RANGELEY — Twenty snowmobiles filled a parking lot at the Four Seasons Cafe in Oquossoc mid-afternoon on Thursday, the opening day of the 2016 Snodeo weekend, one of the state’s largest snowmobile events.

Next door at Koob’s Garage, riders pumped gas into their snowmobiles before whizzing off and heading back onto the trails to catch the last few hours of riding before sunset.

Inside Four Seasons Cafe, riders chatted and laughed over food, catching some warmth by the wood stove in the center of the dining area after being on the trails all day.

Mary Anne Tedesco, the owner of the small cafe, welcomes the influx of snowmobilers and tourists for Snodeo weekend without which she says her business wouldn’t be able to stay open year-round.

“Without snowmobiling, this town doesn’t make it in the wintertime — period,” Tedesco said. “Whether you’re the gas station, whether you’re the grocery store, whether you’re rentals or a restaurant.”

For the last 27 years, Snodeo has been drawing crowds of snowmobilers to the Rangeley Lakes region for three days of snowmobiling and winter events. The weekend draws at least 2,000 to 5,000 people to the area, according to this year’s Snodeo coordinator, Mary Brey.

Brey says that while the snowmobilers are attracted to Snodeo for the packed schedule of events, they return year after year for the quality of trails and businesses the region has to offer.

“Rangeley, as far as I’m concerned, is unique for many reasons,” Brey said. “We have first class accommodations, we have first class dining, a first class bowling alley. There is just so much to do here.”

But with a slow, mild start to winter this year, and the Saddleback Ski Area remaining closed until at least the end of the month, business owners were concerned about whether the crowds would have a reason to make the trip to Rangeley.

“It’s been horrible,” Tedesco said referring to the low levels of business the area has seen this season. “It’s been very lean up until this point, and people are starting to sweat it, so we’re happy to see snow.”

Over Christmas week, Tedesco said her business is usually able to bring in $8,000 to $10,000, but this season she only made $2,000.

A couple of snowstorms have brought about a foot and a half of snow to the area, leaving the 137 miles of open snowmobile trails in good condition for the weekend, according to the Rangeley Lakes Snowmobile Association’s latest trail report.

While there are still some issues — the popular Radar Run on Haley Pond was called off Saturday because of poor ice conditions — there is now plenty of snow on the ground.

Snowmobile registrations have been steady since last weekend, according to Rangeley Lakes Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Karen Ogulnick.

“The chamber does snowmobile registrations, and they’ve been pretty much non-stop. The big numbers started last weekend,” Ogulnick said.

Hudson Deraps, night manager of the Oquossoc Grocery Store, said last weekend was when the uptick began for them, too. “The past couple of weeks we haven’t seen much (business) due to the light snowfall, but this weekend and last weekend we’ve done very well with snowmobilers.”

The Oquossoc Store, aside from groceries, sells sandwiches and other prepared food, which Deraps said has increased in sales over the last two weekends.

While the late start to winter affected business, Deraps said that Snodeo weekend has been a good, if delayed, start to the season.

In Rangeley, Joey Morton, who owns Town and Lake Motel and Cottages with his wife, said that they have no vacancies left for Snodeo weekend, adding that he has turned away at least 150 people looking for a place to stay over the phone.

“This, for us, is the busiest weekend we’ve had. It’s much needed,” Morton said.

Snodeo brings people from across New England to the Rangeley Lakes Region, Morton said, with people who have booked rooms coming from Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Just down the road, the owner of the Rangeley Inn said it’s a similar story there.

With only four out of 45 rooms vacant, Travis Ferland, who has owned the inn for the last two and a half years, says he expects to reach maximum capacity by the time Snodeo weekend is in full swing.

“This winter has been very quiet,” he said. “It’s been way down from prior years, partly because the fact that Saddleback is closed and partly because of the lack of snow.

“This is going to be the busiest weekend we’ve had since winter started,” he said.

Typically, Ferland said the guests of the inn are split between skiers and snowmobilers. Saddleback has remained closed this winter season, while its owners work with a prospective buyer to finalize the sale of the mountain keeping alive hopes of opening by the end of the month.

Ferland said a majority of the people who are staying at the inn this weekend are returning guests from prior years, and some of them don’t even have intentions to ride the snowmobile trails.

“One couple has been coming to Snodeo every year for 15 years. They’re not even sledding this weekend. They’re here for the events,” said Jen Farmer, who works at the Rangeley Inn.

The wide draw of Snodeo is another reason businesses were anxious for the weekend to arrive.

Regardless of snow conditions, according to Ferland and Morton, people will still come to Snodeo for the extensive schedule of events that include a chili chowder cook-off, a live auction, a casino night, a snowmobile stunt show and a parade and fireworks display. There are also events specificially geared toward families and children, such as Saturday’s marshmallow roast and a gingerbread house contest.

“There’s not quite enough snow yet. (Snowmobilers) would like some more,” Ferland said. “The nice thing about Snodeo is that there are so many events, and so people can enjoy those events as well.”

Morton echoed that. “They come because there is just so much going on. A lot of people don’t even bring snowmobiles.”

Snodeo won’t be the only spurt of business the area receives this month from snowmobiling. The 2016 Tri-State Reciprocal Weekend is next weekend. Over that weekend, snowmobilers from New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine can ride in any of the three states as long as they have valid registrations from their home state.

Morton said he is booked for that weekend as well, and if weather permits, he hopes that trend will continue through the winter season.

“From now until end of March we’ll be full — according to snow, of course,” Morton said.

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

[email protected]

Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate


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