Forget the one-horse open sleigh. If you want to go dashing through the snow, thousands of Mainers say a snowmobile is the only way to go.
With a 14,000-mile network of snowmobile trails, Maine is the place to be for anyone who thinks cruising across the state's snow-covered terrain — sometimes at mind-bending speeds — is the definition of a good time. And, unlike the taxpayer-funded road system, every inch of the snowmobile network is lovingly maintained on a shoestring budget by dedicated volunteers from the state’s nearly 300 snowmobiling clubs.
“The trail system doesn’t get done for free. If it wasn’t for the clubs, there would be no trails to ride,” said Eric Spear, president of Lewiston’s Hillside Family Riders.
Membership dues go to pay for equipment to groom the trails and fund the Maine Snowmobile Association, a statewide organization that provides grants to clubs for the creation of new trails and advocates for the sport with landowners and state and local governments.
Each of the state’s 290 clubs is sanctioned by the MSA, and clubs range in size from a few dozen to a few hundred members. Club names range far and wide as well, from the Bethel Snow Twisters and the Chesterville Country Ramblers, to the Denmark Draggers and Greenstock Snowsports. (See full list of area clubs.)
The two largest clubs are the Arnold Trail Snowmobile Club, based in Eustis, and the Rangeley Lakes Snowmobile Club, in Rangeley. The neighboring clubs have long had a friendly rivalry for the largest membership, said Steve Dudley, president of the Rangeley Lakes club. Though the Arnold Trail club has been on top for the last eight years, it’s always a close competition.
These two clubs alone maintain a combined 300 miles of trails spanning the width of northern Franklin county, and they host two of the largest snowmobile events in the state, Rangeley’s annual Snodeo and the Polar Blast Weekend in Eustis and Stratton.
This year’s Snodeo will take place in Rangeley from Jan. 24 through the 26. Events will include races, raffles, the annual radar run (which lets riders measure their exact speed), demo rides, fireworks, family events, a snowmobile parade and plenty of food, including a barbecue and a chili cook-off. By far, though, the highlight of the annual event is the Rave-X freestyle show, where area snowmobilers show off a series of heart-stopping aerial maneuvers for the disbelieving crowd.
This year’s Snodeo will be dedicated to the memory of the four snowmobilers believed lost in Rangeley Lake in late December; there will be a candlelight vigil in their honor on Friday night, Jan. 25.
The fun continues the following weekend in the towns of Eustis and Stratton with the Arnold Trail Snowmobile Club’s 13th annual Polar Blast Weekend, Jan. 31 through Feb. 2. As with the prior weekend’s event, the Polar Blast Weekend will include plenty of family fun, food, fireworks and, most of all, snow running.
City dwellers who want to know the freedom of skimming over the snow don’t need to make a trip up north, though. The Twin Cities themselves are home to not just one, but four snowmobile clubs: In Lewiston, the Hillside Family Riders; in Auburn, the Andy Valley Sno Gypsies, Auburn Sno Groomers and Perkins Ridge Sno Travelers.
In Lewiston alone, the Hillside Family Riders maintain more than 40 miles of trails, grooming beyond town lines to meet up with neighboring towns’ trail systems. After last year's lackluster season, area snowmobilers are particularly happy to see signs of a real Maine winter in the works and know there's a payoff for all their trail work.
"We are very excited to see the fresh white stuff, especially after last season when we felt robbed of a winter. The members of this club spend all fall working on the trails for just a few weeks of enjoyment, if we are lucky," said Spear.
The club’s five grooming machines make it possible for volunteers to pack down city trails in just about three hours each night. Even so, it can be difficult to find more than a handful of volunteers who are willing to leave the comforts of home and family to groom a trail on a cold, snowy night.
“A lot of guys resist it because it’s a lot of work or their wives get upset with them if they’re gone, but it’s really not so bad,” said Spear.
“It’s warm inside the equipment, and you can bring a snack or listen to the radio. It can be fun. I bring my wife with me and we make it a night out.”
Fred Taylor, president of Auburn’s Andy Valley Sno Gypsies remembers the days before clubs had state-of-the-art grooming equipment.
“Years ago, we used to go out there with just pipe drags,” said Taylor, who joined the club during the 1970s, about a decade after it was founded.
Though the Andy Valley Sno Gypsies don’t have the largest membership or trail system in the state, they do have one claim to fame: It's Maine’s oldest snowmobile club.
And while the club’s 30 miles of trails may amount to little more than a blip in the state’s vast network, Taylor is quick to point out that city riders aren’t at any disadvantage.
“You can go anywhere you want right from Lewiston or Auburn. If you want to leave from our clubhouse, you can get anywhere in the state, Rangeley or anywhere else,” he said.
Maintaining the trails for everyone’s benefit is a lot of work, but Spear said it’s worth it. Snowmobile clubs aren’t all work and no play. In addition to grooming trails and raising money for equipment, members get together for group rides, drag races, overnight trips, cookouts, supper runs and other community gatherings.
“We’re all out to have fun, just like everyone else,” said Spear.
“We’re a family club, and this is a great activity to share with the whole family.”