RANGELEY — More than a week after four snowmobilers drove into open water during whiteout conditions on Rangeley Lake and died, the mood in this resort town remains somber.
No one was snowmobiling on the lake Monday because, locals said, people are afraid it isn’t safe. They’re also stunned by what they call the first winter drowning deaths anyone can remember at the lake.
According to Marsha Morton, office manager at Boss Power Equipment, an Arctic Cat dealership in Rangeley, “it’s affected everybody in town. We all feel bad for the families.”
And, she said, the shop has stopped renting snowmobiles until Morton has some assurance that the ice is safe. “I need to be sure before I send anybody out there,” she said, that the ice will withstand sled traffic. “We want everybody to stay safe.”
In the aftermath of the accidents, local snowmobile rental shops say they are getting more calls than usual — from locals and out-of-staters — asking whether the lake is safe to travel, and callers are being told it is not.
On Dec. 30, Dawn Newell of Yarmouth was riding on the lake with her 16-year-old son when she went through thin ice. Her son managed to get to solid ground and call for help. Newell’s body was recovered the following day.
The same day Newell went into the lake, three snowmobilers who left Carrabassett Valley around 6 p.m. also disappeared, and were reported missing early Monday morning. As the Warden Service searched for Newell, wardens found evidence that the three missing snowmobilers had also gone into the lake and they have since been presumed dead.
The three men were Kenneth Henderson, 40, of China, his cousin Glenn Henderson, 43, of Sabattus, and their friend John Spencer, 41, of Litchfield. Efforts to recover the men’s bodies have been hampered by high winds and cold temperatures, and wardens have been unable to search since Thursday.
No recovery efforts were made Monday, but late last week Lt. Kevin Adam of the Maine Warden Service said wardens will continue to search as long as he feels they can do it safely.
Cpl. John MacDonald said late Monday that wardens are “kind of in a holding pattern” in their recovery efforts. “The ice is not safe enough yet for us to go out on it, and with the moderating temperatures it may open back up again, so we are monitoring the area to see how we can proceed,” he said.
If “a hole forms again near where we want to run sonar, and the hole becomes large enough, we will look at ramping up those sonar operations again.” However, he said, “if the hole does not open up again, we are working on other plans that involve the dive team and other pieces of equipment,” he said. However, they would need a safe ice thickness to bring men and equipment out onto the ice.
Gerry White, owner of River’s Edge in Oquossoc, said, “I wish they would find the bodies so this would be over” because it’s been so hard on the community and the families involved.
While the week after the holidays is generally a quiet time in Rangeley, locals and business owners said it has been especially quiet since the snowmobilers’ deaths. “Extraordinarily quiet,” according to White, guessing “it’ll take a couple of weeks before things return to normal.”
“No one’s on the ice,” Verna Holman of the Rangeley Lakes Chamber of Commerce said. "People are afraid it’s still not safe.”
At Boss, there was plenty of customer traffic and a lot of talk about trail conditions and upcoming trips, but everyone there agreed that no one should be traveling on the lake yet.
For recreational snowmobilers Don and Lorrie Barrett, who recently retired and plan to spend the next two months in Rangeley, the unsafe lake surface has made travel between Rangeley and Oquossoc tiresome. When the lake is frozen, the trip across the lake takes just under 10 minutes. Now, since nearly everyone is avoiding the lake, the same trip along established trails takes close to 90 minutes.
But, Lorrie said, “you do what you’ve got to do” to stay safe.
“We love this area,” Don said, “and it’s usually really safe out there.”
They said others they know who routinely travel across the lake are being equally cautious.
White said he heard a few sleds on the ice over the weekend, but the lake traffic has all but stopped.
“It’ll be real interesting to see what’s going to happen the rest of the year,” he said. “People who were afraid to go out on the lake before are never going to go out there now.”
Snowmobile rental businesses report some of their advance reservations have been canceled, and some out-of-state visitors have delayed their trips until they’re sure the lake is frozen. Unless the bodies are removed, business owners predict traffic across the lake will remain minimal out of respect for the missing snowmobilers and their families.
However, rental business owners and managers also point out that the groomed trail system in and around Rangeley is in top condition and there’s plenty of safe snowmobiling terrain available.
At Oquossoc Marine Inc., a Polaris dealership, office manager Donna Perry said because the towns won’t let snowmobilers ride on secondary public roads, some snowmobilers will take the risk and cross the lake to avoid the longer ride by trail between Rangeley and Oquossoc. She said she thinks the safest thing to do would be for town officials to relent and let snowmobilers ride along roads so no one else gets hurt.
Despite the evident sympathy for the families of the missing snowmobilers, there is also some anger among the locals about the risk the snowmobilers took in crossing the lake last week.
White, whose shop is a gathering place for locals, said “It was stupidity. That’s the reason this happened.” In whiteout conditions, “you can’t see 50 to 60 feet in front of you” and should never venture onto a lake.
The death of four snowmobilers, he said, “never should have happened.”
Morton agreed, asking how anyone who knew there was open water at the lake “could risk going out there. That’s silly.”
And, now, she said, there’s a feeling in town that people “need to be more aware that they need to be more cautious,” and a shared hope that wardens are successful in recovering the bodies. “It’s got to be terrible for the families not to have closure,” she said.