Snowmobile conditions in central Maine are deteriorating as temperatures rise, but in some northern and western parts of the state, riders are optimistic that the season could stretch into May.

“It’s really been an extraordinary winter, just a good old-fashioned winter like we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association. “I’ve had more than a few people say this is the best snowmobiling they’ve seen in about 20 years.”

The large amount of snow and cold temperatures have also helped the industry, which supports hundreds of small towns and businesses along the state’s 14,000 miles of snowmobile trails — all of which were open this year.

“At some point this winter every single trail in the state was up and running. Everywhere from York County up to far northern Aroostook County people were out riding on groomed trails, and whenever people can ride locally, that’s a good thing,” Meyers said.

In some parts of northern Somerset and Franklin counties, like Jackman, The Forks and Kingfield, there is still plenty of snow and clubs expect the season to stretch into May, if they have the money to keep grooming trails. In other areas, including southern and most of central Maine, the season is over.

Once the trails dry out, they will reopen for ATVs, though ATV clubs are saying the long winter will mean their season will start later.

Overall, the weather contributed to great snowmobile riding and a relatively safe season, despite a slight rise in the number of crashes and accident-related deaths.

Riders got a good start to the snowmobile season in mid-December, when a storm on Dec. 15 left about a foot of snow in central Maine and was closely followed by another storm on Dec. 17, according to the National Weather Service. Later that month, an ice storm left about an inch of freezing rain that solidified on power lines and roads, making conditions dangerous and cutting off power to thousands of people right before Christmas.

Looking back on the storm, Meyers said it seemed awful at the time but is actually what has allowed the snowmobile season to last so long.

“There are still parts of the state that have piles and piles of snow. It helps that there is a base layer of snow under the ice from that storm, plus more snow on top of it,” he said.

It’s not a surprise that snowmobile registrations are up 3 percent from last year, according to Mark Latti, spokesman for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. There were 73,904 registrations at the end of March, compared to 71,474 in March 2013, he said.

“Whenever we see a lot of snow registrations always go up. With the length of the season and the amount of snow we’ve had this year, it’s no surprise that registrations were up,” said Latti.

Snowmobiling on average generates about $350 million annually in the state of Maine, according to the Maine Tourism Association, making it one of the state’s major tourism attractions.

“This is the type of season a lot of small businesses need to make their year hold. It wasn’t spectacular but there was a lot of activity and that’s good for small businesses, towns and the clubs,” said Meyers.

LAST RIDES

Kate Wolf, an employee at Bishop’s Country Inn Motel in Jackman, said that local snowmobile clubs were still sending groomers out on the trails on Wednesday. There has been rain in the area, but there is so much snow that most of the trails are still in good condition, she said.

Wolf said she recently got off the phone with people who asked if they could come up to get their last ride in. “We thought that would have happened three weeks ago,” she said.

In The Forks, there is still about two feet of snow on the trails, although the local club, Northern Outdoors Snowmobile Club, stopped grooming in early April, said Russell Walters, president and co-owner of the club and attached resort, Northern Outdoors. The resort also closed in early April and plans to reopen by May 2 for white water rafting season.

“People are still riding, there will be diehards out there and there’s still plenty of riding,” said Walters. “We were open last weekend and we did see a fair amount of day traffic.”

The season started off slow because of the extreme cold temperatures, but the significant snow in areas south of The Forks made it possible for more riders to come to the Forks from central Maine, said Walters.

“The trails all the way through were in great shape, so we saw a significant increase in people stopping in to the lodge for lunch from the south, which is unusual for us,” Walters said. “We’re used to seeing traffic coming in from Eustis, Greenville or Jackman and we typically don’t see it coming from the south but it was nice. It all predicated on the fact that there was enough snow.”

Keeping trails open late in the season can be expensive for clubs, many of whom operate primarily on grant money and fundraising dollars. Almost all clubs in the state have stopped grooming trails, and in central Maine, trails are fading and most have been closed for the season, but farther north riders are still coming for one last ride, according to local club officials.

The Solon Snow Hawks, who maintain trails along the ITS 87 and other local trails, announced last week that they will be closing trails. Although there are still some wooded areas where the snow cover is good, grassy patches are starting to show up and the club usually looks for a foundation of eight to 10 inches of snow to run a groomer, said President Todd Dixon.

In Kingfield, groomers have also stopped running but there is plenty of snow for riding, said Tom Boyce, a groomer operator on ITS 115, a section of Maine’s Interconnected Trail System. The system, which runs from Biddeford to Edmunston, New Brunswick, is the largest network of trails in the state and connects riders to trails in New Hampshire and Canada.

“There’s still a lot of snow on it, although it is getting a little rough,” said Boyce. “It was a super good season. We had the snow we don’t usually have and the conditions stayed good.”

BE CAREFUL

With the extended season, the Maine Warden Service is also warning riders to be cautious of riding on trails. Snowmobile fatalities were slightly higher than usual this year, according to spokesman Cpl. John MacDonald. He said there were six deaths this year, while the average over the last five years has been 4.8.

The number of reported crashes is also higher than the average over the past five years, with 172 crashes reported so far this season compared to an average of 158 per year over the last five years.

“Our snowmobile traffic has been heavier than normal. It’s been an exceptionally long year with cold weather and snow depth, so for the conditions we’ve had it’s been relatively safe,” said MacDonald.

Riders in the northern part of the state should be aware of standing water on trails, obstacles such as stumps and rocks, protruding from the snow and areas of open water where ice may be melting, officials said.

“Ice conditions have changed dramatically from 30 days ago. The sun is very strong and the ice is decreasing rapidly,” said MacDonald. “A lot of the trails that have included lakes or ponds as a means to get from A to B can no longer be used.”

General snowmobile safety precautions continue to apply, and MacDonald said he recommends that riders trying to get in a last time on the trails let others know where they are going and have an idea of where they are going.

Crash reports have diminished significantly in the last few weeks, because of the conditions, he said. Two of the six fatalities this year occurred on public roads, and MacDonald says the warden service continues to remind people that it is illegal to ride a snowmobile on a public road, except for a distance of 600 yards to get from trail to trail.

ATV SEASON DELAY

The same rule applies to ATV riders, who are anticipating a later start to the spring season.

Moose Alley Riders, an ATV club that manages trails in Bingham and Solon, said the club is anticipating a delayed start to the season following the snow and subsequent mud season.

“We’re going to have a lot of wet areas that need to dry out before we start hitting the trails because we don’t want to tear up landowners’ property while the trails are muddy,” said Cristian Goodman, president of the Moose Alley Riders ATV Club. The club is aiming to open trails by May 15 but Goodman said an opening weekend around Memorial Day — May 26 — looks more likely.

“It’s kind of the official start of summer and I know a lot of people from out of the area come and want to ride their ATVs on Memorial Day weekend,” he said. “But if there are areas that aren’t good we’ll keep those trails closed to ATV traffic.”

At the Northern Outdoors resort in The Forks, Walters said the lodge will close for about a month to prepare for the summer season. The trails will need to dry out and mud season will pass before ATV enthusiasts come out in force.

The resort is also waiting for ice to melt to start sending white water rafting groups out. They are hoping for a slow, steady melt of the snow to recharge all of the area lakes and rivers.

“Typically once we see these long winters with plenty of snow they lead to good summers. We’re looking forward to our preparations to get out on the river,” he said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368 [email protected]