The China Four Seasons Club is dying.

Once an expansive group of several dozen volunteers helping year-round to manicure and maintain 17 miles of snowmobile and all-terrain vehicle trails, as well as a 100-foot stretch of lake-front property, the group has dwindled in terms of volunteers, according to club president Frank Soares. And those who are committed helpers are either aging or too busy with other obligations to put in the community service needed for the trails.

Soares said club officials have had early conversations with the town about a worst-case scenario.

“Our bylaws say if the club closes, it goes to the town, but we’re trying to prevent that,” Soares said. “We’ve actually discussed it. It’s getting to the point where it’s the same people volunteering year after year, and a lot of them have other stuff in their lives than just the club.”

The same issues are present in Vassalboro, where a committed group once consisting of nearly a dozen people working on the town’s 36 miles of snowmobile trails has dwindled to three or four. The Vassalboro Snowmobile Club treasurer, Mike Brissette, said neither the president nor vice president has shown up at any meetings this year, and the only help he has received recently was from a co-worker and two volunteers who responded to a flier at the town’s fire station.

“When I first got in the club, we had all kinds of help,” said Brissette, who has been in the club for 14 years. “Kids would help us. Families would help. It’s been pretty much just me for a number of years. I actually got two extra people this year. Some young fellas came in, but it’s not what it once was.”

The entire trail industry is struggling, according to Scott Ramsay, director of the off-road vehicle office, a division of the state Bureau of Parks and Lands.

“It’s true that we’re being challenged now, specifically in our world of ATV and snowmobiles,” Ramsay said. “We’re struggling to find people to do stuff. We’re hearing it’s widespread.”

Last year, a Madison-based snowmobile club was in danger of closing before a slew of people signed up to support the Abnaki Sno-Riders Snowmobile Club.

‘THAT HINDERS EVERYTHING’

Maine is home to one of the largest snowmobile trail systems in the country and the largest ATV trail system, according to Ramsay. There are about 260 snowmobile clubs and about 140 ATV clubs in the state. Only four states had more registered snowmobiles in 2014 than Maine’s 80,000, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association.

Yet despite the zeal many snowmobile and ATV enthusiasts have for riding the trails, there is a distinct lack of volunteering to accompany the recreation, Ramsay said.

“There are several things going on. First, you have the old guard, the folks that have been around for a while and are aging and unable to do what they used to do,” Ramsay said. “The second issue is younger people tend to be so busy, they aren’t replacing the older folks who are moving along. Unfortunately as volunteers decline, the expectation from the public is that these trails will still be maintained at a high quality.”

Soares, 68, a retired Army veteran, has worked on the China Four Seasons Club for the last five or six years, acting as president for the last 18 months. He said the downturn is firmly embedded.

“It’s been gradual and it started about 10 years ago and has slowly gone down,” Soares said. “I think nationwide, there’s been a lack of participation, and we’re going through the same thing.”

The overall U.S. volunteer rate declined by more than 1 percent in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the lowest it has been since 2002, when the data were first collected.

In its heyday, the China Four Seasons Club had up to 60 members, Soares said, making projects such as trail cleanup and beach maintenance easier.

Now the group has 31 members, Soares said, but only about 10 of them are consistently involved in volunteering.

“Of those 10 people, three or four are over 65 years old,” Soares said. “The rest of the people have families and jobs.”

Earlier this month at a China Four Seasons Club meeting, the committee brought up the potential of relinquishing the club to the town; but on Wednesday, Soares said the club is still working to stay open.

“We spent most of the evening talking about what we can do to stay alive,” Soares said, adding that the discussion included increasing the club’s Web presence.

Yet, the club’s biggest need, Soares said, is some lively, enthusiastic volunteers.

“We need more people helping us,” Soares said. “That hinders everything. It has to be membership. We have to dramatically increase it.”

Soares added: “Side-by-side with that is the members want to join and work so other people can step down and have their lives.”

China Town Manager Daniel L’Heureux said the town has had only brief discussions about the club, mostly to gather information.

“The club thought it was important to mention what they’re going through to the town,” L’Heureux said. “Since this was the first mention of it by Frank, all I’ve done is pass the information to the selectboard.”

If things continue downhill for the club, L’Heureux guesses a joint meeting of the club and the selectmen would be the logical next step.

