (and) they are incredibly generous allowing us access free of charge.”
Club volunteers work closely with those landowners, Meyers said, and for the most part the relationships a good one, in addition to being rather unique.
“I’ve talked to snowmobilers in other states that don’t have it as good as we do,” he said. “There are places in this country (where) if you want to do something on private land, you get your checkbook out.”
In Maine, Meyers said, “a perfect storm of volunteers and generous landowners” has created a snowmobiling mecca. This year the weather is cooperating.
“Things are looking really good all over the state right now,” Meyers said. “The most consistent snow has been in the Rangeley area, but operations are grooming all around Moosehead, the Katahdin region and up into Aroostook County [and] Maine is open for snowmobiling.”
Volunteers including Thibeault and Jandreau are working to keep it that way.
“The way I look at it, if you are going to ride the trails, you ought to do something about them,” Jandreau said. “I like to help out.”