Maine’s snowmobile season is off to an early start and may signal a repeat of last year’s record-setting season.
Sledding started last week in Caribou, and the rest of Aroostook County can start with another 8 to 10 inches of snow, according to Gary Marquis, superintendent of the Caribou Parks and Recreation Department.
About 1½ feet of snow on frozen ground is enough for a trail groomer to shape a trail, Marquis said.
“We’ve only got about 38 miles of our snowmobile trails open, but people are out there,” Marquis said. “That’s not even close to 100 percent. There are still a lot of clubs that haven’t moved a machine yet.”
A $350 million industry, snowmobiling is a vital part of the state’s economy, particularly in northern Maine, which heavily relies upon it. The season typically starts in Caribou, which is one of the state’s highest elevations.
Maine has already had its first fatality this season. Willard L. Hartsock, 55, of Old Fort, North Carolina, was crushed under his brand-new sled after throwing it into reverse on an Interconnected Trail System trail near Moosehead Lake in Rockwood on Dec. 13. Eight snowmobile deaths were reported last year.
Forecasts are hopeful for this volunteer- and notoriously weather-dependent business, according to Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association.
The National Weather Service predicted up to 6 inches of snow in Caribou on Tuesday, with 2 to 4 inches expected in Millinocket, home to Katahdin region trails have been declared among the world’s best.
“We had a terrific winter last year. This one is shaping up to be very similar to it at least in the weather patterns,” Meyers said.
Snowmobilers registered 85,035 sleds in Maine for the 2016-17 winter, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. That amounted to $4.88 million in snowmobile registration fees, which the state uses to pay for trail maintenance.
The maintenance fee is a small fraction of what the state would have to pay for trail grooming if it didn’t have 289 snowmobile clubs grooming the state’s 14,500 miles of trails as volunteers, Meyers said.
That grooming typically starts statewide between Christmas and New Years, the usual starting point of a season, Meyers said.
The 85,035 registrations represent a 44 percent increase over the previous winter’s registrations. To find fewer than 59,000 registrations in a year in Maine, you would have to look back to the 1980s.
The 2016-17 figure is the highest since the winter of 2010-11, when there were 90,892 registrations, according to state figures. The greatest number in a single year, 107,285, came in 2002-03.
Snowmobilers riding trails on unregistered sleds can face civil fines of $200 to $500. More than three offenses becomes a Class E crime, which carries up to six months incarceration and a $1,000 fine.
Statistics compiled by the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association estimates the industry has a $26 billion impact in the U.S. and another $8 billion in Canada. In Vermont, it has an estimated annual impact of about $500 million. In New Hampshire, that figure is around $586 million.
The $350 million figure that Maine’s industry uses is several years old, and MSA is working with the University of Maine on an updated economic-impact study, Meyers said.
The clubs list a membership of about 9,600 families, including 2,100 businesses. But the hardest work — trail grooming — is typically done by five or 10 members of each club, Meyers said.
Estimates are far from exact, but that core of members seems to be declining only slightly in northern Maine. Those volunteers are the backbone of the industry, Meyers said.
Meyers warned snowmobilers to call ahead to clubs or visit the MSA website to monitor trail conditions, which it will begin listing shortly. They should avoid bodies of water, sled only in daytime, never sled alone and stay on marked trails, he said.
Information from the Associated Press is included in this report.
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