Snowmobile season off to great start

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(Host) Snowmobilers in Canada and the United States spend over 20 billion dollars a year on snowmobiles, accessories, and things like gas, food and lodging.

In Vermont there were 36-thousand registered snowmobiles last year. But because of the poor conditions, many of them stayed in the garage.

Not this year. As VPR’s Nina Keck reports, snowmobilers and the businesses that depend on them say it’s been a long time since conditions have been this good.

(sound of snow mobile starting and running)

(Keck) Charlie Adams starts up a new snowmobile at Central Vermont Motorcycles in Rutland. With the season just starting, shopping in full swing and all the fresh snow, he says business is booming.

(Adams) "It’s quite overwhelming, actually, working here at this time of year. As long as everybody’s happy and on the trail and their sled’s running good, we’re all happy."

(Keck) The shops’ general manager, Jay Eugair, says they sold 30 snowmobiles in November alone. And before the season even started they’d sold over 400 trail passes. Sitting in his office, he happily admits that the year’s off to a great start.

(Eugair) "Once it snows, it’s like last Valentine’s Day, when we got the big storm. The next 15 days we sold 58 snowmobiles in February, once we hit the big storm."

(sound of Wooden Barrel store)

(Keck) The Wooden Barrel gas station and Country Store in Chittenden is a popular stop for many snowmobilers.

Manager Mark Hayes says the food and gas snowmobilers buy generates almost half his winter business.

(Hayes) "It’s what we depend on in the winter. We need snowmobiling, ice fishing and skiing. And the one big thing that directly affects us is the snowmobiling because the trail goes right through our parking lot."

(Keck) Hayes shakes his head as he recalls last year.

First there was no snow and then, after the February storm, he says, there was too much snow and people couldn’t get through the trails.

(Hayes) "We had to actually lay off all of the staff and my parents came out of retirement and worked with me. And they’re the ones who were in the store last year. It was either that or close."

(Keck) Hayes says the fact that conditions are this good this early will make a big difference.

(Hayes) "It’s looking real good so far. Can’t say it’s not going to rain next week and ruin it all. But they’re excited, we’re selling lots of licenses and we’re looking forward to all the business."

(Keck) The Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, better known as VAST, has over 5,000 miles of snowmobiling trails in Vermont.

To ensure that people purchase trail passes, drive responsibly and register their sleds, VAST spends about $120,000 a year on law enforcement.

Members of sheriffs departments, state police, and the Fish and Wildlife Department share patrols. Lt. Dan Begiebing of the state police says last year’s short season does have an upside.

(Begiebing) "We were able to roll over the money that was unused from last year. So for the 2007-2008 snowmobiling season, VAST’s law enforcement budget is actually $180,000. So that allowed me to schedule 550 more hours of patrols than last year."

(Keck) Begiebing says most snowmobilers follow the rules and use common sense.

But he says there have been fatalities the last few years, which he believes could have been avoided.

Today’s snowmobiles go a lot faster than they used to and he says people need to remember they’re on wooded trails not roads.

For VPR News, I’m Nina Keck.

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