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Snowcats on the Prowl: Group Goes All Out to Maintain Trails

  • One of two groomers from the Twin State Trailbusters heads down a snowmobile trail in Lebanon, N.H., on March 25, 2014. Seven trained volunteers groom the sixty miles of trails the club maintains for around four hours each evening, when there are fewer sleds on the trails. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    One of two groomers from the Twin State Trailbusters heads down a snowmobile trail in Lebanon, N.H., on March 25, 2014. Seven trained volunteers groom the sixty miles of trails the club maintains for around four hours each evening, when there are fewer sleds on the trails.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Mark Gardner of Enfield, President of the Twin State Trailbusters, grooms a portion of the 60 miles of trails the club maintains in Lebanon, N.H., on March 25, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Mark Gardner of Enfield, President of the Twin State Trailbusters, grooms a portion of the 60 miles of trails the club maintains in Lebanon, N.H., on March 25, 2014.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • A snowmobiler turns around on a section of trail that the Twin State Trailbusters maintain in Lebanon, N.H., on March 25, 2014. A yearly New Hampshire snowmobile registry funds the approximately 120 snowmobile clubs in the state, who groom and create new trails. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    A snowmobiler turns around on a section of trail that the Twin State Trailbusters maintain in Lebanon, N.H., on March 25, 2014. A yearly New Hampshire snowmobile registry funds the approximately 120 snowmobile clubs in the state, who groom and create new trails.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • One of two groomers from the Twin State Trailbusters heads down a snowmobile trail in Lebanon, N.H., on March 25, 2014. Seven trained volunteers groom the sixty miles of trails the club maintains for around four hours each evening, when there are fewer sleds on the trails. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Mark Gardner of Enfield, President of the Twin State Trailbusters, grooms a portion of the 60 miles of trails the club maintains in Lebanon, N.H., on March 25, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • A snowmobiler turns around on a section of trail that the Twin State Trailbusters maintain in Lebanon, N.H., on March 25, 2014. A yearly New Hampshire snowmobile registry funds the approximately 120 snowmobile clubs in the state, who groom and create new trails. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

Lebanon — When winter lingers, it means more fun for members of the Twin State Trailbusters. For volunteers in the Lebanon-based snowmobile club, it also means more commitment.

Mark Gardner, now in his 24th year as club president, is one of seven state-certified trail groomers for the Trailbusters, a 45-year-old nonp rofit that maintains about 56 miles of snowmobile trails in Lebanon, Enfield and Plainfield.

Sharing two large snowcat machines — full-cab, tracked vehicles toting nine-foot-wide graders — a groomer is out almost every night of the week helping to smooth the area’s vast trail network extending over land owned by 40 landowners and used with their permission.

It may mean more grooming time and expenses (the Trailbusters’ limited state funding expired in early March), but Gardner doesn’t mind the extra time in the snowcat.

“It’s pretty peaceful, being out here in this thing,” said Gardner, a Methodist Hill Road resident who’s been a Trailbuster since 1988. The club’s diesel-fueled snowcat, a 2002 model, cost $185,000 before the groomer was added.

“It’s heated, there’s a radio and it’s got two halogen headlights, which can make the snow look really pretty on the branches at night after a fresh snowfall.

“We try to do the grooming at night, so that we’re not (encountering) as many snowmobilers. But we try to be done by 9 o’clock out of respect to the landowners.”

That latter clause is always a delicate balance for Gardner, who realizes how important the relationships are between the snowmobilers and property owners. After all, Trailbusters spend several thousand hours per year maintaining or using the trails, and 90 percent of all maintained trails in the area are on private property, Gardner said. One exception is the 10-mile stretch of the state-owned Northern Rail Trail.

State-wide, New Hampshire features about 7,000 miles of maintained snowmobile trails — compared with about 4,500 miles of highway roads — and between 80-85 percent of them pass through private lands, according to the New Hampshire Trails Bureau.

“The landowners are the key,” Gardner said. “That’s why I say that after safety, the most important thing is to ride with respect to property owners. We don’t have this great network that we do without their generosity. They allow us to maintain these trails on their private property.”

In the interest of safety, the Trailbusters advocated several years ago to widen the trails they maintain to nine feet from five feet. That meant persuading landowners to remove more trees, stumps and rocks from their property.

“I always try to meet landowners in person,” Gardner said. “It’s a partnership and an understanding that we develop.”

According to the New Hampshire Snowmobile Association, a 2010-11 impact study concluded snowmobiling generated $586 million to the New Hampshire economy that winter. The average rider spends $1,307 per year on the sport in gas, food, lodging and amenities, according to another report.

“The thing that’s so appealing about it for a lot of us is that you can go so many places,” Gardner said. “You can go up to the Canadian border, you can go down to Keene, and you barely have to leave the woods at all if you don’t want to.”

Aside from sweeping views of the landscape, there are many opportunities to spot wildlife during a typical outing, Gardner said.

“I’ve seen eight moose this year,” he said. “One of them was close enough to touch.”

Yet there is also plenty of access to towns and cities while snowmobiling. Most if not every town in the state is connected to the network at large, Gardner noted, and most clubs provide signs and junctions indicating the distance to villages or amenities.

As Trailbusters trail master and certified groomer Roger Kenyon said, sometimes finding Main Street is more important than the desire to visit a tourist destination or grab a snack.

“Every once in awhile, it might be getting late and you’re just wondering where the closest place to get gas is,” Kenyon said with a chuckle. “That’s why you’ve got to plan ahead. It’s like putting together a puzzle sometimes.”

Snowmobiling has its dangers. Last weekend was particularly precarious in northern New England, with the sixth snowmobile-related fatality in Maine this winter and additional injuries in both Vermont in New Hampshire. On March 19, an Enfield woman and a snowmobiler were injured after the latter swerved to avoid her on the Northern Rail Trail.

“There is a lot of important safety things to account for when you’re snowmobiling, and that’s at the core of our mission as a club,” Gardner said. “You’ve got to dress for the weather, you’ve got to wear a helmet and you’ve got to stay on your side of the trail. You have to realize that there are other people out there. There are walkers, cross country skiers, sometimes mountain bikers, and you’ve got to be alert.”

Another hurdle for some potential riders is expense. New machines cost between $8,500 and $1,200, to say nothing of fuel and maintenance. Snowmobiles run for about 15 miles per gallon, Gardner said, adding that industry efforts are underway to improve efficiency.

“Unfortunately, a lot of families can’t afford it,” he said. “You could say that it’s a middle class sport.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.