BENNINGTON -- While a key ingredient to snowmobile riding may be absent when the season officially starts Sunday, state officials are urging riders to use caution and obey the rules should snow make an appearance this winter.
Alexis Nelson, executive director of the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST), said what's known as the Griffith Lake Trail north of Manchester is closed this season from Tropical Storm Irene damage. She said it should be open next season. She said she does not foresee much riding this weekend, unless the snow predicted for parts of the state happens to deliver enough for riding.
Last winter there was significantly less snow than normal, according to Jere Johnson, education coordinator for the Vermont State Police Marine/Snowmobile Division. He said the Northeast Kingdom region had some for a few weeks and the southeastern part of the state had enough to ride for less time, but overall there was little opportunity for snowmobilers to be out.
Snowmobile crashes must generally be reported to authorities. These incidents are tracked by the Department of Motor Vehicles to a certain degree, and their records appear to reflect the lack of people riding last year. According to Donna Earle, chief of records for the DMV, in the 2012 season there were four reported crashes. There were 10, 12, and 29 for the years 2011, 2010, and 2009, respectively. Those crashes occurred on town and state highways.
Johnson said the DMV used to share snowmobile crash reports with his division but that practice, for some reason, halted about eight years ago. He said the VSP is only aware of snowmobile incidents where troopers respond. He said anecdotally the number of crashes seem to be down.
Snowmobile riders who are riding anywhere but private property they either own or have written permission to be on must have their machines registered through the state. They must also have a Trail Maintenance Assessment/Trail Pass from VAST. The machines themselves must have proper lighting, and riders born after July 1, 1983, must pass a snowmobile safety course.
Ethan Ready, spokesman for the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forest, said about 475 VAST trails run over Green Mountain National Forest. "We've done a lot of maintenance in the last couple of years," Ready said. "We encourage folks to be mindful of any dangers as they ride."
Ready said while the trails are well maintained, the possibility of a tree being down is always present and riders should not over-drive their headlights. Ready said the Forest Service is looking forward to a busy snowmobiling season and hopes the weather will not disappoint. He said many businesses enjoy a boost from riders passing through between trails.
The safety warnings are not just for riders, Ready said. The forest is open to hikers, snow shoers, cross county skiers, and other winter forest activities. Ready said the Forest Service and VAST work together to get word out on safety, but accidents still happen. "Accidents are exactly that, they're not intentional," he said.
"We are concerned about user safety. Patrols which are aimed at enforcing rules and regulations, monitoring trail conditions and providing visitor information will occur throughout the Forest," said Colleen Madrid, forest supervisor for the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests, in a release.
According to the Forest Service, the speed limit on trails through the forest is 35 mph. It is illegal to operate a snowmobile when intoxicated or under the influence of drugs.