Engine Light Flashing | Changing times hit snowmobiling

Written by Matt Crawford on . Posted in Outdoor Rec and Nature

This copyrighted article appears in the Winter 2014−15 issue of Vermont Life magazine. 

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.

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.

What happened?

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.

In the fall of 1967, in the midst of snowmobil-ing’s surging popularity, the nonprofit Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) was formed in South Burlington, mostly to maintain a network of trails throughout the state. Around the same time, the Vermont Legislature began mandating snowmobile registrations and adopting laws on snowmobile usage on public lands and roadways. By 1970, snowmobiling had fully, wholly, completely arrived.

Snowmobiles of the time were big, loud, smelly, gas-chugging behemoths. More than 20 companies manufactured snowmobiles then — companies like Rupp, Sno Jet, John Deere and Scorpion competed with the likes of Arctic Cat and Ski-Doo for growing market share. Most snowmobile manufacturers, however, were crushed by the 1973 oil crisis and folded within a decade after being founded. In the mid-1990s, due to mechanical advances that made the machines more reliable, and low gas prices, snowmobiling rebounded and hit a peak of popularity in the United States at the start of the 21st century. But as of today, only four companies mass-produce snowmobiles: Arctic Cat, Ski-Doo, Polaris and Yamaha.

A heavy March snowfall surrounds Coles Pond Sledders Cook Shack in Walden, Vt. Photograph by Bear Cieri.

A heavy March snowfall surrounds Coles Pond Sledders Cook Shack in Walden, Vt. Photograph by Bear Cieri.

A heavy March snowfall makes for a soft ride while riding from Walden to West Danville, Vt. Photograph by Bear Cieri.

A heavy March snowfall makes for a soft ride while riding from Walden to West Danville, Vt. Photograph by Bear Cieri.

Snowmobilers wait for burgers at the Coles Pond Sledders Cook Shack in Walden, Vt. Photograph by Bear Cieri.

Snowmobilers wait for burgers at the Coles Pond Sledders Cook Shack in Walden, Vt. Photograph by Bear Cieri.

A snowmobiler near Joe's Pond in West Danville, Vt. Photograph by Bear Cieri.

A snowmobiler near Joe’s Pond in West Danville, Vt. Photograph by Bear Cieri.

Ken Gammell, left, and Jim Dwinell chat check out Dwinell's refurbished, 1970 Skidoo Alpine.  Dwinell uses the sled on a regular basis.  Shot at an event sponsored by the Barre Town Thunder Chickens, a local snowmobile club that maintains a large section of VAST trails. Photograph by Bear Cieri.

Ken Gammell, left, and Jim Dwinell chat check out Dwinell’s refurbished, 1970 Skidoo Alpine. Dwinell uses the sled on a regular basis. Shot at an event sponsored by the Barre Town Thunder Chickens, a local snowmobile club that maintains a large section of VAST trails. Photograph by Bear Cieri.

Like other motorized pursuits, snowmobiling exists in a place that is unlikely to please the person focused on “Muscles Not Motors” or reducing our carbon footprint. On the contrary, to a certain extent, snowmobiling is about the allure of the machine. Up close, a modern-day snowmobile is an engineering marvel — sort of a cross between an industrial art display and a graphic design student’s final project. A shiny, spotlighted snowmobile sitting in the dealership echoes a fine Italian sports car and carries with it the same promise of speed, excitement, dash — an escape from the everyday.

“We are careful not to call it a sport,” says Andy Swanson, managing editor of Snow Goer magazine, a Minnesota-based national publication with about 61,000 subscribers. “It’s a lifestyle, and like a lot of lifestyles, it is one that people invest a lot of time, effort and money into. When that happens, there is this burning passion that sort of perseveres.”

At the Cook Shack in the Northeast Kingdom, Peak says he sees large groups of people, rather than solitary riders, pull up for the coveted burgers and hot dogs. “A lot of it is the ability to snowmobile together, with friends and family. When there’s a common interest like snowmobiling, there’s this built-in camaraderie. It’s a good way to keep old friends and to make new friends.”

For Steve Pontbriand, of Franklin County, snowmobiling is part of a larger outdoor lifestyle that includes hunting and fishing. “If you like being out in the woods, snowshoeing is really the best, but if you want to cover ground and see all kinds of things, you can’t beat snowmobiling. I’ve seen all kinds of animals and animal tracks when I’m on a ride. There are places I go where I see deer or moose tracks, and I think, ‘I should come back in here during hunting season.’”

Swanson, who hears from snowmobiling readers across North America, draws a contrast between the get-outside spirit of snowmobilers and those who huddle in their homes wrapped in blankets. “Those people inside don’t know what they’re missing by not getting out in the wintertime,” Swanson said. “There’s fantastic scenery that, in a lot of cases, can’t be seen other times of the year. And there’s also that sort of mechanical thrill — the performance of the machine and how it handles. There’s kind of an excitement in that too.”

For all the passion of its participants, snowmobiling has always faced difficulties that make it uniquely vulnerable among snow-based winter activities. The speed of the machines means that there has to be a lot of land available, and land use in Vermont is often contentious and prone to shifting ownership patterns.

Take, for instance, the recent history of the Northeast Kingdom, the epicenter of snowmobiling in the state. In the late 1990s, Champion Paper International sold off a 132,000-acre timber tract. Snowmobile trails snaked through a good portion of that land. Purchasing that land were the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, and Essex Timber Company — three separate landowners, each with different visions and restrictions on their property. Environmental groups, for instance, have called for a reduction of snowmobiling on the 26,000-acre national wildlife refuge that was formed in the wake of the Champion lands sale.

