Members of the Norway Trackers Snowmobile Club snake through a trail in Bethel last February. Trails in Maine are quiet now because of a lack of snow, but riders are ready to bust out once the winter arrives in full force. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

With Maine’s snowmobile trails closed because of a dearth of snow, the start of the 2020-21 snowmobile season is anyone’s guess. But when the snow does arrive, one thing is abundantly clear: Maine’s 14,000 miles of trails will be humming.

Riders and club officials have many reasons to believe the state’s trail system – one of the largest in the country – will be as busy as ever this winter. Snowmobile sales are up at dealerships in Maine and across the nation. And with the Canadian border closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, riders will remain in Maine rather than heading farther north this winter. It’s setting up as an epic season.

“Our Facebook page is blowing up the past two to three weeks. People keep messaging me,” said Christopher King, president of the Limestone Snowhawks club. “They want to know if the trails are open. People want to reserve hotel rooms – but they’re holding off until we get snow.”

There has been little to no riding anywhere in Maine this winter because of the lack of snow. Riders in northern Maine – where the riding typically begins Dec. 1 – can’t recall this late a start to the season in more than 10 years.

What that means, clubs and state officials say, is Maine snowmobile riders will be busting to get out on the trails once Old Man Winter delivers – just as outdoor enthusiasts were during the hiking, biking, ATV and camping seasons last year as a result of the pandemic.

“I think once the snow comes, everyone is itching to do something outside. And, honestly, I can’t think of a better thing to do during the whole COVID thing. You are naturally social distanced and you have a mask on – and a helmet,” said Craig Young, president of a snowmobile club in Roxbury that already has a record number of members this year with 116.

Joe Higgins, the state snowmobile supervisor with the Bureau of Parks and Lands, expects a big season based on the increased sales of snowmobiles in Maine.

“Sales of new sleds have been incredible,” Higgins said. “The dealerships around the state are all happy – and the Canadian border is closed. I think that will increase the number of riders here.”

Nationally, snowmobile sales are up 16 percent over last season, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association in Haslett, Michigan. It is the biggest jump in sales in 25 years, said Ed Klim, the association’s executive director.

Klim said the jump in sales is directly linked to the pandemic and people’s changing behavior in regard to how they spend their free time and where they spend it.

“People want to do something outside right now. And we’ve been wearing masks – we call them balaclavas – since before it was cool to wear masks,” Klim said. “And the other thing that has happened, people who typically get on an airplane to take an annual holiday are not getting on that airplane. They have a certain amount of spendable income, and their spending it elsewhere.”

At Ross Power Equipment in Rangeley, Manager Jacob Beaulieu said they had more sales early on this summer than usual, most from out-of-state riders.

Snowmobile sales at Houlton Powersports are up 20 percent from last year, said Manager Ben Adams. Sales at Moosehead Motorsports in Greenville are also up 20 percent, said co-owner Jennie Gray.

“Everything is crazy,” Gray said. “This fall it really did start early. I just think people heard about the ATV shortage in the spring. They got scared and wanted to get their name on a sled.”

Last year, the state released the first economic impact study of snowmobiling in Maine in 20 years – and it showed snowmobiling contributed $606 million to the state’s economy in the 2018-2019 season – including $132 million from snowmobile purchases and $209.5 million from trip-related expenses – such as gas, restaurants and hotel stays.

For the past four years, annual snowmobile registrations in Maine have been close to 85,000 per year, with non-resident riders making up 29 percent (or 25,000) during the 2018-19 season.

Last year, there were 82,187 registered sleds, but there likely would have been 3,000 to 4,000 more had the season not ended in mid-March once the pandemic hit, Higgins said.

He expects registration to be back around 85,000 – or higher – this winter, despite the late start to the season.

Clubs are ready for the rush.

The Limestone club typically grooms its 30 miles of trails outside Caribou three times a week. This year because of the increase in sled sales and anticipated bump in traffic, they plan to groom every day, King said.

In Kingfield, club trailmaster James Boyce is getting calls every day from riders from Connecticut and Massachusetts who can’t get into their remote Maine camps without snow – and can’t wait to get here to ride in it.

A snowmobiler cruises along the Mayville Trail in Bethel in February of 2020. A lack of snowfall has kept riders off the trail so far this season, but once the snow flies they should fill up quickly. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Matt Stedman, the northern region vice president for the Maine Snowmobile Association, said the biggest concern with the expected flurry of snowmobile traffic is how local restaurants will handle the crowds during the pandemic – since the tradition in snowmobiling is to ride to a scenic destination for lunch. Dining outside during the pandemic might not be popular until the weather warms up at the end of February, he said.

“We all believe that we’re going to be busy – busier than normal,” Stedman said. “The fear is folks planning their days around food and stopping for lunch. That will be a challenge with limited seating during COVID. Are people really going to eat hot dogs or hamburgers outside on sleds when it’s 10 degrees?”

The Fort Kent snowmobile club came up with some creative solutions – constructing a lean-to full of menus for local restaurants on the trail into town to let riders call ahead and order. The so-called “ordering station” already has a half dozen menus, with more to come. Club President David Gleich also worked with an area car dealer to create a park-and-ride lot so riders can use their vehicle as a “base camp” to eat a brown-bag lunch.

“I’ve had calls from people seven to nine hours away, from out of state. They want to check the trails before traveling up here. And I have a group of a dozen friends from New York who typically go to Quebec. This year, they plan to come here,” Gleich said.

But just how many out-of-state riders will come to Maine during the pandemic is uncertain. Higgins believes – as with the ATV, hunting, fishing, and camping seasons – the pandemic won’t keep out-of-state riders away.

But snowmobile associations and clubs in other states aren’t sure.

The Snowmobile Club of Adams County, Pennsylvania, sends as many as 25 riders to Aroostook County every year. While some plan to make the trip during the pandemic, club president Travis Mathna said probably not all will because many don’t like the state’s COVID-19 safety protocols.

In Maine, out-of-state visitors now are required to show a negative COVID test result taken 72 hours before visiting (except visitors from New Hampshire or Vermont) or quarantine for 10 days.

“This year a few of us may go to New Hampshire, instead. New Hampshire just requires you quarantine, and that’s fine with us,” Mathna said. “I don’t want to be treated like a second grader.”

Dominic Jacangelo, the executive director of the New York State Snowmobile Association, thinks some of New York’s 105,000 registered snowmobile riders will visit northern Maine – but some who typically do may decide to stay closer to home during the pandemic, as long as there is enough snow to ride in New York.

Rena Sumner, the executive director of the Snowmobile Association of Massachusetts, agreed.

“I think the die-hard riders are going to go where there is a lot of snow – be that New York, Vermont or Maine,” Sumner said. “But I think across the board you’re going to see a lot of local riding closer to home, if Mother Nature is kind to us.”


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