Sounds of Vermont: snowmobiles on the trail

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(Host) Snowmobiling has become a big industry in Vermont, but for many riders it’s a lot more than that. VPR’s Susan Keese took a backseat to learn through the eyes of one snowmobiler what it’s all about for our continuing exploration of the “Sounds of Vermont.”

(Keese) The snow-covered hills above Guilford’s Weatherhead Hollow are a patchwork of farmhouses, fields and rich woods. Heading into the hollow on the Guilford Pit Stoppers’ two-seater snowmobile is like riding into a Grandma Moses painting.

Forty-three-year old Mark Garland drives the two-seater. He’s wearing his old ski pants, a well worn jacket and a high-tech plastic helmet. Garland’s favorite sled is his 2002 Polaris 600. It’s black with red and yellow streaks. It’ll do upwards of a 100 mph on a frozen lake or straightaway. But the winding trails of Guilford demand a slower pace. And Garland is in it more for the distance than the speed. On his trips up north he often logs 250 miles a day.

Still, the wind whips our shoulders as we zoom across the flats past the drifted-over Guilford Fairgrounds. Even with our face shields you can smell the heady mix of gas and oil that powers the sled’s two stroke engines. The trail winds up into the woods. On either side are stacks of recently cut hemlock and pine:

(Garland) “This last snowstorm we had to go through and cut all these trails again, all the boughs had dropped down. So we had about two weeks’ worth of work to get the trails opened back up.”

(Keese) Garland, who owns a plumbing business, is a lifelong southern Vermont resident. He’s a past president of the Pit Stoppers, the club that grooms these trails. Halfway up the ridge, club members are out working on trail signs.

(Garland) “Now whereabouts are you guys headed, out through? Out through, we want to do the whole nine corridor and put up. Some signs where they’re missing the numbers.”

(Keese) Twice a week, the Pit Stoppers’ dozen or so diehards groom 19 miles of snowmobile corridor for the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, or VAST. Working through local clubs, VAST oversees a 5,000-mile network of trails from Massachusetts to the Canadian border.

The Pit Stoppers also groom 40 miles of their own trails. Bigger clubs groom with large heated vehicles. The Pit Stoppers use yellow Skandex sleds to pull rectangular metal drags with horizontal bars that loosen and repack the snow. The drags bump and sway behind the sleds. Sometimes they get stuck in deep snow and have to be lifted out. (Sound of work crew) “Ready and OK!”

The crew takes off, leaving the hill in silence. Snowmobile detractors claim the noisy sleds spoil the quiet of the rural landscape. But for Garland, riding is a peaceful experience.

(Garland) “We come out a lot at nighttime and just ride, and stop for 15 minutes and shoot the breeze, and just look at the stars. That’s a real nice enjoyable thing.”

(Keese) Garland started riding snowmobiles around the time he started first grade.

(Garland) “Our next door neighbors had bought one and me and their son just used to get on it and ride around the house and around the house and around the house. You didn’t dare go too much farther cause you never knew if you’d get home! (Laughs.) The older snowmobiles you literally had to work on ’em more than you rode them.”

(Keese) Most of the Pit Stoppers’ trails run through private property and depend on the good will of landowners. The routes are always changing as homes are built or land changes hands. But Garland says the club gets along with almost everyone.

(Garland) “I mean like, in the town of Guilford here, everybody uses our trails. People walk on them, people snowshoe on them and there’s very little prejudice about snowmobiles around here anyways. There is in other places, but thank God we don’t have that around here. And I think that’s why everyone likes the smaller clubs, is because everybody works with one another.”

(Keese) The club holds ride-ins and benefits for many local causes.

(Garland) “I mean, we’re like a little community, I guess is what you’d call us. When something needs to be done, you just make a phone call and people are usually there to help. And there’s all different kinds of people that are in the club, from eight years old to 80 years old. That’s the nice part about it. And everyone seems to get along real good, too.” (Laughs.)

(Keese) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Guilford.

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