PITTSBURG -- The snow may be a little slow in
coming this season, but folks in the state's snowmobile industry are urging
patience and pointing to strong sales of new sleds as an indicator of positive
things on the way.
New Hampshire has 7,000 miles of snowmobile trails that crisscross the state from east to west and north to south. The snowmobile trails — nearly all located on private land and maintained by private clubs under the jurisdiction of the New Hampshire Bureau of Trails — are slated to open soon, weather permitting.
Despite an unusually mild fall and the fifth warmest November on record, no one there is hitting the panic button yet, said Gail Hanson, executive director of the Tilton-based New Hampshire Snowmobile Association. “There have been years we haven't ridden until January, and there have been years we're ridden until May,” said Hanson, whose association represents 113 clubs throughout the state. “And if we lose it (snow) on one end of the season we get it on the other. I think we're in for a good season.”
Hanson said the frost is settling into the ground, including in the garden at her Belmont home, and that a period of sustained cold and snow is coming. Once the snow does come, the clubs will make and groom the trails, she said, adding it was her expectation that once the snow arrives it likely will stick around for a long while.
The 2015-2016 snowmobiling season will be a busy one, Hanson said, with activities scheduled for every weekend, and with the tristate reciprocal weekend — when snowmobilers from Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine can travel freely among all three states — being one of the biggest events. The lead-in to the season has been very promising, Hanson said, especially for dealers. “Dealers are having a fantastic year. There's stuff going out the door left and right, and most dealers don't have any used stuff around,” she said.
Steve Livingston, who owns and operates Livingston Sales in Hillsboro — which is the largest seller of Arctic Cat snowmobiles in the U.S. and was recently named No.1 in customer satisfaction by that manufacturer — said his dealership sells between two and five sleds a day.
In business for 50 years, Livingston has seen a formula repeat itself: If the previous snowmobile season was a good one, then sales will be strong right into the next Christmas. So far in 2015, “sled sales are great, and service is booming,” said Livingston, who estimated that sales of new snow machines are up between 25 and 30 percent while service — due to huge demand for it — is still a six- to nine-week process even though the dealership has added three more mechanics.
While the price of gas not so long ago used to be a consideration for some snowmobile buyers, with gas now at around $2 a gallon, “it's not even a thought,” Livingston said. “We've got a new model that gets 25 miles per gallon, and I don't think I've sold one unit yet.” Lenders are offering generous financing terms on new sleds, and overall, “you wouldn't know there's a problem with the economy at snowmobile dealers,” Livingston said.
Snowmobiling is an important part of New Hampshire's tourism-based economy, said Hanson, noting that a study of the 2010-2011 season found that snowmobilers directly spent $203 million while the cumulative impact was $586 million.
Up in Pittsburg, which has some of the most extensive and expansive trail networks in the state, the economic impact of snowmobiling in the community is huge, said Cindy Howe, who with her three siblings owns and operates the Tall Timber Lodge and Rainbow Grille & Tavern.
“Pittsburg, I think, would not exist on the map if we didn't have snowmobiling,” Howe said, cautioning that in her family's 34th year of serving visitors, the season has sometimes started later than earlier, but there has always been a season. Howe is a director of the Pittsburg Ridge Runners, which with 3,300 members is the largest snowmobile club in the state. Like Hanson, she said the weather is changing and becoming colder and that snow is sure to follow.
"I've learned through the years not to get too nervous about it, but we'd like to have it for Christmas week,” which is one of the busiest of the entire snowmobiling season, Howe said. Once the snowmobiling does start, Hanson asked riders to “take the time to thank a land owner” and also to “slow down and enjoy".
Chris Gamache, who is director of the New Hampshire Bureau of Trails and has been with the agency for 15 years, said snowmobiling typically starts sometime between Dec. 15 — which is the earliest that the Bureau of Trails will award grants to clubs to do trail maintenance — and Christmas.
Although the weather can change suddenly and frequently, Gamache thinks it'll be a while before the state gets one or a combination of snowstorms that will provide the 8- to 10-inch base needed for trails to be built.
Last year, 48,000 snowmobiles were registered in the state, he said, adding that “we had a good season, with a lot of statewide snow, and we would certainly hope for that again.”
The delayed arrival of winter, Gamache said, hasn't been an entirely bad thing because it has allowed the Bureau of Trails to finish some infrastructure projects that would have been tough to do with frozen ground and a covering of snow.
“No one's in ‘oh-no mode' in any shape or form to this start of the winter,” Gamache said.
“It almost seems that over the last five years or so that winter has kind of moved and our riding season creeps backwards by two to three weeks” but in an offset, the season lasts a bit longer, too.
“We start every season optimistic and ready for the next round of long, cold weather months,” he said.