Dealing with landowners is perhaps the most important undertaking done by VAST. With some 8,000 property holders as part of the state’s trail network, there is always someone who grows weary of the whine of snowmobiles in their backyard or who needs to move a trail to make room for something else.

Pontbriand mentions a trail in northern Chittenden County that connects Malletts Bay to Milton, then Westford and up the Lamoille River valley. The land near the trail is being developed commercially, and Pontbriand predicts that it’s “only a matter of time before something is built by somebody who doesn’t want a snowmobile trail going through the property.”

A newer and more corrosive threat to snowmobiling, however, is the effect of the Great Recession, which hammered most working Americans when it began in 2008 and continues to restrict both their disposable income and their ability to borrow money — two big components in the decision to buy and maintain a snow machine, which typically costs $12,000 to $14,000 off the showroom floor. The changed world for working people also creates what you might call a demographic crunch, impacting the ability of parents to pass the activity on to their children. The average age of a snowmobiler is 44, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, and while every source contacted for this story lamented the lack of young people involved in snowmobiling — some blamed the sit-inside nature of the Internet — everybody cited the economic squeeze.

“It seems like a lot of the youth are disappearing,” said Peak, who noted that the Coles Pond Sledders spent considerable time at a meeting last year trying to figure out ways to attract younger people to snowmobiling. “Who has that kind of money when you’re trying to start a family and begin your career?”

Cindy Locke, executive director of VAST, says attracting the next generation is vital — so vital, in fact, that VAST has received permission to distribute its glossy, four-color newsletter in select Vermont high schools this winter. “It’s definitely an expensive hobby, and it’s tough now across the board just to make a living,” Locke said. “Wages are not going up. The cost of living is increasing. It’s hard to make room for extras — snowmobiling, boating, even skiing.”

Despite its challenges, VAST has embarked on an ambitious plan to oversee a rail trail more than 90 miles long across the north of the state from St. Johnsbury to Swanton. As envisioned, the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail would offer “an unparalleled experience” that would be “the longest rail trail in New England, offering spectacular vistas and local hospitality and services.” The trail is imagined as a four-season affair open to such activities as walking, biking and horseback riding, but it was VAST that took the lead in developing it, working in concert with various aspects of government and other recreational groups.

Not coincidentally, however, the plan was announced before the Great Recession struck, and the project — with an estimated price tag of $10–$12 million — has faced financial hurdles in the aftermath. On top of $300,000 and two years spent to get permits needed for construction, the trail lands needed repairs after three major rain events — Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, the grinding spring rains of 2012 and the fringes of Superstorm Sandy in the fall of 2012.

In the summer of 2014, work began on two segments, and while portions of the trail will be open this winter, VAST is still in need of additional funds to complete the entire trail. “It’s an amazing project,” said Locke. “I’m hopeful and positive we can make it a great trail; we’re just going to need some partners to help us.”

VAST is putting more efforts into recruiting out-of-state riders too — playing up the small towns, mountain vistas, snow-covered forests and overall Vermont experience. “We’re doing a lot of marketing efforts to bring people here,” Locke said. “New Hampshire has twice as many snowmobilers as we do and Maine has double that. There is potential to grow our numbers.”

Still, even if the economy turned around, and all the other headwinds facing snowmobiling eased off, there is the imponderable effect of climate change. To many eyes, the three major rain events, especially Irene and Sandy, looked like climate change in action, and winters now seem plagued by more frequent rain and freeze-thaw cycles. Franklin County resident Pontbriand, who is in his mid-40s and spends many a winter weekend traveling to Montgomery and the Jay Peak region to ride his machine in the deep snow that accumulates there, remembers the days of his youth when he would ride a snowmobile through the streets of Winooski. The warmer winters of the last 30 years have changed where and when Vermonters can snowmobile.

“We just don’t have the snow here in the Champlain Valley like we used to,” said Pontbriand, an observation backed up by a report that indicates, in the past 50 years, Vermont’s climate has grown warmer in all seasons, particularly in winter. Low-snow winters quickly drive down snowmobiling participation, and the specter of arid winters looms large. Without the ability to produce man-made snow, like at ski areas, snowmobiling on Vermont’s elaborate trail system only thrives when there is abundant natural snow.

“We make notes in the reservation book at the hotel and it’s pretty clear: When we have snow, we’re 95 percent full,” said Bob Dexter, who owns both the Lakefront Inn and Motel and Lakefront Express Mart in Island Pond. “You see those weekends when we have a thaw or no snow and nobody is here. If we go through a whole winter without snow, it’s pretty lean.”

For now, we still have winter. Last year was harshly cold, and a lot of snow fell. Locke, for her part, says, “It’s not something like climate change that keeps me up at night worrying about the future of snowmobiling. It’s how we’re going to keep our trails opened and maintained.”

For the thousands of people who take part in snowmobiling, a place like Coles Pond Sledders Cook Shack will always be the best place to be on a cold and snowy weekend. But it is possible, perhaps even probable, that history will view snowmobiling as a postwar phenomenon, an activity born of a pre-Internet time when jobs were plentiful, gas was cheap, horsepower was king, and no one worried much about smokestacks and exhaust pipes. As the 21st century unfolds, that world is fading, and it is not clear if snowmobiling will make the transition to the new world that is emerging. “Snowmobiling,” says Island Pond’s Dexter, “is a damn fickle business.”

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