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It gets their motor running

Snowmobiling exciting activity for clubs, families

With safety in numbers, a pack of snowmobilers cruising for adventure navigate a trail in Bartlett, N.H. With safety in numbers, a pack of snowmobilers cruising for adventure navigate a trail in Bartlett, N.H. (Fred Field for the Globe)
By Tony Chamberlain
Globe Correspondent / February 19, 2009
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BARTLETT, N.H. - With a pull of the starter cord the big two-cycle engine roars to life, sending a cloud of oil-laden blue smoke into the frosty air.

More engines start. Mayhem. Armed with the admonition to keep to the right and never try to pass each other out on the trail, five novice snowmobilers lurch unsurely into the woods.

Along a 20-mile stretch of Route 302, while thousands of skiers cruise down the slopes at a half-dozen Alpine areas and countless cross-country aficionados take to the trail network of the White Mountain National Forest, the woods are full of snowmobiles.

On a sunny February afternoon, everyone appears happily engaged in the outdoors.

And at $125 for a two-hour snowmobile ride in the backcountry near Mount Washington, not even a sick economy can dampen the fun.

"Last winter I said I would never see another winter like it," said Pete Gagne, president of Northern Extremes. "It was the perfect winter with snow on the ground from December 10th to April 26th. No rain. We were busy all the time, every weekend. Just perfect. And this year we're keeping right up with last. I'm amazed."

For a relatively new form of locomotion - the Wright brothers flew an airplane five years before the first internal combustion machine propelled humans over snow - snowmobiles have become a ubiquitous part of winter life.

From a two-hour rental to a monthlong cross-country odyssey, or just a way for rural residents to go to the mailbox, the machines are everywhere, even getting huge television ratings as a high-flying act at the X Games.

"We go skiing one day and snow tubing another," said Lisa Kukulski of Dracut, Mass., who was riding with her husband Brian and their two children, Brian and Mackenzie. "Then we do a day of snowmobiling."

For the Kukulskis, snowmobiles have provided an outlet for family fun.

"We got the snowmobiles about six years ago," said Lisa. "Then I had the kids and we didn't use them. So this is the first time back for us."

The children are too young to ride in the back seat of a snowmobile, so the family bought an Equinox caboose.

"It just gets us out here where we can enjoy winter," said Lisa.

Like Alpine skiing, snowmobiling is, at some irreducible level, about speed. As they left the trail last Monday after two hours, Drew Kirkwood and his mother Karen, from Concord, Mass., disagreed over which one of them scared the other more while driving.

Their companions, Brad Gay and his son, Connor, were having a similar conversation. All of them are skiers, and snowmobiling is simply a variation of their winter fun.

"Tell him how fast you were going," Brad said to his son.

"Well," said Connor, "a little faster than the speed limit [45 miles per hour]. I was doing maybe 55."

"It's pretty scary but also a lot of fun," Connor added. "The most fun is accelerating into the corners, and you lean into the turn. It's also fun to go over the train tracks where the skis would be popping in and out of little ruts. It's all really fun."

In the Mount Washington Valley region, trails of the White Mountain National Forest are open to snowmobiles, and Northern Exposure is just one of the rental companies that use the common land. Snowmobiles are also found in the vast tracks of true wilderness, where aficionados make long-range treks.

Bob Wiggins from Augusta, Maine, owns two "sleds," one of which he has outfitted with equipment for long-range cruising, usually up into Canada.

Wiggins, 47, said he always travels with a group of friends who keep in contact regularly out in the wilderness. There are more than 250 snowmobile clubs in Maine, and the interaction among members is, in part, a safety measure.

"You can really get yourself out there away from any civilization," said Wiggins. "Ninety-nine percent of the time you're safer out there than you are driving a Chevy around your hometown. But then, when something does go wrong with your sled or you have an accident of some kind, knowing what to do is all that saves your life."

Trekking in groups is vitally important, and as with any wilderness adventure, two rules guide all movements: "Know where you are and where you're going, and make sure someone else knows," said Wiggins.

Wiggins carries a GPS unit and cellphone, but is quick to point out: "Where we go most of the time there's no cell signal, and a GPS is only as good as any electronic gadget. You just can't put all your trust in them. You've got to have good maps and you've got to know how to read them before you get too far off the road. Same as hiking."

Most clubs stress safety and rules of the road. And while most of the backcountry is watched by wardens, there are too few of them for so much wilderness.

One issue in Maine is trying to enforce the rules forbidding riders on plowed logging roads. The Rangeley Region Snowmobile Club described a serious crash between a sled and a parked truck that occurred on a plowed logging road on land owned by a paper company.

"Paper companies own the land," according to club literature. "Most of our trails are on their property and they will shut us down completely if this doesn't stop."

Some snowmobilers have removed the "No snowmobiling" signs to plead ignorance of the law that remains unambiguous.

Another pristine riding region is the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont. The Jay/Newport Snowmobile Club is one of 25 clubs in the region.

"Our membership is up slightly this year, and it hasn't been a bad season at all," said Cindy Vincent, the club's treasurer. "With good gas prices, people need to escape. They've invested in their machines and they can't let them sit in the garage."

Vincent rides with her husband and two teenage children, getting involved with multiclub activities such as long treks down to Island Pond, or gathering at night for a bonfire and hot dog roast. "It's an awesome family activity," she said.

To ride the Vermont trails system, one must be licensed and a member of one of the hundreds of clubs in the state. In New Hampshire, there are rules of the road, but in the rental business, said Gagne, it's a quick reading of instructions and then "hope for the best."

Many travel groups choose snowmobiling as an outing. For Gagne, the British travel groups are the best.

"They're just so polite and easygoing, they're great," he said. "And groups of 20-year-olds don't bother me. The worst are the corporate-type groups of guys between 35 and 42. They just try to do things out there they shouldn't be doing, and at their age, they're just not as agile as the 20-year-olds, but they don't know it."

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