Winter 2015 Cover Story: Snowmobiling

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Text by Lorna Oppedisano | Photos by Lauren Harrienger

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For many, snowmobile culture is a way of life to beat the blues during long north country winters.

The dead of winter has the north country in its grips. Everything on the ground is some shade of gray or white. Any sign of life, save the occasional far-off bird call, has left the area. A bright, glaring sun shines down from the clear blue sky, a meek attempt at melting the heaps of snow, feet high in areas. But it’s no use. The burning ball in the sky is not a match for the crisp, almost biting, freezing winter air. It’ll be months before Northern New York breathes a gasp of warm, balmy air.

The conditions are perfect.

A machine roars to life in the distance. And then another. And another. Before long, a fleet of iron sleds races into view, caravanning across the gleaming paths carved into the snow, moving at speeds rivaling those of cars on a nearby county road. Perched atop the machines, the riders lean into the twists and turns of the trail. Each traveler is decked out from head to toe in layers of impenetrable snow gear. The sleds race in single file, and then, as suddenly as they appeared, they’re gone around the next bend, on to their destination.

Welcome to snowmobile season.

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Karen Yerden stands behind her snowmonile as she waits for her son-in-law, David Harrienger, to secure his helmet, while his father, Dave, Waits in the background.

Karen Yerden stands behind her snowmonile as she waits for her son-in-law, David Harrienger, to secure his helmet, while his father, Dave, Waits in the background.


The north country is famous for its summers. With destinations like Alexandria Bay and Clayton nested on the banks of the mighty St. Lawrence River, it’s no wonder that the tourist season blossoms during the warmer months. When you mention Northern New York to someone during the off season, the response is usually the same — wrinkled nose, doubtful stare and one dubiously muttered word: “snow.”

But those familiar with the wintry conditions know that to survive and beat the winter blues, you have to get outdoors, take control of the season and have some fun.

“In my lifetime, I used to ride motorcycles a lot. I’ve had ATVs. Jet skis. My biggest thrill is on the snowmobile,” said Gary R. Stinson, president of Sno-Pals Snowmobile Club. “It’s a fun sport. It’s a beautiful sport. It’s my favorite pastime. A good day on the snowmobile — I’d rather have [that] than a good day on the water.”

Mr. Stinson’s been riding snowmobiles for more than half a century. Before he retired in 2003 and became so involved in Sno-Pals, he would cover 3,000 miles a year. Since then, things have changed. Now he’s lucky if he and his sled see 1,000 miles a year. Even the weather has changed, Mr. Stinson said. The snow used to arrive and leave earlier; now the season often lasts well into March and even early April.

Sno-pals is responsible for the upkeep of 110 miles of trails in the Tug Hill Plateau area, covering Barnes Corners, Copenhagen, Montague, Adams and most recently added, Worth.

“We maintain excellent trails and have an excellent following,” Mr. Stinson said.

Those trails are only a portion of the 10,500 miles of paths that zigzag across the state. The club is one of the 260 clubs and associations in New York, 21 of which are in Jefferson, Lewis or St. Lawrence counties. Club members create and groom trails, maintain trail signs and more. Money for the efforts comes from membership dues, snowmobile registration fees and donations from members or nearby businesses, Valley Snow Travelers’s president Bill B. Tarasek explained.

The state fee is $45 per season for club members, and $100 for non-club members. Most clubs charge $25 per season.

The small group of volunteers who groom the trails is a low number compared with all those who ride during the season. Valley Snow Travelers work daily, weather permitting, to groom their 72 miles of trails on the Tug Hill Plateau, Mr. Tarasek said.

“It’s rewarding to get a nice trail when you’re done grooming, and see people enjoy themselves,” Mr. Tarasek said. “You always get the high fives and the thumbs ups.”

He explained that while it is gratifying, it’s also hard work, especially in the popular Tug Hill area, which gets much more snow than the rest of the state. As soon as you groom a trail, the longest of which can take eight hours to finish, there’s a chance a group of sleds will fly right over it.

But who’s to blame someone for wanting to be the first to cut new tracks and glide across that freshly glazed trail?

