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Mr. and Mrs. Frank Look watched apprehensively as a snowmobile snapped and snarled its way up the frozen Chandler River in Jonesboro, Me. The Looks knew that the river ice was thin in spots, nonexistent in others, and at the first faint sound of the vehicle's engine they had phoned around for help. Now, as the couple watched, the snowmobile reached a hole in the ice and disappeared. Rescuers worked for days and found nothing. Six weeks passed, and still nothing was found and no one was reported missing. Thus the booming winter sport of snowmobiling had its first mystery. Several weeks later it chalked up its first fatal head-on collision—snowmobile to snowmobile. It had long since registered its first snowmobile-auto deaths, its first mangled children, its first wholesale vandalisms on snowmobile-back, its first wild animals chased and hounded to death, its first rapes of the primeval wintry silence of the forest. The snowmobile was abroad in the wilds, and almost everywhere it went there was trouble.
As usual, Americans (and Canadians, too, for that matter) are acting on the familiar notion that anything worth doing is worth overdoing. Something like half a million snowmobiles will be sold this winter season, and more than one million are now on the trail. In snow-country states like Michigan and Wisconsin and Minnesota, it is all but impossible to escape the din of the snow vehicles on weekends, and grumbling voyageurs on skis and snowshoes must proceed at their own risk. So must birds and animals. In some places wildlife is proceeding due north, out of range of the snow vehicle, but also out of range of natural and familiar habitats. If the trend were carried to absurdity, game animals would congeal in a tight, quivering pack atop the North Pole. But snowmobiles would not be far behind. They can reach the North Pole, too, as the Plaisted Expedition of 1968 proved.
It will surprise no sincere student of the outdoors that another potentially boonful and pleasurable invention is being used for the wrong reasons by the wrong people in the wrong places. Like its fairweather cousin, the trail bike, the snowmobile can take people where people do not belong. But unlike the trail bike, the snowmobile knows hardly any limitations. The first three-inch snowfall of winter turns the whole countryside into a broad, navigable highway. At a time when everyone else is closest to immobility, the snowmobiler is at his most exhilaratingly free. And uninhibited. And dangerous. The first person he menaces is himself. Consider:
•The sports-loving wife of Quebec's minister of highways led her three children on a snowmobile safari. Under the wheels of a truck, she became Quebec's 32nd snowmobile death of this winter.
•Two snowmobilers were crushed by a freight train near Stratford, N.H. The pounding of their machines kept them from hearing the train; the camouflaging screen of snow thrown up by the snowmobiles obscured them from the engineer's sight.
•In Vermont a snowmobile snapped a chain across a trail. The chain whipped back and killed a snowmobiler following close behind.
•A middle-aged man drowned when his snowmobile went through the ice on Ripogenus Lake in Maine. Rescuers discovered that the speeding machine had traveled 1,000 feet on quarter-inch ice before breaking through.
In the early, primitive days of snowmobiling, such accidents were considered rare and freakish. Now they are considered common. So many snowmobilers have been getting themselves puréed by locomotives that the Chicago and North Western Railway issued a statement reminding the public that "the snowmobiler invariably loses in the event of an accident.... The attractions of railroad property under a heavy coat of snow are illusory." So many snowmobilers have died in collisions with cars and trucks that most states have banned the snow vehicles from the public way, but snowmobilers manage to die anyway—crossing the roads, like chickens, to get to the other side.
John Marsh, Maine's Safety Coordinator for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Game, is one of the few state officials with any data or perspective on the problem. Snowmobiling, he says, is demonstrably more dangerous than hunting. "I put 200,000 hunters or so into the woods a year and have only 50 accidents," Marsh says. "Last season there were about 20,000 snowmobiles registered and we had more than 300 accidents." According to the Ontario Safety League, "Snowmobiling may have the highest fatality rate of any recreational activity in the world." The $1.2 billion snowmobile industry is not oblivious to the problem. This year Bombardier (No. 1 in sales) will distribute more than 500,000 safety booklets, but one wishes that top snowmobile executives would stop making statements like this recent one: "When you think about the death rate, though, it's really not too bad. The industry is in its infancy and deaths are expected."
Certainly deaths must be expected, and every man should have the right to go to hell in his own fashion. But what about every man's child? In Palmer, Mass., 5-year-old Paul Thibodeau was thrown from a snowmobile and died of a fractured skull. Not far away, in Greenfield, Mass., 7-year-old Shawn O'Neill was caught in a whirling tread and crushed. A 10-year-old boy in Ashland, Wis. mangled his hand under a snowmobile and a 14-year-old boy in North Windham, Me. almost lost his right arm in a similar accident. Two Quebec teen-agers, lulled into a false sense of distance by the ease of snowmobiling, strayed too far from civilization and froze to death in a blizzard. Despite these and similar incidents, there is hardly a state or province with restrictions on the age of snowmobilers. If a child can see over the windshield (or even if hi cannot), he is eligible. When an 8-year-old boy broke his nose while running a snowmobile in Maine, his parents wrote on the official accident report: "Driving experience: two days." There are children as young as 4 and 5 chauffeuring snowmobiles, though the way accident rates are increasing they probably will not be chauffeuring them long.