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Deadly rides on Great Sacandaga renew calls for caution

Deadly rides on Great Sacandaga renew calls for caution

Two died recently on Great Sacandaga Lake
Deadly rides on Great Sacandaga renew calls for caution
Great Sacandaga Lake in September 2014.
Photographer: Mark Schultz

The shifting contour of the ice on Great Sacandaga Lake, which results from water being let out of the 29-mile reservoir to prevent flooding, presents a challenge to snowmobilers.

“You could be out riding on the lake on a Saturday, it could be perfectly level, and the next day there could be ice heaves or ridges where there weren’t before,” Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino said, also noting that the letting of water brings rocks to the surface. “The rocks are very dangerous because they can be a small pile covered in snow, and you can’t really perceive how big they are.”

Over the past two weeks, the lake’s rocks have proved deadly for two snowmobilers.

Henry Ross III, 24, of Mayfield, was riding on the lake off his hometown around 9 p.m. on Dec. 23 when his machine hit several large rocks and he was thrown off his sled. Jonathan Cooper, 37, of Edinburgh, was riding shortly after 8 p.m. Saturday in Mayfield when his snowmobile hit a rock along the lake’s surface, tossing him more than 80 yards in the air, state police said.

Low visibility and speed were considered contributing factors, Trooper Mark Ciepel, a state police spokesman, said.
“That particular body of water is known to heave and create hazards,” Ciepel said.

And while Giardino urges snowmobilers riding on the lake to use extra caution and discourages nighttime rides, representatives with the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the New York State Snowmobile Association advised avoiding lakes altogether.

“The No. 1 recommendation from the association is to limit your riding to designated trails,” said Dominic Jacangelo, executive director of the state Snowmobile Association. “We do not advocate riding on lakes at all because, even under the best of times, there are warm springs under many different lakes which can lead to hidden open water.”

Jacangelo also noted that, until around February, it’s still “early season riding,” which means there is less snow on the ground to cover hazards such as branches and rocks, and the trails aren’t as worn down by other riders and aren’t as groomed.

“It’s particularly important during early season riding to be vigilant in your riding, and that vigilance starts with ‘slow down,’ ” he said. “This is the time of the year to take it easy, get out there and have a nice, relaxing day, and when the trails set up, that’s the time to be a little more adventuresome.”

The two deaths on Great Sacandaga Lake are among six reported this season, including the New Year’s Day death of 35-year-old Joshua Bemis of Argyle, who was riding on Cossayuna Lake in his hometown at around 1:40 a.m. when he hit a rock that was sticking out of the ice, ejecting him from his sled.

The tally, which also includes fatalities in Herkimer, Jefferson and Franklin counties, exceeds the four snowmobile deaths reported during last year’s far milder winter, according to numbers reported by the state Parks Department.
During the 2014-2015 riding season, 10 people died snowmobiling in New York state.

There were 80 total accidents in 2015-16, the latest year with the data available, and 204 accidents the year before, the department reported.

“Any fatality or serious accident is cause for concern and a reminder for snowmobilers to ride with caution, operate at a prudent speed and stay on designated trails,” said Dan Keefe, a state parks spokesman, who also noted that none of this year’s snowmobile deaths were on state trails.

In Fulton County, however, riding snowmobiles on Great Sacandaga Lake is a popular activity, and one the community is working to make safer rather than eliminate.

Following the death of Ross last month, his family started a fundraiser with a goal of reviving the sheriff’s snowmobile unit, which was cut to save money in the budget several years ago.

Since notice of the fundraiser was published in Ross’ obituary on Dec. 28, the family has raised more than $4,000 to help the Sheriff’s Department purchase two snowmobiles, a trailer, and snow gear and helmets for six deputies, which would cost about $20,000, Giardino said.

Donation checks can be made out to Fulton County Sheriff’s Association, PO Box 20, Johnstown, NY 12095 and marked “Snowmobile Fund.”

“Hopefully their efforts would be able to make a difference for another family so they don’t have to go through a tragedy like this,” the sheriff said.

Giardino said the department is also looking into installing lighted signals on the ice to warn riders about the dangers ahead — something he admits he’s never seen done on a lake.

“I don’t know about the practicality of it, but there’s been a lot of interest in setting up some sort of lighting or warning system around some of the ice heaves that come up every year,” he said.

In the meantime, Giardino urged snowmobilers to always use caution, “but particularly on Sacandaga because of the changing nature of it day to day and week to week.”

The state Parks Department offered the following safety tips:

-- Check your snowmobile; make sure it is in good working order, and carry emergency supplies.

-- Always wear a helmet and make sure you wear the proper snowmobile gear including bibs, jackets, boots and gloves.

-- Always ride with at least one other person.

-- Ride responsibly. Ride within your ability.

-- Ride to the right and operate at a safe and prudent speed at all times.

-- Respect landowners, obey posted signs and stay on the marked trail.

-- Frozen bodies of water are not designated trails; if you plan to ride on ice, proceed with caution and be aware of potential hazards under the snow.

-- Never drink alcohol or use drugs and ride.

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