This copyrighted article appears in the Winter 2014−15 issue of Vermont Life magazine.
A snowy Saturday will come this winter when one of the toughest tables to reserve in all of Vermont’s dining establishments will be in a rustic little structure near Walden Mountain. The walls are particleboard. Ketchup and mustard come in color-coded plastic containers. The napkins are paper. There’s not a sommelier, sous chef or valet on staff. The menu can best be described as “1950s drive-in” — burgers and fries, cheesesteaks and hot dogs. Hit it early enough, and there’s plenty of homemade zucchini relish to be had.
Situated in the hills just west of Lyndonville, The Coles Pond Sledders Cook Shack sits smack-dab on a snowmobile trail. Location, of course, is key to its success. It’s open for just a few months of the year and fills its 16-seat capacity on those weekend days when it’s snowy and cold and an estimated 00 snowmobiles zip by on their way to Hardwick or to a nearby lookout that offers stunning views of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range.
High winds prevented jumpers from going too big, but the crowd of about 150 people were impressed during an event sponsored by the Barre Town Thunder Chickens. Photograph by Bear Cieri.
“We get fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends — entire families that stop in here for something to eat,” said George Peak of Walden, operator of the Cook Shack. “I like to think the food is part of the reason, but the reality is all those people come here to be part of something.”
A mix of adventure travel, outdoor exploration and social event, snowmobiling sees about 10 percent of Vermonters ride each winter, plus thousands more who come here from out of state to take part. Many businesses are along for the ride — hotels, gas stations, machine dealerships, clothing retailers, mechanics and restaurants — to the tune of an estimated $350 million a year generated for the state economy.
Yet, over little more than a decade, the number of participants has shown a steep decline. In the winter of 2002–2003, membership in the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers stood at about 45,000. By last year, the number had dropped to about 23,000, a plunge of almost 50 percent.
As a winter tradition in Vermont, snowmobiling, in historical terms, is relatively new, and holds a tenuous place in the state’s imagination. If Vermont recreation had a Mount Rushmore, snowmobiling would not be on it. Hunting, fishing, hiking, skiing, snowboarding, cycling — all for various reasons connect more directly to Vermont’s identity, even though snow machines have been on the landscape, starting as backwoods workhorses, since the 1930s. It wasn’t until the late 1950s, when factories started manufacturing smaller gas-powered engines, that the first modern-day snowmobiles began to take shape. In the cultural backdrop of the time, with the emphasis on muscle cars, drag racing and powerboats, snow machines were a natural fit as a new recreational pursuit, and a boom time began.