Michelle Vincent lives in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. But on winter weekends she can be found on the snowmobile trails of northern Maine.

“To be honest with you, I don’t ride in Massachusetts,” she said. “We haven’t had a winter in Massachusetts in three years. You can get on a trail in Maine and ride all the way to Canada.”

Vincent and other out-of-state riders have helped boost Maine snowmobile registrations by 11 percent over the past five years, according to data from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. More than 23,000 nonresidents registered snowmobiles in Maine last winter – the second-largest total in 25 years.

And riders from away are accounting for a growing percentage of annual snowmobile registrations in Maine. In 2000, 15 percent of registrants were from out of state; last winter, 27.3 percent were nonresidents.

“Most of my peers ride in Maine,” said Melvin Bertram of the Lunenburg Snow Riders in central Massachusetts, a group that makes an annual trip to the Moosehead region. “You’ve got to go where the snow is.”

Snowmobilers contribute an estimated $350 million annually to Maine’s economy, according to Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association. A portion of registration fees go toward helping to maintain 14,500 miles of snowmobile trails in the state.

Maine requires all snowmobile operators – regardless of where they reside – to register their sleds if they want to ride here. Residents pay a flat $46 for the season. Out-of-staters pay $100 for a full season, $76 for a 10-day pass and $50 for a three-day pass.

The prime attraction, of course, is the snow. While many areas of the Northeast have had several below-average snow seasons in the past decade, northern Maine is becoming a destination spot for snowmobilers. Caribou, in Aroostook County, has recorded more than 100 inches of snow in six of the past seven winters. In 2016 – the warmest winter on record in northern Maine – 95 inches fell in Caribou. The same winter, upstate New York received 55 inches, New Hampshire 35 and Vermont 34.

“At least 80 percent of the time (in winter) we have at least a foot of snow,” said Francis Kredensor of the National Weather Service in Caribou. “There is almost always enough here to have safe snowmobiling.”

‘hard-core for their sport’

While snowmobile registrations are up in Maine, they have declined in much of the Northeast over the past five years. New Hampshire has seen a 15 percent increase, but registrations are down by 16 percent in Massachusetts, 7.5 percent in New York and 2 percent in Vermont.

Last winter, 85,035 sleds were registered in Maine, the highest total since 2011. It was a 44 percent leap from 2016, after registrations plunged to 59,111 during that historically warm winter. Despite that blip, Maine has exceeded 76,000 registrations in four of the past five years.

Bob Casey, trailmaster for the Windham Drifters Snowmobile Club, drives a trail marker into the ground as fellow club member Ted O’Brien holds it upright Saturday as they prepped some of the club’s 45 miles of trails for the season. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

 

Bob Casey, trailmaster for the Windham Drifters Snowmobile Club, drives a trail marker into the ground as fellow club member Ted O’Brien holds it upright Saturday as they prepped some of the club’s 45 miles of trails for the season. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

Registrants from Massachusetts accounted for 43 percent of the out-of-staters last winter, followed by New Hampshire (18 percent) and Connecticut (11 percent).

But word of northern Maine’s snowpack has spread beyond the Northeast, Meyers said. Last winter’s snowmobile registrants came from as far away as Texas (26 sleds), California (14), Arizona (4) and even Hawaii (1).

“I had a lengthy phone conversation with a man from North Carolina,” Meyers said. “He’s bringing his whole clan up here. Half the clan is going skiing and other half wants to try Millinocket or The Forks, to rent (snowmobiles) and hire guides.”

But Meyers cautions that Maine may be “reaching the ceiling on both resident and nonresident registrations.” He cites the cost of snowmobiles, which range from $7,000 to $12,000. Registration in Maine reached its peak in 2002 with 107,285 riders before declining throughout the next decade, particularly during the recession.

Snowmobile sales have been down nationally since 2006, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association in Haslett, Michigan. After reaching a peak of 170,000 in 1997, 50,659 snowmobiles were sold in the U.S. last winter. The organization does not keep data by state or region.

At Reynolds Motorsports in Buxton, one of southern Maine’s biggest dealers, sales manager Ozzy Osmond said sales last winter were up 15 percent to 20 percent. He attributes it to the improved economy.

“Snowmobilers are hard-core for their sport,” Osmond said. “They want to have a new one every other year. They’re serious. They buy their sleds here and then they go up north to ride.”

Snowmobiles are on display at Reynolds Motorsports in Buxton, one of southern Maine’s biggest dealers. Sales manager Ozzy Osmond said last winter’s sales were up as much as 20 percent. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

SOUTHERN MAINE CAN’T COMPARE

Snowmobilers in southern Maine agree the sledding is best up north.

Terry Webber of the Gorham Sno Goers, which maintains 50 miles of trails around Gorham, said the riding in southern Maine can’t compare.

“When you go ride, you want to ride,” Webber said. “There are places in northern Maine you can only get to on a snowmobile. The backwoods are beautiful.”

Bob Casey, the trail master with the Windham Drifters Snowmobile Club, said he would go north every weekend if not for work obligations.

“People who can, go north,” Casey said. “The trails are wider and faster. My buddies all head up there. The local riding scene is second-choice.”

In the far northern reaches of Maine, the economic impact is evident in February and March, according Gary Marquis, the Caribou trail coordinator. Even in 2016, Marquis said there was not a vacant hotel room from Presque Isle north.

“We know in northern Maine we will get snow,” Marquis said. “We never have a lack of snow. It just depends what time of year it comes.”

Steve Dobson, who owns two motels near Presque Isle, said many out-of-state riders discovered northern Maine during the winter of 2016 and returned last year.

“We got people who had never been to Aroostook County,” Dobson said. “I saw people from Niagara Falls and people from western Massachusetts, and they came back last year. If you’ve got snow and you get them here – you’ll get them back.”

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

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