By KALEY FECH
Capital News Service
LANSING — Snow is flying, and Michigan’s snowmobilers are gearing up to hit the trails.
Traffic on the trails took a nosedive during the recession but was up last year. Bill Manson, the executive director of the Michigan Snowmobile Association, is optimistic the uptick will continue.
“We had a good year last year,” he said. “We actually had about 11,000 more snowmobile permits sold last year than the year before.”
And he said this year, preseason sales of trail permits are up substantially.
“This October, trail permit sales are up 43 percent from October of last year,” said John Pepin, the deputy public information officer for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Marquette. “Based on that one month of permit sales, if that trend continues, then we should have a good winter season.”
The success of the sport is triggered by weather, he said. If there’s a lot of good snow for riding, the department tends to sell more trail permits. If not, sales go down.
Although weather is unpredictable, Manson, whose association is based in Wyoming, a suburb of Grand Rapids, said the forecasts he’s been looking at predict more snow for this year than last.
“I think everyone’s pretty upbeat,” he said. “And now with this early shot of cold and snow, everybody’s thinking that this could be the year where we have good snow the whole season.”
But like Yogi Berra once said, forecasting is very difficult, especially when it involves the future.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in fact is predicting a mild winter, with warmer temperatures and drier conditions for the Great Lakes region. However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be snowstorms.
“Even during a warmer-than-average winter, periods of cold temperatures and snowfall are still likely to occur,” the agency said in a press release.
Pepin said one of the best weeks to judge if the season is good is the one between Christmas and New Year’s.
“That’s a big riding week,” he said. “A lot of people have vacation during that time and people may travel from other states to where the snow is.”
Snowmobile renting has become more attractive even as the price of sleds increase, he said.
It’s sometimes hard to justify a $10,000 or $12,000 snowmobile for four months of the year, so renting is becoming more and more popular,” Manson said.
Many people still own their own, though.
Rich Crawford, a sales representative at Chippewa Motors in Sault Ste. Marie, said he expects to sell just as many sleds this year as he did last year.
Last year, 283,884 snowmobiles were registered in Michigan, according to the Secretary of State. A three-year registration costs $30. That number is down from 2007, when 390,168 were registered.
Snowmobilers using public trails are also required to purchase a $48 annual trail permit from the DNR.
Michigan is seeing a lot of snowmobile traffic from neighboring states and from Canada, Manson said.
“We’re actually getting a lot more coming across from Canada, either in Sarnia or up in Sault Ste. Marie because it’s cheaper to snowmobile in Michigan than it is in Canada,” he said.
A seasonal permit in Ontario is $190 Canadian before Nov. 1, according to the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs’ website.
Traffic from other states is good for Michigan’s tourism industry.
“They’re filling up the hotels, eating at the restaurants,” Manson said. “It’s so popular that sometimes it’s a little frustrating because you can’t at the last minute decide to go up north and go snowmobiling for the weekend because you can’t find an empty hotel room.”
Snowmobilers bring in revenue for local businesses, said Whitney Warstler, director of the Keweenaw Chamber of Commerce.
“We definitely see an influx of people in the winter,” she said. “Once we get a lot of snow, it really helps the economy up here.”
At the Lost Pines Lodge in Harrietta, most of the guests are from out of state, said Ann Kahner, the lodge’s manager.
“I have a lot of reservations already,” she said.
The lodge, near Cadillac, gets people from places like Grand Rapids and Detroit, but a lot of the time they just come for the day and then go home, Kahner said.
Lost Pines sits right along one of the trails and has a lodge, snowmobile rentals, a restaurant, bar and gas — everything one needs for snowmobiling.
A lot of riders will go out in the morning and ride from one bar or restaurant to the next, simply making a giant loop before returning to the lodge, Kahner said.
A wide range of people is out on snowmobiles, Pepin said. Families make a day of it, people use sleds to get from one place to another and groups like to get together to ride long, extended trips.
“There’s a lot of different reasons people ride, and there’s a lot of different age groups of folks that are involved in it,” he said.
Manson said he’s seeing more young people try it out, wanting something to do in the winter.
Michigan has more than 6,500 groomed snowmobile trails with more than 3,000 miles — one of the most extensive interconnected systems in the country, according to the Pure Michigan website.
“Snowmobiling is a great winter activity,” Pepin said. “It’s been popular for generations.”