Snowmobiles the latest hard-to-find item amid pandemic

Alpin Haus master technician Jason Whiteman works on a new Ski-Doo snowmobile at the Amsterdam dealership's service department
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Alpin Haus master technician Jason Whiteman works on a new Ski-Doo snowmobile at the Amsterdam dealership's service department

CAPITAL REGION — A tantalizing early snowfall was initially followed by a disappointing meltoff, but interest remains high in snowmobiling, according to the local snowmobile dealers and the statewide advocacy group for the sport.

As novices shopped for their first sled and experienced riders traded up or got their older gear tuned up this autumn, the recurring theme has been a desire to get out of the house and a lack of other options for doing so.

Riding a snowmobile is widely viewed as COVID-safe — riders have a full-face helmet, keep a safe distance apart, and are outdoors rather than inside.

“I think everyone has been cooped up for too long,” said Dominic Jacangelo, executive director of the New York State Snowmobile Association.

Sales interest was strong through 2020 and membership in clubs is up by several thousand over 2019, he said.

The most-often cited concern he heard from snowmobilers is that trails would be closed to prevent the spread of COVID. That is not the case, just as biking and hiking trails were not closed during the summer.

The biggest issue (besides the weather) is that so many restaurants are shuttered, Jacangelo said.

Stopping to eat and drink is a favorite part of a snowmobile outing, he said, and the restaurants that didn’t close have had to reduce their seating capacity.

In the biggest snowmobile destination regions — Chautauqua County and the Tug Hill plateau — some of the remaining restaurants have added outdoor winter seating, which works for snowmobilers, Jacangelo said.

“If anyone should be dressed for the weather it should be us!” he said. “Unfortunately with the pandemic, there are a number of places that have closed and we don’t know if they’ll reopen.”

Alpin Haus snowmobile manager Mark O’Dell said the Amsterdam dealership may be able to find a particular model somewhere in the dealer network but its own allotment of snowmobiles is almost entirely sold or spoken for. 

“We have a lot of new people getting into the sport,” he said. “People are picking up and disappearing into the woods.”

There were delays but not shortages in the snowmobile supply chain in 2020, O’Dell said. The lack of inventory at Alpin Haus is due entirely to sales volume, with so many people wanting to get out of the house.

The same thing happened in the spring: a heightened interest in getting onto area lakes and rivers.

“We were sold out of personal watercraft I think by the Fourth of July,” he said.

Riley Seymour of Seymour’s Motorized Sports said the Colonie dealership is running out of snowmobiles as well.

“We have been very busy and we’re very grateful for it,” she said.

“We don’t have much left. If somebody wants something we can maybe do a dealer trade. Typically in the past that wasn’t so hard. Now we don’t have much to trade.”

The interest in getting outdoors started back in the spring, Seymour said, when Sea-Doo personal watercraft sold briskly. 

Many snowmobile owners got their service and tuneup long before the first snowflakes fell, she added.

Mike Menneto, owner of Wild Horse Powersports in Malta, said the sales boost has been partly enabled by COVID canceling so many people’s vacations.

“We were just talking to a customer about that yesterday,” he said — the vacation budget became the powersports budget.

“Overall in the whole powersport business we’ve seen more demand,” Menneto said of 2020.

That’s sales as well as repairs.

“Service has been strong throughout the year,” he said. “Stuff that hasn’t been driven in a long time is suddenly being taken out.

“The pandemic didn’t strike us really hard like it did with other businesses. We were very lucky.”

Snowmobile sales at Wild Horse have been about the same as last year, no big boost yet. This is due to the lack of snowfall so far this winter, he explained.

Motorcycle and boating seasons are longer than snowmobile season, and if there’s a rainy day in the summer, you park your bike and wait for sunshine the next day. If there’s no snow on a winter day, you have to wait and wait until there’s enough snow to ride safely.

So Wild Horse wasn’t sold out of snowmobiles, as of Wednesday. “We have a few left,” Menneto said. “We’re still waiting for some sleds from one of the manufacturers.”

Jacangelo at the Snowmobile Association said the huge mid-December snowfall in parts of the state wasn’t the blessing it might have seemed to be.

“The snow came before the end of hunting season, so we had to hold people off the trails,” he said.

Then the trails opened for a few good days until warm air and rain ruined the conditions, Jacangelo added.

“We’re hoping for a good period of cold weather,” Jacangelo said, “so it will freeze hard and be an excellent base for the snow to come.”

The warm weather seen in late December can lead to lasting surface problems: uneven ice on ponds and lakes, 1- to 3-foot deep water-filled pits on a trail, or downed branches and trees, any of which are an annoyance at best, a danger at worst.

“This is the time of the year for freakish accidents to occur,” he said.

O’Dell at Alpin Haus said there are a lot of first-time customers buying snowmobiles that can hit 80 or 100 mph. The dealership tries to steer them toward safe operation, and a membership in a local club.

“What we do here is we try to educate people as best we can,” he said. “You have to respect it. They are powerful machines.”

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