|From vehicles for emergency personnel to transportation for ski area employees to full-blown winter toys, snowmobiles have come a long way. (File/The Boston Globe)|
RANGELEY, Maine -- They hold parades right down Main Street. Huge fireworks displays erupt in their honor, lauded in part for the way they help subsidize the local economy.
Some of them race hell-bent across the huge lakes in this region, engines screaming in the frosty air as they hit super highway speeds, while others wind off through the forest trails to New Hampshire, or Canada. They've been known to cruise as far afield from home as Michigan.
They are admired, dismissed as pests - or worse - and in parts of the country attempts have been made to ban them from public lands such as Yellowstone National Park.
But here in a far-flung reach of Western Maine that considers itself a kind of capital of their activities, almost no one underestimates the importance of the snowmobile rider.
Chamber of Commerce director Evelyn McAllister estimates that when the annual Snodeo comes to town the last weekend in January, some 4,000 snowmobilers will gather in Rangeley.
Snodeo, a three-day celebration of snowmobiles and winter fun, fills just about every bed, bar, and restaurant in town, not to mention snowmobiles backed up at the downtown gas station.
And this year, if the event seems a bit wilder than usual, it's just the pent-up energy making up for last year's snowless winter. The season never really got going, McAllister says, until mid-February.
"Every winter has its own personality, and this one has been great for everything we do around here."
Indeed, beginning shortly after Thanksgiving the snow started flying in the north country, and continued dumping in December made the Christmas holidays one of the best ever for snow lovers.
But unlike skiers, who can confine their range to a few thousand feet of vertical, snowmobiles need miles of the natural stuff to do what they like to do on their high-powered sleds.
"This is just what we needed this year after last," says Brian Kelly, who lives in Falmouth, Mass., and commutes regularly to the north country with a large extended family and eight snowmobiles.
"We're quite a crowd when we get out riding," says Kelly.
Kelly travels to Rangeley regularly through the winter with his wife, Kathleen, and four children - two boys and two girls between the ages of 10 and 18. His father-in-law, John O'Neil, is often in the mix, and between cousins and friends, the snowmobile parties across to Eustis or Sugarloaf Mountain become formidable convoys in the backwoods.
"We started in New Hampshire years ago, but when they stopped putting funds back into the trail system we started coming here," says Kelly. "Five years ago we bought land and built a cabin."
The Kelly clan enjoys destination rides that begin in the morning, wind up someplace miles away for lunch, and then ride back to make the cruise an all-day affair. But he also caps that experience off with another face of snowmobiling.
"I take my older son William and his grandfather and a few of us go down to the lake for some faster riding," Kelly says. "But the other thing we enjoy is climbing mountains, going up to the top of East Kennebago or Bald Mountain. The views up there are just amazing. You can see all the way to Mount Washington."
Newer than Alpine skiing as a recreational pursuit, snowmobiles were first devised about 75 years ago, when various inventors worked to fashion a vehicle with skis on the front and a sprocket wheel that drove a track in the rear. Early snow machines built in the 1940s were large, carrying up to 10 passengers, and were largely viewed as aids in the logging industry, and as emergency vehicles for medical and fire department personnel.
It didn't take long - sometime in the next decade - before vehicles with smaller gasoline engines set on lightweight chassis and motorcycle-style seats for one or two riders became handy transportation for ski-area workers and ultimately a full-blown winter toy.
For places like Rangeley, the development of snowmobiling came just in time. While a ski industry was growing around Saddleback Mountain in the 1960s and '70s, growth became stalled as the area became mired in a protracted struggle with state and federal conservation agencies over issues involving the Appalachian Trail corridor, which passes over Saddleback land.
While ski growth stagnated, the rural area of Rangeley lost one of its tourist draws. Until, says McAllister, snowmobilers discovered the region and began making a huge economic impact.
"They probably bring $6.5 million dollars in [a year], between accommodations, food and bars, rentals, and shops. Our whole economy is based on tourism, which raises 70 percent of our taxes. It's a nice situation for us."
Why Rangeley? Mostly the topography - rural, meaning few roads (no highways) to cross, a blend of large, frozen lakes surrounded by mountainous terrain, and just enough commercial development in town to support a weekend influx that can push 4,000 riders.
But according to Kelly, there are some other factors in Rangeley's favor: well-groomed trails with few blind spots, a local population tolerant and supportive of the sport, and a self-policing system that keeps pressure on "out-of-control yahoos" well-publicized in anti-snowmobile literature.
"One thing that makes this such a special region is that we always treat open land as someone else's property," he says. "We feel [an obligation] to take care of it and leave the land in better shape than we found it. That's the right way to ride."
If pristine rides in the backcountry soothe the soul, snowmobiling in Rangeley also has its NASCAR side. Down on Rangeley Lake during Snodeo, the town plows a drag course, where classes from small childrens' sleds to 150-horsepower machines in the unlimited class race across the frozen surface.
Such state-of-the art machines, many generations removed from classical relics of the 1980s years ago, can top 100 miles per hour and, Kelly points out with a note of admiration, "They can accelerate zero to 60 in two seconds."
But the real thrill of snowmobile riding, he says, is the small-group bushwhacking into wilderness areas, where riders see the abundant moose and deer herds.
"That's the best part about it," says Kelly, "just to be out there and unwind from work in the pure white beauty of winter."