A Long Island woman snowmobiling in Vermont died after losing control and slamming into a tree on Dec. 29. A week later, a Colonie woman failed to negotiate a turn, hit two trees and suffered head injuries on a trail south of Watertown. And last weekend, two snowmobilers in Montgomery County were injured after driving their sleds into a tree blocking the trail.
More snow brings more snowmobiling, and with it, more accidents.
But state officials work each year to remind the public that care and good sense can help prevent some of the accidents that can turn deadly.
“If people do exercise the appropriate precautions, it is a safe activity,” said Dan Keefe, a spokesman for the state office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which oversees 10,500 miles of snowmobile trails statewide.
Each year, states across the U.S. and Canada promote snowmobile safety in January in hopes of cutting down accidents, which are often tied to alcohol use.
According to the state, half of last season’s 14 snowmobile fatalities involved drinking; alcohol was cited in 24 of the 83 snowmobiling deaths over the past five years.
“We say snowmobiling is safe when you exercise caution. But bar-hopping on a snowmobile is not safe just like bar-hopping in a car is not safe,” Keefe said.
After riding snowmobiles for more than 20 years, J.D. Downing knows the risks involved in the sport. Icy curves can send even the most skilled rider off the trail and hurtling into a tree. And pools of snowmelt can also cause a crash.
“You could lose control of your snowmobile just by hitting a pile of snow,” said Downing, who serves as public relations director for the town of Florida snowmobile club in Montgomery County.
Despite the risks of moving at high speeds with little protection, Downing said snowmobiling can be a safe and fun activity if riders follow some simple guidelines. Primary among them, he said, is making sure the snowmobile trail is actually open before heading out.
Downing updates the club’s Web site with details on the trails the club maintains. The club’s trails in Montgomery County haven’t opened for the season yet because of insufficient snow.
Once the trails are opened — which typically follows an inspection by snowmobile or grooming machine — the Web sites are updated to alert riders to hazards like ice and water.
Anyone can check the Web sites.
Many snowmobile trail entrances offer information also. Signs at the gated entrances to the snowmobile paths on the Canalway Trail off state Route 5S in Montgomery County forbid snowmobiling on closed trails. But those signs didn’t stop two riders who were injured when they slammed into a felled tree earlier this month.
“People have been riding underneath this tree for several weeks,” said Downing who, as a member of the local fire department, went to the scene of the accident just before 1 a.m. on Jan. 9.
None of those who rode the trail and saw the tree notified the snowmobile club. If they had, Downing said, club members would have removed it.
Downing took a photo of roughly the 10-inch thick tree when he and other club members went to get rid of it. It was gnawed down by a beaver, he said.
SPOTTY SO FAR
Snowmobilers say they were spoiled by plenty of snow last year, and riding conditions so far this season depend on where you are.
“It’s been pretty dry here,” said Dave Perkins, trails coordinator for the New York State Snowmobile Association, who rides most often in the Glens Falls area.
Perkins said he’s hearing reports of good snow in the western part of the state that benefits from lake-effect snowfall and in the western Adirondacks. Washington County got hit with more than a foot of snow early this year.
Some trails in Oswego County, where the Fulton Area Snow Travelers snowmobile club has been out grooming trails three times, are looking good, Perkins said. The club is reporting well-defined, flat trails.
“Which is pretty typical of Oswego County, being in the lee of the lake, they get some pretty good snow there,” Perkins said.
The New York State Snowmobile Association’s Saratoga District shut down its trails late last week due to low snow cover and in anticipation of warmer weather, district director Robert Bryant said.
“The warm weather coming in would take the base away,” said Bryant, who said he is “pretty concerned” that people will continue to use the trails even though they’re closed.
Bryant said one safety tip he offers people: Stay off the ice on lakes, especially as temperatures are forecast to rise.
He said the ice can be 12 inches thick in one section and all of a sudden it’s a quarter-inch thick.
“It’s dangerous to take rides on the lake,” he said. Three snowmobilers died when their machines went through the ice in Vermont a week ago.
People interested in learning more about trail conditions can find individual club Web sites on the Web site of the New York State Snowmobile Association at www.nyssnowassoc.org.
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