Gadgets and gear help, but snowmobilers need common sense


LEWISTON — When it comes to snowmobiling safety, preparation and common sense trump the latest high-tech gadget every time.

“You never know what’s going to happen when you get out there,” Maine Snowmobiling Association President Bob Meyer said. “That’s why the focus on all of our safety messages is, be aware of your surroundings. Stay on marked trails. Don’t ride alone.”

That doesn’t mean a little gear doesn’t help.

“Nobody thinks they are going to go in the water,” Meyer said. “If you do, there are things you can do that will help.”

The Maine Warden Service on Thursday again delayed recovery efforts for three snowmobilers missing since Dec. 30 at Rangeley Lake.

The men, Glenn Henderson of Sabattus, his cousin Kenneth Henderson of China and John Spencer of Litchfield, are believed to have snowmobiled into open water.

The Maine Warden Service recorded 32 snowmobile-related deaths since the 2007 season, including five last year. Anyone venturing into the outdoors must prepare for a wide range of situations, Meyer said.

“The best way to stay safe is to think safe,” Meyer said. “Don’t get into a situation where you might need to worry about your sled floating, because it won’t. Be aware of your surroundings; know the rules and stay safe.”

Maine has hundreds of miles of trails snowmobilers can use and that allow them to stay off lakes and rivers, Meyer said. Snowmobiles should stay off ice thinner than 5 inches, and cars and trucks should stay off unless ice is 8 inches or thicker.

“You should know your route, and keep an eye on your surroundings,” Meyer said. “Be absolutely certain what the conditions are before you go, and then be cautious when you go out there. Maine’s lakes and ponds can be tricky, even when we’ve had a normal winter.”

Meyer’s group recommends snowmobilers take a basic kit with them, whether they plan to stay close to home or head out into the back country. The safety packet should include a first-aid kit, flashlight, knife, compass, map and waterproof matches.

“Certainly, you want to have some basic survival gear,” Meyer said. “It’s handy to have a cellphone, although there are areas where there is no service. Have one, just in case, so that you can communicate. You want to make sure you have a space blanket, some water and all the basics you’d take when you go out in the woods.”

Meyer said he also keeps an ice claw, known as a  Pick of Life, handy as well. That’s a pair of bright orange plastic handles that hide 2-inch, metal ice picks in a retractable plastic sheath. A sportsman who finds himself in the water can use the picks to climb onto the ice.

Cpl. John MacDonald of the Maine Warden Service said people should have the claw where they can reach it in an emergency.

“You have to have them accessible and ready to use,” MacDonald said. “And practice with them, if you can, even if you just rehearse it. Stop quickly and see how quickly you can get at them. If it takes too long, they won’t help. They won’t do you much good in your back pocket.”

Simple versions of the tool can be made with deck nails and a broom handle

Dan Bilodeau of the Perkins Ridge Sno-Travelers club in Auburn said he keeps a pair of ice claws handy, as well as a SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger. Available at most outdoor retail stores, including L.L. Bean and Cabella’s, it’s a satellite and GPS communicator that can send messages and map coordinates to family, friends and nearby rescue personnel.

“At least you are located,” Bilodeau said. “And it works, independent of cellphone coverage.”

Bilodeau also wears flotation gear, he said. An airline pilot, he used to wear a surplus personal flotation device under his jacket.

“It stayed in place and you could inflate it in an emergency,” Bilodeau said. “But now I have a coat and pants that are personal flotation devices in themselves. It’s built right into the clothing.”

Michael Ouellette of Auburn’s Hook Line and Sinker sells a line of winter gear with floating insulation built in via an online store,

“It’s not watertight,” Ouellete said. “You will get wet, but you won’t sink. Basically, the insulation in the suit has captured air pockets. One layer will keep you warm in subzero (temps), and each suit has three layers, and it will support up to 287 pounds.”

He sells coats and bib overalls, and suggests ice fishermen and snowmobile riders should at least invest in the $160 overalls.

“If you have the coat unzipped, it’s going to float up like Batman up over your shoulders, like a cape,” he said. “You should get both, but if you get just one, I say get the pants.”

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