AUGUSTA — Maine officials expect thousands of snowmobilers to head out to the 14,500 miles of trails across the state this weekend.

Snow cover is already better in many areas of Maine than it ever got last winter.

The Maine Warden Service and Maine Snowmobile Association held a news conference at the North Augusta Trailblazers clubhouse Thursday to highlight the need for snowmobile safety as the season gets underway on the holiday weekend.

“Everybody is excited because we didn’t have a lot of snow last year to snowmobile,” said Cpl. John MacDonald, public information officer for the warden service. “We want to make sure we don’t have incidents this weekend that we need to report on Monday.”

Heavy snowfall was forecast for much of the state Thursday and Friday, with some portions of northern and western Maine likely to get more than a foot. MacDonald said the snowfall is great news for snowmobilers, but it could create problems on lakes and ponds.

“Our greatest fear from a search-and-rescue standpoint is heavy snow obscuring the ice and what the condition of the ice might be underneath (the snow),” he said. “We’ve had good weather for this time of year and the ice has done pretty well, but the snow is going to obscure just how safe some of the ice might be.”

MacDonald and Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, said there are several simple things snowmobilers can do to reduce risk.

Drinking and driving a snowmobile don’t mix, MacDonald said, and it’s important always to stay on marked trails and operate the snowmobile at a safe and reasonable speed. The most common factors in snowmobile crashes, according to warden service data, are driving too fast for trail conditions and the operator’s abilities, and failing to slow down when riding at night.

“Always keep your sled under control, be aware of your surroundings and don’t ride alone,” Meyers said. “Keep an eye out for everybody when you’re out there, and we’ll have a terrific season.”

One of the things snowmobilers should do is to leave a note on the dashboard of their vehicle saying who they are, where they are going and what time they expect to return. It gives rescuers a better idea of where to look if someone gets lost, Meyers said.

New Year’s is traditionally a big weekend for snowmobiling, and Meyers said he expects many of the state’s 75,000 or so registered snowmobiles to be out on the trails.

Game wardens responded to 182 reports of snowmobile-related incidents last season, which ran from Nov. 1, 2015, to April 10, including 12 search-and-rescue operations. There were 97 crashes, 67 involving injury, and five fatalities.

On Christmas Day, two women were stranded overnight in subzero weather when their snowmobiles got stuck. A third woman went to get help, but her snowmobile ran out of gas.

MacDonald said technology like cellphones and GPS has helped reduce the number of rescue operations in the past several years, but Meyers cautioned that cellphone reception can be spotty around Maine, so it’s best not to rely solely on smartphone GPS trackers.

Snowmobile operators should bring a small survival pack with them with extra dry socks, gloves, a hat, a flashlight and matches. MacDonald’s pack also contains ice pick awls.

“If you go through the ice, it’s almost impossible to get back on the ice, especially if you’re wearing all this snowmobile gear,” MacDonald said. “The Picks of Life will save your life, because when you slam them into the ice, they deploy a little pick that goes into the ice, and they allow you to drag yourself up. They are the key to keeping you alive.”

MacDonald said at least one snowmobile in a group should carry extra gas, but he recommends everybody have the necessary emergency supplies in case of an unexpected overnight stay in the woods.

MacDonald said snowmobilers can expect to see random checkpoints on trails this weekend, and because Saturday is New Year’s Eve, he urged people to be even more cautious and responsible.

“It’s likely to cause some issues for us, but we hope that it doesn’t,” he said. “We hope that if people have been drinking, they’ll stay home and don’t hit the trails.”


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