Snowmobile safety: A deadly season on NH trails prompts warnings for riders
After last week's blizzard dumped up to 2 feet of fresh snow across New Hampshire, Fish and Game officials are expecting a busy weekend.
And after a deadlier than usual year on the trails, they're urging snowmobilers to obey speed limits and check weather and trail conditions before heading out.
New Hampshire usually has three or four snowmobile-related deaths a season. So far this winter, there have been six fatal accidents, including three people who drowned after their snowmobiles went through the ice on Lake Winnipesaukee on Feb. 11.
Snowmobiling is an important contributor to the state's tourism economy. A 2012 study by the Institute for New Hampshire Studies at Plymouth State University found the sport's economic impact is $586 million a year.
Maj. John Wimsatt from New Hampshire Fire and Game said the weather affects how many snowmobiles are registered here each year. This season, 46,732 snowmobiles are registered.
Of those, 30,722 belong to residents, most of whom (26,142) are members of snowmobile clubs. There are 16,010 registered to nonresidents, mostly from Massachusetts. And again, most (13,010) are club members.
Wimsatt said even as the number of alcohol-related crashes has dropped in recent years - he credits stepped-up enforcement - speed and inattention are increasingly factors in the accidents his officers see. And about a quarter of the 60-plus crashes officers have responded to this season involved rented snowmobiles.
Saturday, Feb. 11, was the start of Meredith Rotary Club's popular ice-fishing derby, and Lt. Brad Morse, a Fish and Game supervisor for the Lakes Region, was expecting a busy weekend. He had brought in five extra conservation officers to team up with his own officers, who know the area and are experienced in ice rescues.
Each year, Morse said, between 10 and 15 snowmobiles go through the ice, so that wasn't unexpected. "What's unusual is the people aren't getting out," he said.
The first tragedy happened in Moultonborough, where a local man was celebrating his 62nd birthday with friends from Massachusetts. The three men were riding together and decided to check the derby's leader board.
It was snowing and everyone's helmets were icing over, Morse recalled.
There was open water on the lake.
"It was snowing out, they couldn't see very good and ... they just didn't see it," Morse said. "When they did see it, it was too late."
The lead rider had told his friends if they kept the snowmobiles at 40 miles an hour, they'd be OK, Morse said. "That's the skimming speed," he explained. "That kind of leads me to believe he knew there was open water, or suspected it."
The first rider went into the water and lost his snowmobile, Morse said. He was about 1,000 feet from shore, and witnesses later told investigators they saw him hanging onto the ice, trying to get onto it but breaking through, over and over.
"Finally he just stopped moving, but his arms were on the ice and his head was above the water."
One of the riders behind him saw him break through and turned his sled hard to the right. He went into the water about 30 feet from shore, where the water was about 4 feet deep, and he made it to shore, Morse said. "He started knocking on doors and he eventually got a hold of somebody and called 911."
The man was the only survivor of the three friends.
By the time Tuftonboro's rescue airboat arrived, the first man was face down in the water and wasn't breathing, Morse said. Rescuers did CPR and got him into an ambulance, but he was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Meanwhile, rescuers saw a helmet in the water and no sign of the third man. Knowing it was too late to save him, Morse said, they called for submersible equipment with a camera to search for his body. "Typically, after an hour, if somebody's been submerged, it goes from rescue to recovery," he said.
That's when Morse heard the call that there were two more snowmobiles through the ice in Alton near Rattlesnake Island. A father and son from Mamaroneck, N.Y., were riding together.
The father's snowmobile was in the lead and was the first to break through, but he managed to keep his head above water by putting his arms on the ice, Morse said. Alton's ice rescue team was able to get a rope around the man to keep him afloat.
Some ice fisherman told Fish and Game officers they saw from afar what happened to the boy, who was 15. "They said when the son went through, he was crawling on the ice. He'd break through and come up again," Morse said.
The boy managed to make it about 50 yards, but he broke through again and "he never came back up."
Once again, Fish and Game was looking at a recovery operation, not a rescue, Morse said. And there was a big storm on the way.
"Once that storm came in, we probably wouldn't have been able to get them for another four or five days," he said. "We want to get that body as fast as we can and bring closure to the family and accomplish the mission," he said.
The next morning, conservation officers used a remote-operated vehicle to locate the boy and recover his body.
Morse said it's tough for conservation officers to deal with the death of a youngster. But he said, "They are very well-trained and proud of what they do."
Ice is always unpredictable, Morse said. "The conditions are variable and they're changing," he said. "Some of the worst years I've seen are years when we've had great ice and people think it's safe everywhere."
He's gone through the ice himself four times, once on a snowmobile, once on an ATV and twice walking; it's part of the job, Morse said. "Sometimes, we're trying to warn people or chasing people that are skimming."
Conservation officers are equipped with cold-weather gear, "float coats," and ice picks, and they train for going through the ice and getting out.
Morse rides with an ice chisel attached to his snowmobile. "If I look around and there's cars and trucks and people driving around, I don't worry about it," he said. "If I'm in an area where there's not very much activity, that's when I stop, cut a hole in the ice and measure it to see if it's safe or not."
Lt. Wayne Saunders is a Fish and Game supervisor in the North Country, where two fatal snowmobile crashes have occurred this year.
The first was on Jan. 26, when a 21-year-old rider from Kingston, Mass., struck an earthen dam at the edge of Boundary Pond in Pittsburg and went airborne before colliding with a tree.
Saunders said the man apparently didn't see the upcoming change in terrain. "He was coming off the lake and I don't think he realized it was the end of the lake," he said. "It was white on white and I don't think he saw that 2-foot transition spot. He just went flying."
The man was wearing a helmet, but his helmet flew off from the impact, something that Saunders said is all too common in such crashes. Alcohol wasn't a factor and there's no speed limit on the lake, he said.
"He was going fast where it's legal to go fast," he said. "It was a tragedy."
On Feb. 18, a 47-year-old rider from Georgetown, Mass, drove onto Route 115 in Jefferson and was hit by a car. He died three days later.
Saunders said in the remote terrain his officers patrol, his nightmare scenario is a crash with multiple victims. "To have more than two victims would really stress EMS and Rescue out," he said. "I don't have the resources to get those people out of the woods."
Safety video in works
Wimsatt said his agency is working with the New Hampshire Snowmobile Association to produce a video promoting safe riding; it will be distributed to companies that rent machines.
Officials and enthusiasts alike say snowmobiling is a safe, family-friendly way to enjoy the outdoors in the winter.
But Morse has a message for riders heading out on New Hampshire's lakes: "Be safe and be cautious."
"You have a responsibility to check the ice and make sure it's safe before you go out there," he said
Monica Pettengill Jerkins, executive director of NHSA, said safe riding means staying on the trails and obeying posted speed limits. "Don't drive faster than your headlight might be able to see," she said.
Volunteers from the state's 110 snowmobile clubs maintain most of the 7,000 miles of trails here and work with landowners to get access to private lands for trails, Pettengill Jerkins said. After last week's storm, club members were out grooming trails and removing hazards such as fallen limbs.
But it's not just fallen trees that can pose hazards, she said. "There could be a moose standing in the trail; you never know."
She encouraged residents and visitors alike to contact local clubs before heading out on the trails. "Reach out to where you're going to be riding, and make sure you become as familiar as you can with where you're going to be, and what the conditions are where you're going to be," she said.
"Spring riding can be a lot of fun," she said. "Just make sure you come home at night."
For trail maps, conditions and contact information for local clubs, visit nhsa.com.