BELGRADE — Ernie Rice motored slowly through a tunnel of snow-bent hemlock trees Sunday, while flurries swirled through the air. Behind his snowmobile, Rice towed a 400-pound metal drag and groomed the wind-blown powder into a path as smooth as polished marble.

Rice, 67, has been grooming snowmobile trails several times a week for 40 years. Two seasons ago, for instance, he logged almost 1,000 miles after grooming and regrooming a section of trails in the southern half of Belgrade.

Last season, however, was different. The winter of 2011-2012 was one of the mildest in memory and thousands of trails in Maine were effectively closed. In Belgrade, Rice logged only 150 miles.

This season is showing signs of improvement. Last week, two major winter storms brought several inches of snow to the region, blanketing the state’s vast network of groomed trails. In central Maine, it will be at least another week before the lakes freeze and the season truly takes off, but many sledders — and the businesses that cater to them — are cautiously optimistic about 2013. And a few sledders are making preparations for them.

Already this season, Rice has logged 50 miles, which he takes as a good sign. Rice is vice president of the Belgrade Draggin Masters, a nonprofit snowmobiling group with 50 members. Throughout the state, there are 287 individual snowmobile clubs, which belong to the Maine Snowmobile Association — a group with 13,500 families and 2,200 businesses as members. The association’s clubs maintain more than 14,000 miles of trails by cutting fallen branches, mowing weeds and repairing bridges in the fall. Then, when the snow flies, club members begin grooming.

Rice, who is also a town selectman, is one of six groomers for the Belgrade club. During a typical winter, he will groom three nights a week from his home on Bartlett Road, where the trail system runs through his property. Each outing lasts about three hours and Rice personally maintains 17 miles of the town’s 36-mile trail system. He often goes at night because there are fewer sledders on the trails and the snow hardens after dark, which makes for better grooming, he said. It’s also a nice time to be outside.

“It’s amazing the things you see when you’re out here on moonlit nights,” he said, describing owl and deer sightings. “It’s peaceful, quiet and there’s glitter on the trees. It’s pretty.”

Rice often works alone, but he’s not worried for his safety. He packs the right tools and dresses for the weather, he said. For the most part, the cold doesn’t bother him.

“Ten below zero. That’s when you notice it,” he said. “Other than that, it’s pretty nice.”

The work is not always easy. When the machine breaks down or gets stuck, Rice often has to solve the glitch on his own. Problems are plentiful, especially early in the season, he said.

On Thursday, Rice broke through an ice-covered stream and it took a total of 12 hours, several sheets of plywood and a winch to coax his Arctic Cat back onto dry land. On Sunday, Rice’s snowmobile got stuck in a ditch while trying to cross a road, so he unhitched the groomer, drove free, then yanked the groomer onto the road with a length of rope, complicated knots and a burst of the throttle.

“Even when you’re getting into trouble, it’s a total pleasure,” he said of the process. “When you see in your rear-view mirror a nice, smooth trail, you know someone is going to have a good ride.”

Dennis Harris, webmaster for the Draggin Masters and a member of its board of directors, drove behind Rice on Sunday and pulled another groomer. Harris, 50, agrees that the work is satisfying and likened it to wood stacking.

“When you see that nice stack of spit wood, you feel good about it. When you groom and look behind and see it’s just perfectly flat, it’s the same thing. You get that same sense of accomplishment.”

The club members predict that the 2012-2013 snowmobiling season will be in full swing as early as next week, when an incoming cold snap will likely freeze lakes throughout central Maine. About half of the Belgrade’s trail system rides atop the Belgrade Lakes. Without the ice, many of the trails’ loops are incomplete.

Several area businesses are looking forward to the ice, particularly the Sunset Grill on West Road, which is at the nexus of four trails. During winter, many of the Grill’s weekend customers are Patriots fans and sledders, said manager Kayla Pease.

“After football season, if there’s no snow, it’s slow,” she said.

Last season, the restaurant lost business due to the mild winter, but this year might be better, Pease said. She fondly recalls the 2010-2011 season, when there were as many as 60 snowmobiles parked nearby on weekend days.

Dan Swett, owner of Sweet Dreams convenience store on Village Road in Smithfield, said his shop serves about 30 sledders on a good day, and he’s trying to build the store’s reputation among sledders as a destination. Swett said the lack of riders was noticeable last season, but the recent snow has been encouraging.

“You don’t need a ton of snow to get people going,” he said.

Ben McCanna — 861-9239
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