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Masks, social distancing and speed: Snowmobiles enjoy boom

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PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The thrill of hurtling along a remote trail, coupled with Americans’ ongoing desire to get outside during the pandemic, is creating the biggest boom in more than two decades for the snowmobiling industry.

From Maine to Montana, it’s becoming difficult to find a new snowmobile for sale. And the rental fleets are booked up.

“We’ve had some good years and some bad years, but we’ve never had anything quite like this one,” said Dave Jones at Jackman Powersports, who expects to sell about 450 snowmobiles this year.

Nearly a third of sales were to new riders, Jones said, and he would sell more snowmobiles if he could get more from manufacturers.

The U.S. represents the world’s biggest market for snowmobiles and Canada isn’t far behind, with an economic impact of more than $35 billion, according to the Michigan-based International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association.

And this year, the market is red hot just like the market for boats, bicycles and ATVs — anything that keeps people occupied, outdoors and safe during a pandemic that has pushed families indoors.

Snowmobile sales are expected to increase 15% to 20% this winter, the most since the winter of 1995-96, said Ed Klim from the manufacturers group.

Fed up and stir crazy, first-time buyers Tom Bobb and his wife plunked down more than $30,000 to get away this winter — on a pair of high-powered snowmobiles.

“The sled is a bit of an escape from the craziness of the world,” the Maine resident, referring to the pandemic that has claimed more than 400,000 lives across the United States.

Rob Hackett, another Maine resident, decided it was time to get on a snowmobile for the first time in a few decades. The 52-year-old and his wife view the sleds as a way to enjoy a safe activity with family and friends without worrying about COVID-19.

But they had to act quickly. “When we finally decided to buy sleds again, if you took any time to think it over, they were gone. It’s absolutely the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” Hackett said.

Snowmobile dealers tell a story that’s similar to retailers selling boats, bicycles and patio furniture.

With vacations canceled and people getting antsy, Americans began plunking down money to get outside, either through boating, bicycling, hiking or creating outdoor spaces.

But it doesn’t come cheap. The most inexpensive snowmobiles cost a few thousands dollars, but the price goes up from there. So does the speed, with the largest units easily gliding past 100 mph (160 kph) on wide open paths.

Unlike an expensive, one-time vacation, snowmobiling represents a family activity that can give back year after year — as long as there’s snow.

Those hoping to get outdoors have fewer options in the colder months. Skiing remains a favorite pastime in northern states, but downhill skiers face some pandemic-related restrictions at ski resorts. And many skiers don’t like the idea of waiting in lines with others during a pandemic.

For the most part, snowmobiling has fewer pandemic restrictions and offers riders an escape from people, riders say. The owners of more than 1.2 million snowmobiles that registered in the United States can ride wherever there are trails, and there are no lines.

“You can go when you want, where you want,” said Mike Tevanian, from West-Port Motorsports, a snowmobile dealer outside of Portland.

In Montana, Yellowstone Adventures doesn’t have a single snowmobile on the showroom floor, and rentals are up at least 20% from past winters, said Jamie Cosson, who manages the rental department.

The frenzy started in December and never let up. Despite some virus-related cancellations, business has continued to grow.

“It’s been a challenge just because of the unexpected increase in business,” she said, hastening to add that she’s not complaining.

Colorado Snowmobile & ATV Tours is seeing the same pandemic boom as people try avoid being “trapped in the house” and look for ways to address their restlessness, said Carolyn Schafer, who takes reservations.

“They just want to get outside,” Klim said. “They’re tired of sitting inside watching whatever lousy TV show they have on.”

By DAVID SHARP
Associated Press

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