FORT KENT — Up and down the state residents are facing a genuine Maine winter with average snowfalls and cold temperatures.
And few people are happier about this than snowmobilers.
In Rangeley, the annual SNODEO snowmobile festival attracted about 8,000 sledders to three days of riding, poker runs, meals and entertainment over the weekend.
“It was a big crowd and is so worthwhile for the community,” Don Dumont, vice president of the Rangeley Snowmobile Club said Sunday. “It’s the biggest part of our whole winter.”
The event this year was tinged with a bit of sadness in the wake of three men presumed dead in Rangeley Lake after they were last seen snowmobiling in the area on New Year’s Eve.
Friday night’s blessing of the snowmobiles during the festival included a light vigil for the missing men, Dumont said.
“They were remembered,” he said. “The whole town feels so bad about what happened but we could not just stop our SNODEO and [the missing men] would probably want it to go on.”
The search has been suspended due to the extreme cold weather and unsafe water and ice conditions on Rangeley Lake.
On Sunday afternoon Cpl. John MacDonald of the Maine Warden Service said there is nothing new to report on the stalled recovery effort.
“We will report any new operations when [and] if decisions are made to resume,” he said via an email.
On Saturday night wardens were busy responding to a St. Francis snowmobiler who had ridden his sled onto unstable ice on the St. John River and fallen through.
Travis Albert was taken to Northern Maine Medical Center where he was treated and released for hyperthermia and a broken rib, and subsequently arrested on several outstanding warrants.
“Things are looking pretty darn good right now,” Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association , said Friday about trail conditions around the state. “Of course the bar was set pretty low last year with a lack of snow [so] anything we see is an improvement and right now we are right back at full speed and are very pleased.”
Temperatures around Maine dropped dramatically last week creating an excellent trail base in the wake of unseasonably warm temperatures earlier this month, Meyers said.
“The warm up down [in southern Maine] had a more dramatic effect than up north,” he said. “We could use some more snow down here [and] we keep watching the forecast and it’s looking like we could get a little snow next week.”
Even without that snow, Meyers said trails are open statewide.
“Everyone has had a chance to ride statewide,” he said. “This is a really good thing because people are registering their machines, thinking about snowmobiling and getting out and having a good time.”
Those registrations are up over this time last year, Meyers said, saying data he received last week from Inland Fisheries and Wildlife showed 38,218 registered snowmobiles in Maine, which is up from around 33,000 in February of last year.
“That is a considerable jump,” he said. “We are well on pace for an 80,000 to 90,000 registration season.”
That is good news for the businesses that depend on snowmobile traffic.
“You always look at [the registrations] and do the math,” Meyers said. “Even if the snowmobilers are not traveling they are buying gas locally, they probably will need a trip to the local repair shop at some point, and are spending money locally.”
Two such riders on Saturday, Jason Lizotte of St. Agatha and Andrew Sullivan of Madawaska, were taking a brief stop to fill their sleds with fuel in Fort Kent on their way to a 200-mile planned day trip to Portage and back.
“The trails are really not bad and pretty well groomed,” Lizotte said. “We like to stay up in the County.”
At the New England Outdoor Center in Millinocket, owner Matthew Polstein has seen a dramatic increase this year over last year’s low snow season.
“Last year our January was almost nonexistent so anything is an improvement,” Polstein said Friday. “We have been quite busy since Christmas [and] the riding is outstanding in the Katahdin region. We don’t have a huge amount of snow but we do have more than the rest of New England and our trails probably have the most snow in the state.”
Wardens and longtime snowmobilers are cautioning people about this year’s unpredictable ice conditions on Maine’s rivers, lakes and ponds.
“Sledders need to be careful,” Meyers said. “The lakes and ponds are still an issue in a lot of areas and probably will be all winter.”
The Maine Snowmobile Association president urges riders to always check with local residents who are familiar with conditions before venturing out.
Good conditions are bringing people into Maine to sled, according to Linda Bortis, owner of the Lodge at Moosehead Lake in Greenville.
“We have a couple from North Carolina out there snowmobiling right now,” she said Friday. “They are here on vacation because they love winters and said our trails are really good.”
Having that good snow in quantity is a major economic boon for the lodge, Bortis said.
“This is our best January in six years,” she said. “Having that good snow is certainly important.”
That snow is also bringing sledders to the far north where Pete Pinette, owner of Rock’s Diner in Fort Kent, has seen a steady stream of snowmobilers pass through over the last week or so.
“We are on a par from last year,” Pinette said. “But our really big numbers start coming in in February and March.”
Last week a group of more than 70 snowmobilers from Pennsylvania cruised through, he said.
“A lot of these guys come back every year and we know them by name,” Pinette said. “And they are all saying our trails are very nice.”
With the cold, those trails should hold up well, but Meyers cautioned that some areas are getting hard-packed and icy and sledders should adjust their speeds accordingly.
“The big thing is people should get out and have a great and safe time,” he said. “This is a good, old-fashion Maine winter [and] it’s what snowmobiling is built on.”
Complete statewide trail information is available at the Maine Snowmobile Association website at www.mesnow.com.