Local snowmobile clubs take to trails to see ‘nature at its finest’

  • Greater Whately Snowmobile Club members Paul Bordua, left, and Andrew Caron ride through a wooded section of trails in Whately. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Greater Whately Snowmobile Club members Heather Ament, left, and Chad Adams, set out for a day of riding in Whately. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Greater Whately Snowmobile Club members, from left, Paul Bordua, Chad Adams, Andrew Caron, and Sarah Belder ride through a section of trails in an open field in Whately. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Greater Whately Snowmobile Club member Heather Ament rides through a section of trails in an open field in Whately. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Greater Whately Snowmobile Club member Andrew Caron rides through a section of trails in an open field in Whately. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Members of the Greater Whately Snowmobile Club gather together before heading out on the trails in Whately. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Greater Whately Snowmobile Club member Paul Bordua rides through a section of trails in an open field in Whately. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Members of the Greater Whately Snowmobile Club line up for a photo before heading out on the trails in Whately. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Members of the Greater Whately Snowmobile Club ride through a section of trails in the woods in Whately. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Conway resident Mike Barlow, vice president of the Conway Snowmobile Club, starts off grooming the trails, using the club-owned Snow Rabbit 3, on the land across the street from Conway Grammar School before making his way to the rest of the 100 miles of trails the club maintains. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Conway resident Mike Barlow, vice president of the Conway Snowmobile Club, starts off grooming the trails, using the club-owned Snow Rabbit 3, on the land across the street from Conway Grammar School before making his way to the rest of the 100 miles of trails the club maintains. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Conway resident Mike Barlow, vice president of the Conway Snowmobile Club, starts off grooming the trails, using the club-owned Snow Rabbit 3, on the land across the street from Conway Grammar School before making his way to the rest of the 100 miles of trails the club maintains. Staff Photo/Dan Little

Staff Writer
Published: 3/22/2019 2:10:47 PM

This region’s picturesque rolling hills and sprawling wilderness were the bread and butter of New England poet Robert Frost. Add a healthy blanket of wintry precipitation, as the legendary scribe was known to do in his work, and thousands of snowmobilers are in their element.

Many belong to the snowmobile clubs of western Massachusetts, taking advantage of nature’s bounty whenever the sky dumps enough fluffy white stuff onto the landscape. Snowmobiling can be a form of sport, recreation or transportation enjoyed individually or with others.

“It’s a great outdoor experience. It’s bonding with each other, seeing nature at its finest in the winter,” said Sunderland resident Bob Sabola, president of the Greater Whately Snowmobile Club. “It’s a good time. It gets you outdoors. It takes you away from the electronics.

“It’s a special group of people that do this,” he continued. “We enjoy it very much.”

‘A great freedom’

Smithsonian Magazine credits Carl J.E. Eliason, from Sayner, Wisc., with inventing the precursor to the modern-day snowmobile. He received a patent for a “motor toboggan” in 1927, though the first patent for a snow vehicle was issued in 1896. In the interim, the idea was tinkered with by various people, including Quebec’s Joseph-Armand Bombardier, who eventually founded Bombardier Inc., the manufacturer of planes and trains.

Jeff Miller, president of the Conway-based Snowmobile Association of Massachusetts, said there used to be roughly 100 snowmobile manufacturers and now there are pretty much four — Ski-Doo, Arctic Cat, Yamaha and Polaris.

Miller said his family started snowmobiling in the late 1960s and he has been involved ever since. He said his parents often rode with friends after work.

“I ride with their kids,” he said. “Each generation sticks together. It’s just been a great family sport around here.”

Miller said snowmobilers often get in packs and spend weekend days traveling trails from one club to another, sometimes stopping to relax and cook up some hot dogs at a firepit. He said some families go on snowmobile picnics.

“It’s like riding a motorcycle on the snow,” Miller said. “It’s just a great freedom, to be outside, the wind blowing in your face, the cold, crisp air and just going to a destination.”

Miller said there are 31 snowmobile clubs statewide, with roughly 25 of them in the western part of Massachusetts, due to the area’s population density and rural terrain. He said there are between 5,000 and 8,000 SAM members every year.

Conway resident Mike Barlow, vice president of the Conway Snowmobile Club, said taking trails from Conway can lead you to places like Hawley, Savoy and southern Vermont.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “You get to see different areas.”

Family fun and community support

Deerfield resident Adam Sokoloski, whose father got him into snowmobiling, said snowmobiling is great not only for participants, but for the local economy as well. According to SAM, $65 million of revenue is generated by snowmobilers in western Massachusetts, mostly through the hospitality industry. And as vital as snowmobiling is to the regional economy, access to private trails is equally important.

Sabola explained clubs contact landowners and ask for permission to ride their trails, and most are more than gracious.

“Without them, we wouldn’t have a trail system,” he said.

Sokoloski said extremely generous landowners understand the snowmobile clubs are “stewards of the land, steward the trails.”

Snowmobiling is often something of a recreation heirloom — a sport passed down from generation to generation or a hobby to share with a spouse. Marcia Miller, Jeff’s wife, got into the sport after meeting her husband about 35 years ago. Marcia said snowmobiling is a primarily male-dominated sport, though there is always plenty of room for women.

“You have all kinds of women riders,” she said. “You have anywhere from the people that like to go as a group, you have women racers. It’s very broad.

“I love being outside,” she added. “Typically, it’s being outside where you normally would not be able to go on foot. The snowmobile takes you to places that normally you would never see.”

Bob Sabola’s son, Matt Sabola, is secretary of the Greater Whately Snowmobile Club.

“Snowmobiling, in our family, is huge,” he said. “We probably talk about it every day.”

Working year-round

Barlow volunteers for trail grooming and can often be found operating a club-owned Snow Rabbit 3. Snowmobile clubs, and SAM, run on membership dues and donations. Revenue is also generated from mandatory trail passes.

Barlow said maintenance virtually never ends, as volunteers in the summer and fall have to clear debris and fallen branches off the town’s roughly 100 miles of trails. The infamous 2017 Conway tornado, he said, resulted in several sections of impassable trails. But it’s worth it.

“You’re outside. You’re not inside. If you don’t do something in the wintertime, between November and April, it’s going to be a long winter,” he said over the hum of the running groomer he was using to prepare snow-covered land across the street from Conway Grammar School. “So, if you live in New England, you’d better find something to do in the wintertime.”

Local club members agree the season started off wet and bare, but conditions have improved and the past few weeks have been great.

Barlow said climate change seems to affect snowmobiling by dumping so much rain.

“Winters have changed,” he said. “Twenty-five years ago, it seems like you could start riding in November or December and ride right through March.”

Jeff Miller said that, like in many areas of individual passion, volunteerism in the snowmobiling universe is dwindling due to aging participants.

“I think it’s just the way of the world right now,” he said. “We all have to try to work to get the youth involved so we can continue to do these sports that we love so much.”

Marcia and Jeff Miller, who live in Leyden, belong to the Bernardston Gill Leyden Snowmobile Club. Marcia encouraged anyone interested in taking up the sport to contact their local club.

Barlow agreed that the Conway Snowmobile Club is always interested in recruiting new members, and you don’t need to live in Conway to join.

Visit SAM’s website at sledmass.com to buy a trail pass, make a donation or find a comprehensive list of the snowmobile clubs in the state.

Domenic Poli joined the Greenfield Recorder in 2016. He covers Sunderland, Whately, Conway and Deerfield. He can be reached at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.




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