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Snowmobiling in N.H. geared to families, women and children first



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Rental customers get ready to ride at Lilí Man Snowmobile in Bartlett. Rachael Brown. (click for larger version)
January 14, 2010
"The great majority of snowmobilers are families; 90 percent of our members are families," says Skip Christenbury, member of the board of directors for the Ossipee Valley Snowmobile Club in Tamworth and secretary of the New Hampshire Snowmobile Association. Christenbury explains that many people have the impression that snowmobilers are high tech, high performance types of riders. "If you check some of the popular snowmobile websites, that's [families] what you'll see," he says. "Neither does the state of New Hampshire, the local clubs nor the rental businesses promote this [high-speed] type of rider," he adds.

Local clubs hold many events during the winter, including poker runs and snack bars. These events attract families. Many riders are also older today. "There is a huge contingent of riders 40 years and older, many 60 years and older," adds Christenbury.

Ed Tolland, manager of Lil' Man Snowmobile in Bartlett, and Lisa Maggiolo, office manager, agree. "Last year, our oldest rider was an 82-year-old woman and our youngest rider was two years old," says Maggiolo. Lil' Man Snowmobile rents sleds to riders of all ages and from near and far. Maggiolo talks about the young girls from Indonesia, and visitors from Jamaica, Florida and New Orleans, who loved the riding but had a hard time getting used to the cold.

No need to worry about the cold or to worry at all, for that matter. Tolland explains that the new sleds have heated hand rails and heated seats. If customers come ill prepared for the ride, there are helmets, boots, jackets and pants to borrow. He also explains how they are able to service people with a wide range of abilities.

"We literally size them [customers] up," says Tolland. "We fit the person to the sled, they then meet with our instructor, get a full lesson and safety tips," he adds. "We also tell people to take as much time as they need to get ready; the clock begins when they roll out," he says.

Maggiolo says that some people are nervous — usually women are more nervous than men — but after time spent on the trails the women usually leave their husbands behind. "Everyone comes in from the trail beaming," she says.

Also, new technology makes it easier to ride. "It was a rough ride 30 years ago, but in the past 10 years better technology has made a huge difference. The sport is much more family oriented," says Christenbury. Riders used to be worn out after a couple of hours, he notes, but now with more comfortable and heated sleds, riders can stay out all day.

There are also sleds for people who ride with young children. Sleds that seat three and carry weight up to 375 pounds work well, says Tolland. "The kids fit in between the parents, and they're doubled strapped in. Many kids fall asleep out there!" says Tolland. As long as a child can wear a helmet and can stand up, they can go on a sled, he explains. The lower age limit is usually two years old. Maggiolo says that last year they refused an 18-month-old toddler.

Sleds can accommodate the handicapped as well. When the wounded warriors were visiting the Valley, Tolland says they were able to match some of the leg amputee soldiers to sleds so that they could enjoy riding the beautiful trails. The trail system has really improved too, says Christenbury.

Speaking of trails, just who maintains trails, who owns them and how do snowmobilers know where to find them? Christenbury says it is a relationship between the state of New Hampshire, the local clubs and the generosity of New Hampshire landowners.

"Seventy-five percent of the trails are on private land; the state only owns 25 percent of the trails. The entire system is a volunteer one," says Christenbury. The Bureau of Trails, a division of the New Hampshire Department of Economic Resource and Development (DRED), oversees the trails and the reimbursement that local clubs receive for trail maintenance, purchasing and maintaining grooming equipment.

New Hampshire Fish and Game is the law enforcer. There are speed limits on the trails, and as Tolland tells his customers: please obey the speed limits.

"Our trails are well patrolled by rangers. They have radar guns and they will give you a speeding ticket," says Tolland. Patrolling the area is good for people — it deters people who would otherwise be speeding, adds Tolland.

