MONTPELIER -- At the Lakefront Express Mart in Island Pond, owner Bob Dexter said Monday he's hopeful for a winter of plentiful snow, good snowmobiling and strong business.
Many of northern New England's rural communities depend on snowmobilers to keep stores, restaurants, motels and gas stations going strong, and they've seen a sudden increase in traffic thanks to the snows of recent days.
Mountain ski areas can make snow if the weather stays cold. Elsewhere, nature decides if there will be enough snow to keep businesses' cash registers ringing.
Dexter and his wife, Sharon, also own the Lakefront Inn and Motel next to the store, and he's president of the Brighton Snowmobiling Club, whose website reports trail conditions.
"As soon as I put on the trail report that it (the local trail system) was open, the town came alive," he said.
His businesses typically do a third of their annual business during snowmobile season, but last year, a season that normally lasts an average of 14 weeks lasted only seven, Dexter said.
In December and early January last year, things were looking bleak. "You still have all your bills," Dexter said. "The bank wants to be paid. The power company wants to be paid." The snow "didn't come and it didn't come. It was pretty panicky."
Things in all three northern New England states are looking much better so far this winter.
"We're off to a much better start," said Chris Gamache, chief of the New Hampshire Bureau of Trails.
One word of caution: As of New Year's Eve, lakes and ponds had not frozen over enough for snowmobilers to venture out on them.
"Many of them still have open water, and even those that don't are nowhere near safe enough to support snowmobiles," Gamache said.
On northwestern Maine's Rangeley Lake, wardens spent Monday searching for the body of a 45-year-old woman who crashed through the ice Sunday evening.
The warden service said Dawn Newell of Yarmouth and her 16-year-old son were riding on separate snowmobiles when hers crashed through the ice. Officials say her son, who was following behind, started to break through the ice but was able to jump to solid ice and get to shore, where he called 911.
Also in western Maine on Monday, wardens said three snowmobilers were missing after going for an evening ride in Carrabassett Valley on Sunday and failing to return.
In all three states, officials pointed to the economic boost provided by snowmobilers.
According to a recent impact study by the Institute for New Hampshire Studies at Plymouth State University, the industry brings in an estimated $586 million in direct and indirect spending to the state each year. That amounts to 0.3 percent of the gross state product and more than 5 percent of all the money travelers spend in the state.
Maine has 14,000 miles of snowmobile trails, and businesses ranging from restaurants and motels to dealerships and repair shops rely on snowmobilers for business during the winter. Snowmobiling provides the equivalent of 2,300 full-time jobs in Maine, said Bob Myers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association.