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First work, then play

Before they can zip down snow-packed trails, volunteers with the Conway Snowmobile Club must roll up their sleeves

The white snow blanketed my toes with cold frost, chilling them as I searched the frozen forest floor. I saw a giant, broken tree branch cutting across the path of the trail. With one heave, I tossed the tree limb back into the dense forest.

Behind me I could hear the beeping noise of an excavator piercing the peaceful woods as it dug out dead tree stumps. The noise of a chain saw cut through the air as it sawed up fallen tree branches.

I was standing in the middle of a snowmobile trail in Ashfield with two members of the Conway Snowmobile Club: Ron Sweet of Conway and Paul Sokoloski of South Deerfield.

It was the morning after the first real snowfall of the season and it was probably the coldest morning of December so far. It would only get colder farther up in the hilltowns. And, we planned to head toward those hills to clear snowmobile trails for the winter season.

Wearing thin black yoga pants, UGG boots and a sweatshirt, I obviously hadn’t clearly understood what I had volunteered to do.

It was 9 a.m. on a Sunday when I first met Sokoloski and Sweet at the center of Conway on Main Street, where they conferred and agreed to work on Corridor 93 in the area of Deer Park.

On the Conway Snowmobile Club trail map, Corridor 93 stretches from West Whately to Ashfield. The trail passes by Whately Road to Shelburne Falls Road in Conway and onto Red Hill Road.

Since 1969, the Conway Snowmobile Club has maintained, cleaned and kept up trails throughout southern Franklin County. It currently takes care of about 120 miles of trails.

Snowmobiling took off as a sport in the 1960s and 1970s. At the time, local riders and farmers mowed tall grass and cleared paths for the popular pastime.

Forty-four years later, the club has grown to more than 400 members with almost 500 snowmobiles and it has become a close-knit community of families and friends.

Snowmobiling in Franklin County as it exists today wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the volunteer members of the local clubs, who work together to make riding safe and efficient.

Before snow falls to the ground and sleds hit the trails, there is much trail work that happens behind the scenes in the dense forests and miles of farmland. Most of the trail work happens during the fall in preparation of winter.

There are two main aspects to trail work — trail clearing and grooming. On that cold Sunday morning, I was helping to clear the trails.

Grooming happens after there is at least one foot of snow on the ground and involves packing down and smoothing out snow along the trails.

Every weekend from October to the first heavy snowfall, a group of club members meet in the center of Conway and disperse throughout the club’s trail system, clearing them using brush cutters, chain saws and their bare hands.

To reach the trails, they ride in excavators and the club’s official Kubota, a type of tractor. The trails can only exist during the winter season. State law allows the trails to be used legally only when covered by 4 or more inches of snow.

“There’s always a need for more volunteers,” Sokoloski said. “No matter where you are in New England, it is volunteers that do the work.”

Though he wouldn’t take credit himself, club members credited Sokoloski for building much of the equipment the group uses to clear and groom the trails. Sokoloski was honored as the 2013 trail worker of the year by the Snowmobile Association of Massachusetts.

The main tenet of the snowmobile club is respecting the rights of landowners. In the winter, the different snowmobile clubs must get permission from landowners to go on their land.

“We try to be as respectful and doubly cautious of landowners,” Sokoloski said as we drove higher up the hills of Conway. “Working with them is crucial.”

The relationships the club builds with landowners are like links in a chain, Sokoloski said. “What good is a chain without all the links?” he asked. “If you lose one landowner, it shuts down the whole trail. You lose that link.”

The trails aren’t for just anyone, however.

To not be trespassing on private property, a snowmobiler has to become a registered member of one of more than 30 local clubs that cover an area from Worcester County to Berkshire County. If one chooses to be a member of an affiliated club, they must also be a member of the Snowmobile Association of Massachusetts or SAM, according to state law.

SAM membership gives riders permission to ride on the trails that cross private property. Without it, riders must obtain permission from private landowners themselves or risk being charged with trespassing.

Riders in Massachusetts must also be at least 14 years old and at least 16 to cross public highways.

The interconnectedness of the clubs make it safer and easier for riders to sled throughout the state’s 1,100 trails. Other local clubs include the Bernardston-Gill-Leyden Snowmobile Club, the Buckland Riders Incorporated, the Colrain Sno-drifters, the Greater Whately Snowmobile Club, the Hilltown Snowmobile Club, the Northfield Snowmobile Club and the Porcupine Ridge Runners in Shutesbury.

Each club has its own monthly meeting dates and individual websites. “Everyone does an awesome job on the trails,” Sweet said. “It makes it good to do long trips.”

“It’s a very small community,” Tim Pydych, owner of Ray’s Cycles in Greenfield and member of the Bernardston-Gill-Leyden Snowmobile Club, said. “Being a small county in a small world, there’s always someone you run into.”

The Conway Snowmobile Club meets the first Monday every month from Labor Day until April at the Conway Firehouse, said Sweet, who is also the club’s president.

The annual membership fee for the Conway club is $60 per year per sled, which includes the $30 for SAM membership and a trail permit. The remaining funds support the local club, which must pay dues to SAM, incorporation dues to the state and register grooming sleds.

The club holds several fundraisers throughout the year. It has a booth at the Conway Festival of the Hills and hosts an annual Snow Dance. This year’s Snow Dance was held at the Polish American Citizens Club in South Deerfield. In February, the club holds a pancake breakfast at the Conway Firehouse.

The snowmobile community also becomes a boon for local restaurants during the winter months, the state association says. During rides, snowmobilers stop in groups for lunch and dinner at area restaurants.

According to SAM, a 2003 study by the University of Massachusetts credits snowmobiling with contributing $54.7 million per year to the state’s economy.

In the middle of the forest by Deer Park, I watched as Sokoloski moved expertly in an excavator to ready Corridor 93 for the season. To my relief, I got to hop into the warm Kubota with Sweet and we took off across the bumpy wooden terrain, examining the trail for fallen tree limbs that could cause problems for a rider. Several times, Sweet retrieved his chain saw to cut up a frozen branch blocking a path and we then chucked the limbs deeper into the woods.

In the Kubota, Sweet and I bumped along the meadows of Ashfield into the farmlands of Conway, traveling by the power lines that stretch from Conway to Deerfield. My head almost hit the ceiling of the small cab several times and my arm was growing tired of gripping the handle of the door tightly. At one point, the Kubota front window flew open and Sweet’s gloves were flung outside. A Kubota definitely isn’t made for weak stomachs.

As we bumped across the trail, a small deer glided by and a pack of large turkeys squawked.

In the middle of nowhere in Ashfield, the beauty of the flowing farmlands and the dense forests surprised me.

I could see that getting to speed across farmlands and through thick woods on a snowmobile could take you places you wouldn’t normally see by foot or car. It was breathtaking. And fun.

Staff reporter Kathleen McKiernan has worked at The Recorder since 2012. She covers Deerfield, Conway, Sunderland and Whately. She can be reached at kmckiernan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She can be reached at tcrapo@me.com.

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