January 5, 2013

Experts: Excitement for snowmobiling requires tempering for safety's sake

Early-season dangers threaten those who want to take advantage of short season, experts say

By Ben McCanna bmccanna@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

The head of Maine's largest snowmobile organization said snowmobiling isn't an inherently dangerous sport, but he urged caution around early season hazards, such as unstable ice.

click image to enlarge

Staff file photo by David Leaming Staff file photo Snowmobilers are being urged to use caution, especially around early season hazards, such as unstable ice.

click image to enlarge

A parade of snowmobiles makes its way across Sebasticook Lake in Newport. Riders are being urged to use caution, especially around early season hazards, such as unstable ice.

Staff file photo

Snowmobile Fatalities in Maine 

2011-2012: 5

2010-2011: 4

2009-2010: 3

2008-2009: 8

2007-2008: 12

2006-2007: 6

2005-2006: 7

2004-2005: 7

2003-2004: 7

2002-2003: 16*

—Source: Maine Warden Service

*This was the highest number of fatalities during a single season since record-keeping began in 1970.

Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, said snowfall totals for this season have generated a lot of excitement among sledders, especially after last season's mild winter hampered the sport, and this year's enthusiasm could translate into risky behavior.

"Everybody's very excited, but they need to remember basic safety rules," Meyers said. "Know where you're going. Stay off ice that you're not familiar with. Keep control of the sled."

On Sunday, five snowmobilers in Rangeley drove into open water on Rangeley Lake in whiteout conditions. One died and three others are presumed dead. The search for the three missing men was suspended Thursday because of wind and extreme cold weather. They were the first fatalities of the season in Maine.

Those accidents -- happening at the start of the snowmobile season -- have forced people to consider safety issues even as officials try to broadcast that message through public service announcements on TV and the Web, said Cpl. John MacDonald of the Maine Warden Service.

"Something like this early in the season shocks people and makes them think 'this can happen to me too' and that itself can kind of be a powerful message," MacDonald said.

During the past 10 years, there have been 79 snowmobile-related deaths in the state, according the Maine Warden Service. The winter with the lowest number of deaths was 2009-10.

The highest number is 16 in 2002-03, which is also the highest number in any season since record keeping began in 1970. MacDonald recalls working in the field as a warden during that deadly year and theorizes that so many deaths occurred because it was a long winter season of heavy snow statewide, prompting more people -- some of them not as experienced as others -- to hit the trails.

"Conditions were good in southern Maine too, which quickly put people on trails in southern Maine that typically don't see traffic," MacDonald. "We had a lot of snow and a lot of traffic in December right through March, April."

Meyers said the sport isn't dangerous. Recklessness or poor judgment are responsible for many of the deaths.

"Sometimes there's a disconnect between the brain and the thumb," he said.

Bad economy a factor

Lee Libby, a snowmobile guide in Rangeley, thinks some people engage in risky behavior for economic reasons.

A snowmobile and related gear are a major investment, sometimes approaching $20,000. When people spend that much money on equipment, they want to get the most out of it. That may cause people to drive sleds in unsafe conditions.

Cliff Kramer, co-owner of Kramer's Inc., a snowmobile retailer in Sidney, said entry level sleds begin at about $7,000, while high-performance ones run as high as $14,000 at his store. Sledders can expect to pay another $1,000 for good quality gear -- such as a waterproof snowsuit and helmet -- to stay warm at temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero.

Sledders who don't have access to trails from their property will need a trailer, which can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000.

About 80 percent of Kramer's customers finance their snowmobiles -- many at five-year terms -- which means owners are making payments throughout the year, even though the snowmobile season in Maine is generally less than three months long.

But Meyers thinks early season accidents are caused by excitement, not economics.

MacDonald said snowmobile safety education has improved in recent years -- the warden service creates public service announcements about snowmobile and ice safety for network TV channels and on its website. That message, he said, is promoted through partnerships with Brookfield Power and the Maine Snowmobile Association, a group comprising nearly 300 snowmobile clubs, which together maintain more than 14,000 miles of trails throughout the state.

(Continued on page 2)

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