‘DON’T GET DONATIONS’

According to Ramsay, more than $6 million was spent on snowmobile trail maintenance in the state by municipalities and clubs in 2013. Clubs raised about $1.7 million while municipalities spent roughly $4.5 million. Nearly half of that was funded by grants through the Department of Parks and Recreation, a division within the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

In Vassalboro, Brissette, 54, said that if it weren’t for the grants that came in each year, the snowmobile club would perish.

“We don’t get donations,” Brissette said. “If I didn’t have that money coming in, we wouldn’t be a club right now.”

Brissette said the club received about $1,100 for its local trails, as well as about $1,400 for its 12 miles of the Interconnected Trail System, a statewide snowmobile trail system that connects riders from the New Hampshire state line to the Canadian border. In the past, with more manpower, Brissette would receive about $4,500 for the ITS maintenance, but he can’t do the work that $4,500 would entail. The snowmobile club also receives $1,500 from the town annually.

While the ITS runs throughout the state, the 12-mile stretch in Vassalboro is a pivotal stretch, as it’s the only route from Augusta toward the northern part of the state.

“You can’t get past Vassalboro if the ITS closes,” Brissette said. “That’s the only way to get north of here without driving to another part of the trail.”

The majority of work done on the ITS is to make sure its roughly 10 bridges are safe and stable, Brissette said. The job of clearing brush on the 12-mile trail and the 24 miles of local trails is also time-consuming.

“Due to the lack of manpower, I have to make sure bridges are passable before I focus on brush,” he said. “It makes for a smaller trail and you can get smacked by brush.”

Brissette said Vassalboro’s trails haven’t had the brush cut back in about five years and the trails themselves haven’t been excavated of rocks and stumps in about eight years.

One bridge identified by Brissette that needs work is about 200 yards off Cross Hill Road. About 20 feet long with splintered wood, leaves and branches poke out from the sides and beneath the bridge. The railings shake back and forth with the slightest force. The middle of the bridge is reinforced by crossing wooden beams.

“Don’t step on the outside area,” Brissette warned.

Last year, the club spent about $700 on bridge material, according to Brissette. A bridge such as the one off Cross Hill Road requires about $150 in supplies when Brissette and however many volunteers he can round up rebuild it before snowmobile season.

‘NO ONE WANTS TO HELP, JUST RIDE’

Desperate for some help, Brisette posted a flier at the Vassalboro Fire Station asking for volunteers to assist with trail maintenance.

“We heard that it was basically going to shut down if no one helped out,” said Craig Smiley, 25, a Vassalboro native and snowmobile enthusiast.

Smiley, along with friend and fellow Vassalboro resident Nick Roberge, 19, decided there was more they could do to make sure their beloved snowmobile trails don’t close.

“It’s always been something we’ve used through the years. We always rode on them. We’d walk on them. There was never a season where we never used the trails,” Roberge said. “When I saw they needed help, there was a panic sense. I rushed to it. I didn’t want to see the club go away or something to happen to the trail.”

Growing up, Roberge and Smiley were neighbors, and the two couldn’t live closer to the ITS if they wanted to.

“The trail goes through a couple of fields on my family’s property. I have a couple of other friends that have land that the trails go through,” Smiley said. “I’ve been riding since I could walk.”

Roberge said the trails still are used heavily, but it’s typically a group of about four people who work on trail maintenance most fall Sundays for about four hours.

“No one wants to help, just ride,” Roberge said. “We don’t have much free time, but we make do.”

To help spread the word of the trail, and hopefully to increase its volunteer numbers, Roberge started a Facebook page for the Vassalboro Snowmobile Club, posting pictures and updates about the town’s snowmobile trails.

“It’s a way to see if people wouldn’t mind helping,” Roberge said.

Without further help, mostly in the form of volunteers, the future of several trail systems in central Maine remains murky. Soares and the China Four Seasons Club is hoping it can stabilize itself before it has to fall into the town’s hands. While Brissette is thankful for the recent — albeit small — increase in help, he knows the club needs more of a long-term solution to sustain itself.

“The immediate future of the club doesn’t look good,” Brissette said. “If we had more help, we’d have a great trail.”

Jesse Scardina — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @jessescardina


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