With the cancellation of a major fundraiser, snowmobile clubs responsible for maintaining thousands of miles of trails are worried about their finances.
The three-day New Hampshire Grass Drags and Watercross in Fremont hosted by the New Hampshire Snowmobile Association is held over Columbus Day weekend and often attracts nearly 40,000 snowmobile enthusiasts, but the coronavirus pandemic forced the organization to hit the brakes this year.
The event features snowmobiles drag racing in a field and across a pond, with vendors selling gear and other merchandise.
“This is devastating to the association and to the clubs that participate at the event,” said Dan Gould, the association’s executive director.
Snowmobiling is a nearly $600 million industry in New Hampshire, and much of it depends on Mother Nature and the many clubs around the state that work together to keep the more than 7,000 miles of trails groomed.
The association counts on about $100,000 from the drag event to support its operations while it gives another $60,000 each year to various clubs whose members volunteer at the event. That money helps the clubs pay for trail maintenance and additional expenses.
Other clubs also operate food stands and bring in an additional $40,000.
The Colebrook Ski Bee’s Snowmobile Club, which is one of the food vendors, will take at least a $10,000 hit.
The club spends about $100,000 a year to maintain 150 miles of trails in the Colebrook, Columbia and Stewartstown area. The funding comes from the state, membership dues and fundraisers like the grass drags, which is its biggest event.
“We haven’t come up with an idea of how to replace it yet,” said Gail Hanson, the club’s membership secretary and treasurer.
But Hanson said the club is determined to find a way to make sure the trails are still maintained this winter.
“The Ski Bees will find a way to do it. If we have to take money out of our savings account, our trails are going to be just as good as they were last year,” she said.
The state grooms several hundred miles, while the clubs take care of the rest.
Clubs receive some funding for maintenance from the state through its grant program, but many also log volunteer hours to get the job done.
“The reality is the clubs can’t survive without us, and we can’t survive without them,” said Chris Gamache, chief of the New Hampshire Bureau of Trails.
The state will be working with the clubs to see how it can assist them given the financial losses they’ll face, Gamache said.
The snowmobiling season is critical to the North Country.
“If you don’t have a season up north, businesses are going to go under,” Gamache said.
Representatives from the New Hampshire Snowmobile Association met with Fremont town officials earlier this month and proposed a scaled-down version of the event.
“The town made it clear that they didn’t feel it was best. In our eyes that was OK. We fully understand. It’s not like we walked into that not knowing the possibility,” Gould said.
He said the association is reaching out to clubs to see what their losses will be and how the cancellation will affect them.
“Knowing that most clubs typically do not have enough money to maintain their equipment, losing that kind of money is going to be quite a blow,” he said.
The Southern New Hampshire Trailblazers, a Kingston-based club, expects to be out thousands.
“We do anywhere between $7,000 and $10,000 a year of fundraising with (the grass drags) with all the volunteers we have. We put that back into the club to try to find a groomer or just fix the one we have so we can get out there and groom the trails and make them good for everybody. It puts a damper on that,” said Sona Philpott, the club’s secretary and an avid rider from Kingston.
She encouraged more riders to become club members to give them a financial boost.
Philpott’s husband, Brian, said his group will have to tighten its belt and dip into savings, but he insisted the trail work will somehow get done.
As disappointing as it was to learn that the drags were off, he said, “Everybody knows that it’s the responsible thing to do until this crazy virus goes away.”
Windham snowmobiler Dave Curto, a member of the Pelham Border Riders, fears another fundraiser his club was hoping to hold just before Halloween may get axed.
He and other riders are also concerned about a possible second wave of the virus forcing the closure of trails and businesses like restaurants and other services along the trails.
“If COVID takes a second spin, as they predicted it’s going to come back, is that going to affect the beginning of the season this year? Are things going to be closed? Nobody can predict what’s going to happen,” he said.