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SNOWMOBILING: Don’t forget safety as another season approaches

The season is laid out like an unopened Christmas present. Although we’ve gotten a few small storms, there isn’t grooming going on just yet, although there has been some informal off-trail riding.

"When we’ve had these storms, people have been out in their yards or fields riding around, but with all this warm weather during November, we need some good cold weather for a couple weeks. That’s more important than the snow because we’ve had such a wet fall. When the ground is frozen, it holds the snow better," said Bob Meyers, the executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association.

"There is no snow pack on any part of the state, even up north. However, there is hope. We are feeling good about the weather patterns we are seeing because they have been coming up the coast and have the potential to dump a lot of snow each time they do."

Still, there are a number of things you can do to ensure that your first trip on the sled is a safe, legal and fun one. Your sled has been idle throughout the spring, summer and fall. While you may have a sudden urge to hop on it and hit the trails when the first substantial snow falls, you need to make sure your sled is safe. Hopefully no one just takes their sled out of storage and rides it without checking it over. People leave gas in the engine all summer, which can build up deposits in the carburetor, allowing less fuel to pass through, affecting performance.

Snowmobilers should give their sled a quick once-over — walk around the sled and check for signs of mice or squirrel nests. The battery and throttle should be checked, make sure all suspension components such as the bogey wheels are in good shape, and inspect the condition of the ski runners.

On the ski runners, make sure the carbides bite into the snow and ice so the snowmobile can turn. The sliders are what the tracks ride in. Make sure there’s plenty of material left because if you don’t, your track chews into the suspension rail, which can cause damage. If you aren’t mechanically inclined, most local shops will do a preseason checkup that usually includes changing the chain case oil and adjusting the drive train. Typically, this kind of service costs under $200. Any other repairs will be extra.

Once your sled is trail-ready, one of the most important things you should do is to let people know where you are going and fill out an itinerary form (available at www.mesnow.com). That way, game wardens know where to start looking for people reported overdue. If something does happen, like an accident or if a sled breaks down, particularly on a back trail where there isn’t a lot of traffic, the sooner a search starts, the better.

A breakdown on the trail can turn into a dangerous situation. Snowmobilers should be ready for a breakdown or be able to assist if they encounter a fellow snowmobiler in trouble. Snowmobilers should have:

* A first-aid kit

* A basic snowmobile repair kit

* A survival kit (rope, waterproof matches, flashlight, flares, space blanket, jackknife, high energy snacks, such as chocolate bars, peanuts)

* A waterproof map of the area and a compass/GPS system

* Extra gas

* Spare parts

* A cellphone

If someone has coverage on a cellphone and dials 911, rescue can get a fix on their position. There are a lot of spots where a signal won’t get out, but snowmobilers should bring a cellphone anyway. Make sure you have current trail maps. A GPS can be helpful, although they can freeze. It’s important to talk with local people about trail conditions and hazards before a trip. Bring along spare parts like spark plugs or a belt, and extra gas, because it can be a long distance between gas stations or repair shops. Carrying a tow strap is good because you can help someone on the trail.

Snowmobilers should wear a helmet and dress appropriately, preferably in layers. Also, never ride alone, and check the forecast before a trip. Most importantly, use common sense by staying alert, driving defensively, operating at prudent speeds, knowing and obeying the laws, and avoiding alcohol.

Early in the season, snowmobilers need to be careful around water. It takes a long time for ice to freeze solidly, and even in the middle of winter, there can be inlets and spring holes.

Snowmobile registration is required by law. If you are summonsed for operating an unregistered snowmobile, the fee could be around $130.

Maine has more than 14,500 miles of trails, mostly on private land. More land has opened and trails have improved.

If you are new to snowmobiling or have young riders in the family, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife offers a six-hour snowmobile safety course. It’s recommended, but not required by law.

The course can help someone feel more comfortable before getting on trails. The course consists of instruction in proper operation and handling of the machine; snowmobile laws; emergency and survival; map and compass; self-help first aid; and environmental and landowner ethics. Those who pass the course receive a certificate.

For more information about snowmobiling events and an itinerary form (click the link for MSA members), visit the Maine Snowmobile Association website — www.me snow.com.

For information about snowmobile laws, registration and safety course visit www.maine.gov/ifw/atv_snowmobile_watercraft/snowmobile.htm.

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