AUGUSTA — Maine snowmobile season unofficially kicks off this weekend, and officials expect thousands of people to hit the 14,500 miles of trails across the state.

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.

“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.”

Maine was expected to receive heavy snowfall Thursday, with some portions on northern and western Maine predicted 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 that might end up being the difference between life and death.

Drinking and driving a snowmobile doesn’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 Maine Warden Service data, are driving too fast for conditions, beyond the effectiveness of headlights and beyond the operator’s abilities.

Meyers said New Year’s weekend is traditionally a big weekend for snowmobiling, and he expects many of the 75,000 or so registered snowmobiles to be out on the trails. He reminded everybody to have a good time while being safe and cautious.

“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 Meyers said people could do to help officials in the event of a problem is to leave a note on the dashboard of their car or truck 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 for someone who’s lost.

Game wardens responded to 182 reports of snowmobile-related incidents last season, which ran from Nov. 1, 2015, to April 10, 2016, including 12 search-and-rescue operations. There were 97 crashes, including 67 involving injury and five fatalities.

MacDonald said technology like cellphones and GPS has helped reduce the number of rescue operations in the last 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 that contains essentials such as dry socks, gloves, a hat, a flashlight and matches to light a fire. MacDonald’s pack also had ice pick awls for self-rescue for someone who has fallen through ice.

“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.”

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 and she ended up spending the night in a stranger’s cabin.

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

“Knowing where you’re going can be a significant factor in getting lost, so familiarize yourself with the terrain and the area,” he said. “Usually you’re better off to stay together as a group until somebody else comes to help. We don’t generally favor any party splitting up.”

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 when it comes to drinking and driving a snowmobile.

“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.”

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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