“They know [groomers] go out at 7 at night,” Mr. Stinson said. “They wait until 10, and they go out and ride all the fresh trails.”

Weaving around the bends and maneuvering over the dips in the dark might sound a little dangerous, but a lot of people purposely wait for the trails to be groomed before they head out, which means nighttime riding.

With the technology available, and the trail maps posted in every bar and restaurant, there isn’t much danger, as long as the riders are cautious.

“I have a sled that has a GPS on it,” Mr. Stinson said. “So I can load the trails into my system, and I can track myself along the trails.”

Just like a road for any other vehicle, snowmobile trails have a speed limit. It’s unlawful to ride more than 55 mph, or “at a speed greater than reasonable or prudent under the surrounding conditions,” according to the New York State Snowmobile Association’s website.

On a vehicle that doesn’t have the luxury of airbags like an automobile, and is much heavier than a bicycle, it’s especially important to know your way, know your conditions and know your speed.

“It’s like a glazed highway out there,” Mr. Stinson said.

David Harrienger zips up his outermost layer of warmth before hitting the trails near Redfield.

David Harrienger zips up his outermost layer of warmth before hitting the trails near Redfield.


A shelf is full of helmets at Tug Hill Hook & Ladder bar and restaurant. During peak snowmobile season, riders pack bars and restaurants near the miles of trails in the region.

A shelf is full of helmets at Tug Hill Hook & Ladder bar and restaurant. During peak snowmobile season, riders pack bars and restaurants near the miles of trails in the region.

People do respect their sled and ride safely, but that’s not to say there aren’t accidents. According to a 2013-14 season report by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, there were 12 fatal accidents between December 2013 and March 2014, and 1.78 reported accidents per 1,000 registrations, which equates to less than a 1 percent accident rate. The report states that most accidents are caused by unsafe speed, and involve collisions with fixed objects, such as trees.

Mr. Tarasek, who’s been grooming trails for 40 years, said that accidents are part of the sport.

“Speed is a major contributor when there is an accident,” he said. “Sometimes alcohol’s involved, but it is primarily the speed.”

Even safe riders like Mr. Stinson are in danger when other people on the trails don’t respect the rules and use caution.

“I got hurt years and years ago. I got hit by a sled and broke my ankle,” he said. “This guy came over the hill. I was in front of him crossing and he flew over the hill and hit me. It was his fault. He was going too fast.”

Mr. Stinson said that speed is a factor in every accident he’s seen, including the fatal accident that happened this season right outside Barnes Corners. People who aren’t familiar with the trails ride too fast and don’t realize what’s ahead of them. The most distressing part is seeing the people riding with them.

“It’s the saddest thing, because they’re never riding alone,” he said. “They’re always riding with a group. And you can imagine how they feel.”

When people think of the snowmobiling culture, bar-hopping often comes to mind, so bars and restaurants sometimes gets bad press when it comes to accidents. But as Mr. Tarasek and Mr. Stinson agree — and as the state report concludes — the bars aren’t to blame for accidents or fatalities.

“I see a lot of responsible people just drinking coffee or soda. Are the bars full? Yes,” Mr. Stinson said. “It’s terrific food business. I believe there’s drinkers out there who shouldn’t be drinking that much. But I think the bulk of riders aren’t drinking to excess, if at all.”

Signs mark the trails in Lewis County.

Signs mark the trails in Lewis County.


Tug Hill Hook & Ladder bar and restaurant welcomes snow riders by the dozens.

Tug Hill Hook & Ladder bar and restaurant welcomes snow riders by the dozens.

The adventure of snowmobiling does have its limitations. Flying across an endless expanse of snow for hours and miles can be cathartic, providing solace from the stresses of daily life. Whether you thrive on speed, cold or quiet, the need for food, conversation, company and, of course, warmth will eventually reign victorious. That’s where restaurants and bars like Flat Rock Inn or Montague Inn enter the scene.

Bars are more of a meeting place than a party scene for sledders. As much as the thrill of the ride attracts people to those powder-paved highways, it’s the camaraderie that really brings people out.

