Snowmobiles rev up first-time riders

Email|Print| Text size + By Bill Regan and Jane Roy Brown
Globe Correspondents / January 26, 2005

CONWAY -- This winter, our second in a small Western Massachusetts town where the appearance of snowmobiles and the disappearance of black bears mark the beginning of the season, we had resolved to try snowmobiling. But as a balmy December melted into a temperate January, even the vaunted snowmobile trails of northern New Hampshire and Vermont remained as bare as a baby's bottom in July. Then one Saturday night the temperature dove, the skies opened, and six inches of snow transformed the neighboring fields into a link in a trail system stretching from north central Massachusetts to the Berkshires. The following morning we found ourselves 200 yards from our driveway, awaiting friends who had offered to give us our first ride. We also found ourselves facing some longstanding fears -- and prejudices.

HE: ''Loud and smelly" was how several friends of mine described snowmobiles. But others, some of them cross-country skiers, were rapturous about the ease with which snowmobiles could open the countryside for exploration. ''It's so beautiful and so accessible. I really feel as if I've been to places where few people have ever been," said a woman who is a hiker, equestrian, and a cross-country skier.

SHE: One winter when I was 14, which was well back in the previous century, my father talked a lot about buying a snowmobile to check our lakeside camp on the end of a long, unplowed road. Snowmobiles were still novelties then, but my mother had already formed a strong opinion about them, which she expressed by buying each member of the family a pair of snowshoes handmade by a man who'd lost the use of his legs in a snowmobile accident. Her point wasn't lost on me: Not only were the machines a noisy, smelly nuisance, they were dangerous to boot. Give me a quiet snowshoe tramp across a pasture, or better, a trail through conifer woods.

HE: My father always hated motorcycles, as I'm sure he would have disliked snowmobiles. Perhaps in rebellion I chose to ride cycles -- ''loud and dangerous" -- for 16 years. Naturally, snowmobiles interested me, so on a sunny Sunday, we arranged to meet some friends in a field in Western Massachusetts for instruction and some riding experience.

SHE: I agreed to this mostly because if there's one thing I hate more than the smell of gas fumes, it's the loud click of a mind snapping shut. And since we live in an area where snowmobiling is popular, I thought I should at least experience it before taking a position. So here we are, waiting in a dazzling snowfield beside a local snowmobile trail, as five machines -- ''sleds" in the sport's vernacular -- appear on the crest of a hill and begin to crawl in our direction, glinting like giant beetles.

HE: I'm surprised that the machines are as quiet as they are, considering that these all have two-stroke engines. The familiar smell of exhaust from this kind of oil-and-gas-burning engine hangs in the air, but isn't overwhelming. The manufacturers say they're working to reduce the noise and smell. Then I'm told that none of these snowmobiles are two-person vehicles, and I realize that my wife is going to have to ride one on her own. Since she has expressed strong apprehensions about these machines, I'm concerned.

SHE: Our neighbor Amanda Baker offers to let me drive her machine. After Amanda's father, Doug, shows me how easy it is to work the thing -- one handle has the brake, the other the throttle -- I begin to see my ride as an act of liberation. I do feel a tad nervous, though, as the engine vrooms to life.

HE: ''A tad nervous?" Not exactly the feelings I had heard expressed earlier, but perhaps being freed from having to cling to my waist or clutch the machine's rear handgrips while staring at the back of my head has boosted her confidence. In any event, she climbs aboard with no visible hesitation, and once she understands the controls, putts tentatively away as the other snowmobilers root for her. In less than 100 yards, she gives it more gas and begins to glide briskly along the trail.

SHE: After stuffing my head into Amanda's helmet, I lurch forward along the looping trail. The engine's thrum slides to my brain's back burner as steering moves front and center, but it adds to the illusion that I'm zipping along at 40 miles per hour. At the wide U-turn, I stiffen up, don't lean far enough into the curve, and the sled heads downhill, off-trail.

The skis squirm on the unpacked powder, but I manage to point them back uphill to the trail. The machine sits low and takes the terrain in a two-part motion, the fluid glide of the front skis followed by the steady milling of tread. It's like riding a caterpillar on skis.

Rejoining the group, I realize I'm smiling.

HE: Grinning and whooping is a bit more accurate. I'm surprised that she doesn't do a victory dance upon dismounting. Now I turn my attention to my ride, on Adam Baker's souped-up sled. I borrow a helmet and Adam starts the machine and gives me some basic instruction on the brakes and throttle. Very simple, difficult to foul up. I climb aboard and creep forward. After I cross a small bridge I feel a bit more comfortable and lay on the gas. The snowmobile's responsiveness startles me as it leaps ahead more quickly than I had expected. I slow it down because I'm now traversing a low hill and the tracks struggle for purchase on the packed snow. I realize that the rear of the sled could begin to drift, causing control problems. After I make a wide turn and start back, I begin to get the feel of how the snowmobile handles, much as I had learned the same with my motorcycle years ago.

The rest of ride is pure fun.

SHE: Well, well. I expect him to blast off. But at first he's as cautious as I was, his body straight as a stick. I've noticed that experienced riders lean forward, eating up the trail. On his next loop, he's easier in the saddle -- not quite a hot rod, but the potential is there. Would I do this again? Yes. On a regular basis? Probably not. In the end, give me human-powered locomotion. I can date a machine, but we'll never go steady.

HE: On my second ride, I feel more comfortable and am able to cruise at a speed that feels appropriate for snowmobiling. When I return, Adam tells me I'll be owning one before long. Well, probably not.

Snowmobiles are fun, and while I'd still like to go on a long winter ride, if I had enough disposable income to purchase a pleasure machine, it would be a motorcycle. You never forget your first love.

Jane Roy Brown and Bill Regan are a writer-photographer duo based in Western Massachusetts.

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