Sledders

Dwight Balaun, of Burlington, rides with members of the Barre Town Thunder Chickens in Central Vermont recently.

Snowmobile sales and trail use across Vermont are strong despite both the pandemic and minimal snowfall in December.

Eric Bearor, general manager of Central Vermont Motorcycles, of Rutland, one of the largest a snowmobile dealers in the state, said sales so far this season are considerably better than last year. “We saw a 70% increase this January compared to last January,” he said. If sales through the rest of the season match January, total sales for CVM for the 2020/2021 season could be nearly 30% above last year.

Mike Beaudet, owner of Gilles Sales and Service, of East Montpelier, said snowmobile sales at his store also are solid. December was off somewhat but January has been very good. “Sales depend on the weather, when the snow conditions are good, sales are good,” he said.

Cindy Locke, executive director of the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, which has over 21,000 members, agrees with Beaudet. “We’re having a good season because the snow is phenomenal,” she said. She also attributes a move toward outdoor recreation as a contributing factor to the success this year.

Snowmobiling always has been pandemic-ready, she said. It’s an outdoor sport with face shields and masks long before masks were mandatory and social distancing on the trails is automatic.

Nationwide, snowmobile sales are up 16% compared to this time last year, according to Ed Klim, president of the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association based in Haslett, Michigan. Klim attributes part of the reason for the big increase to “pent-up demand.”

“I think people have been stuck in the basement long enough,” he said in reference to COVID-19 restrictions.

All four manufacturers — Polaris, Yamaha, Arctic Cat and Ski-Doo — report increased sales, Klim said. He predicts sales could reach 70,000 machines this season in the US. Last year sales in all three major markets, (United States, Canada, and Scandinavia) reported minor declines influenced by a shortened sales season with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sales in the United States were 51,036 new snowmobiles sold.

Vermont’s snowmobile clubs also are seeing renewed interest.

David Rouleau, president of the Barre Town Thunder Chickens, one of the 120 clubs that maintain the thousands of miles of trails throughout the state, said his club has several new members this year. Rouleau said the main reasons are because snowmobiling is a pandemic safe, family friendly sport and people want to be outside. “The trails are wide open and everyone is having fun,” he said.

Roy Arthur, vice president of the Shrewsbury Sno-Birds, said his club also has seen an uptick in interest and has gained new members.

“The parking lots are full. Everybody’s riding hot and riding hard. Everybody’s having a good time,” he said.

The good news this year follows negative press from a 2016 University of Vermont report that says declining snowfall in Vermont, a likely byproduct of a warming climate, is having a negative impact on the state’s $600 million snowmobile industry.

According to the report, shorter winters, less snow and an increase in the cost of the machines should result in a decrease in the number of people who snowmobile. The study, titled “Social Climate Change: The Advancing Extirpation of Snowmobilers in Vermont,” surveyed VAST members and asked them several questions, including whether people had noticed any signs of climate change, and if so, how that has altered their snowmobiling routines. Nearly three-quarters of respondents reported reducing their participation in snowmobiling in response to reductions they have noticed in the length of winter during which there is enough snow to snowmobile.

Klim says news reports on the possible demise of snowmobiling are wrong. He agrees in recent years the seasons have started slower than in the past, with December snowfall less reliable than 30 years ago, but on the other end the season has gone longer into April.

“Mother Nature has changed the sport,” Klim says, “it’s starting later but is going later in the year,” he said. The most important factor concerning the industry, he said, is changes caused by a warmer climate haven’t changed what draws people to the sport — the desire to spend time with family and friend and to be close with nature.

Mike Beaudet agrees. “More people are looking to enjoy the outdoors in a safe way,” he said.

Many of the new customers this year at Central Vermont Motorcycles have been people who have never used a snowmobile before, Bearor said, and several had “moved out of the cities” and had chosen snowmobiling as their new sport.

“Ninety percent of our increase is from customers who moved out of the cities and decided to buy a new toy,” he said.

Mark Reaves, a VAST board member and member of the Barre Town Thunder Chickens, summed up why he and his friend ride. “I’ve always loved driving the back roads of Vermont, Snowmobiling lets you see so much more of the state. It’s great to be outdoors.”

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