Christenbury says that the New Hampshire trail system is attractive to families. "Our trails are beautiful, narrow, windy and they don't attract high speed high performance riders. It doesn't mix," he says. "If you want to ride hard, I tell people to go to Quebec or up country Maine; New Hampshire is a true back country experience," he adds.

The New Hampshire Snowmobile Association (NHSA) plays a big role, too. The association is the go-to place, the resource for snowmobiling in New Hampshire. Christenbury says that if people are brand new to snowmobiling they should visit the state's snowmobiling association, nhsa.com, or call the association.

"On the website, you can bring up a map of the state listing each county and its snowmobile clubs, then join a club located where you will ride, where you will actually use the trails," says Christenbury. There are over 100 clubs in New Hampshire and each club has its own area. "Any club is clamoring for members; they will welcome you with receptive arms," he adds.

The local clubs are the backbone of the NHSA and depend on huge volunteerism. Though there are dues to belong to the local clubs, the money received goes to trail maintenance, purchasing and maintenance of the grooming machines — that can cost up to $150,000 — and the rest of the work is done by a handful of volunteers.

"I call it STP: Same Ten People. Many clubs have upwards of 500 members, but it is the same 10 people that volunteer," says Christenbury. The work of the club members begins early in the season when they seek permission from landowners to use their land. The Ossipee Valley Snowmobile Club for example, maintains 70 miles of trails.

The clubs circulate a variety of information. Some clubs have websites, some have maps and brochures, some hold events and some have newsletters. The Snowbound Snowmobile Club of East Conway, for instance, produces a brochure which includes local ads, Snowmobilers' Code of Ethics, a little bit about the region, some restrictions, some safety advice and on the back of the brochure is a detailed map of the trails. They also send out a newsletter.

Christenbury recommends that a new snowmobiler join a local club and perhaps attend a meeting. "This is a good way to learn about the trails, the local vistas, get local advice and ice conditions, too," he says.

Membership in clubs is weather dependent. "I call it fair weather funding," says Christenbury, noting that membership levels fluctuate with the weather. The last two years have seen record levels because of all the snow. This year levels are lower as everyone waits for more of the white stuff.

Snowmobiling is good business. "We are the biggest snowmobile rental company east of the Mississippi," says Tolland. "We have 100 sleds and the owner, Ed Furlong, just opened up another rental business in Casco, Maine," he adds. Tolland also says that last year there were times when all the sleds were rented out twice during one day. "There were times when we had a waiting line of about 20 people," he says.

Businesses are welcoming snowmobilers. Christenbury says there has been a crossover with people who used to come to the valley to ski and now come to snowmobile. Lodging properties are offering snowmobile packages, similar to ski packages, and in some areas local businesses display donation jars for the snowmobile clubs to cover the cost of grooming and maintenance.

Up in the North Country snowmobiling is huge, and most people don't realize how big the business is, says David Ainsworth, trail administrator for the White Mountain Trail Club in Bartlett. Ainsworth has a camp in Pittsburg, too. "It's a whole different world up here [Pittsburg]; the businesses cater to snowmobilers, it's their whole winter business," he says. Ainsworth adds there is plenty of snow up north.

You see, New Hampshire is unusual because the state doesn't use taxpayer dollars to support the industry. All the monies to support and maintain the industry come from snowmobile registrations, club dues and grants from the state. Each club can apply for equipment grants, which are administered by the Bureau of Trails, and are used by the clubs to purchase the costly grooming machines. In New Hampshire the industry is self-funded.

Share the road — that's what both Christenbury and Ainsworth say. The trails are maintained by the state, by the local clubs, and open to everyone. It is not unusual to see dog sledders, cross-country skiers, snowshoers and people just plain walking on the trails.

"These are multi-use trails. The dog sledders and cross country skiers have just as much right to be on the trails as we [snowmobilers] do," says Christenbury. He adds that a lot of the trail agreements with landowners are for shared use of the land. "Don't forget, the reason cross-country skiers are out in the woods is because we have maintained the trails; it is a two-way street," he says.

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