Snowmobiles are parked on the lawn outside the Flat Rock Inn, Lowville, on a chilly January Saturday afternoon.

Snowmobiles are parked on the lawn outside the Flat Rock Inn, Lowville, on a chilly January Saturday afternoon.

“Too bumpy? Quit crying. There’s no whining in snowmobiling,” a sign displayed in Flat Rock Inn declares.

Apart from a fleet of sleds parked in packs on the lawn, multiple trail maps lining the walls, and a storage area in the corner that overflows with helmets, jackets and other snow gear, Flat Rock Inn looks like your typical bar.

People are gathered around the wooden counter in the middle of the room, sipping on drinks while they share wings and the day’s stories. A pool table sits on one side of the room, illuminated from above by a swinging light, and flanked on two sides by overstuffed armchairs. A group of 20- and 30-somethings clad in hats and snow gear laughs and talks animatedly as they play through a game of eight-ball and warm up from the last ride. A young woman in pink snow pants hands her drink to a friend and leans in to set up the perfect shot.

The other side of Flat Rock is a little less populated. Picnic tables are spread throughout a dimly lit space, a few of them occupied by families and friends with heads bent in close over a basket of fries to discuss their adventures and determine the next destination.

Not everyone at Flat Rock or any of the other bars that line the trails knows each other’s names or stories, but they do have one important thing in common: the passion and need for this sport.

“Getting out, basically in the middle of nowhere,” Dennis A. George, a 17-year snowmobiling veteran from Syracuse, explained about his favorite aspect of the season. “From one small town to the next, getting warm at the bar.”

Mr. George gets out on his sled anywhere from three times a week to three times a year, depending on the weather. He trailered up this weekend to take advantage of the north country’s snow.

Whether in Central or Northern New York, Mr. George and his friend and sledding partner that day, Jen L. Crowley, know that the winter season can be grueling if you don’t get out of the house.

“If you live here, you have to have a winter activity,” Ms. Crowley said, adding that along with their snowmobiling outings, they have a trip to Mexico coming up.

But the call of the snow might be too strong, Mr. George joked: “We’re thinking about canceling the trip.”

For many people, snowmobiling is a family affair. Kevin J. Peck had wanted to try the sport since he was a child, but didn’t get the chance until about five years ago, when his son-in-law, Craig W. Bishop, introduced him to it. Now the snowmobiling trips they take with other family members are a time to get away and have fun.

Mr. Peck described his perfect day: “Nice, groomed trails. 25 degrees. Not a lot of traffic. Just a nice smooth ride,” he said. “It’s a nice family outing. And meeting people’s the best part, too.”

The riding is what attracts Mr. Bishop to the trails. While he does appreciate the fact that snowmobilers help one another, he prefers to go out during the week, when the paths are a less populated.

“The gorge and the views are very peaceful and nice,” he said.

Despite the tranquility that snowmobiling can offer, most would agree that it can be a dangerous sport. A day on a sled can certainly be tiring. There’s no doubt that it’s cold.

But it’s the only way — and the best way — that some Northern New Yorkers enjoy and embrace the season.

“Once you get on it, it’s insane,” said Mike R. Sierzenga, a sledder who traveled north from Syracuse with friends for the day.

The passion that glimmers behind Mr. Sierzenga’s eyes is palpable and contagious when he talks about snowmobiling.

“Adrenaline. Joy. Freedom. When you hit the woods, you get free. It’s a stress reliever,” he said with an ear-to-ear grin. “It’s everything. Everything you could ever want.”

Snow riders enjoy a game of pool at Flat Rock Inn, Lowville, after a long day on the trails.

Snow riders enjoy a game of pool at Flat Rock Inn, Lowville, after a long day on the trails.

Lauren Harrienger is a Johnson Newspapers graphic artist and photographer. For our cover story this issue, she hit the snowmobile trails to capture the essence of the sport and winter culture through her lens.

Lorna Oppedisano is a staff writer and editorial assistant for NNY Magazines. Contact her at loppedisano@wdt.net or 661-2381. Read her first person account of the trip here.