It is a midwinter midnight in the north woods. Venus and the waxing crescent moon shed blue-white light on snow-laden hemlocks. The frozen forest is silent--except for a distant thrumming, which amplifies as a line of 5, 10, 20 buzzing machines come beetling over the ridge, then vanish in a cloud of snow crystals and blue smoke.
With the gray light of dawn comes a fine snowfall, sifting onto the shining black cowls of 40 sleds herded like Angus steers in the courtyard of the Pine Knoll Motel in Old Forge.
Acrid Smell of Exhaust
Soon the air at the Pine Knoll and dozens of similar establishments is filled with the roar of pull-start engines and the acrid smell of oily exhaust as a thousand riders in crash helmets and Thinsulate snowsuits head out for a day of hurtling down the airstrip, bumping along the moguled shoulders of highways suited more to sled than car, or cruising from lake to lake and inn to inn along more than 500 miles of 12-foot groomed and mapped trails.
Welcome to the town of Webb, "Snowmobile Capital of the East."
"This used to be a ghost town in winter, deader'n old Sam Hill," says Bill Marleau, interrupted in midafternoon as he pens an epistle to the town council concerning the machines that hum past the little red cabin on Big Moose Road where he has lived for most of his 62 years. "Some folks may think it's better now, but I'm different--the way it used to be suited me just fine."
But Marleau, it appears, is in the minority. This town in the snowy western foothills of the Adirondacks, including the hamlets of Old Forge, Big Moose, Eagle Bay, Beaver River, Number Four, Stillwater and Inlet, has worked hard to build a national reputation as a snowmobiler's mecca, luring 10,000 riders a year from all over the East.
Brunt of Criticism
Bob Hall, publicity director for the town of Webb, credits himself as the driving force behind the region's growth into a major winter tourist resort--and takes the brunt of the criticism from riders who rankle at paying $25 to use trails that once were free and taxpayers who each year fork out the $46,000 difference between the income from permits and the expense of land leases, four grooming machines and full-time trail crew.
"Snowmobilers spend more money, in terms of food, lodging, gas and equipment than any other sporting group," says Hall, speaking above the whine of machines zipping past his office at Old Forge's Tourist Information Center, where snowmobilers come to buy trail permits, make reservations at area lodges and inquire about snow conditions.
The town of Webb, with an average winter snowfall of 270 inches blowing off Lake Ontario, has attracted snowmobilers for two decades. But it wasn't until the town committed itself to building up both its trail system and its tourist accommodations that the sport took off, Hall says.
"We have one bank in town. In the early '70s, the total winter commercial deposits were about $300,000," says Hall. "Now, that's up to around $3 million. In 1968, we had six businesses open in winter, including motels, gas stations and restaurants. Now, there are more than 70."
10 Million Snowmobilers
According to the International Snowmobile Industry Assn., there are more than 10 million snowmobilers in the United States. In this country and in Canada, the groups says, they spend more than $2.1 billion a year on the sport.
In Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada, government-funded trail-grooming programs help promote the sport, says Hall, who also chairs the International Snowmobile Tourism Council. "Wyoming, Yellowstone, Vermont--they're all big with snowmobilers, too," he said.
But all is not rosy in the snowmobile tourism business. A thaw at the wrong time can be devastating. This past New Year's weekend, one of the busiest times of the season, Old Forge was awash in rain and 36 inches of melted snow. "We lost $300,000 worth of business," says Hall. "The last two, three winters have been unusually mild--last year's thaw in February cost us the big President's weekend."
In addition, participation in the sport has declined since the late '70s as the machines have soared in cost, ranging from $1,500 to more than $5,000, Hall says.
Dependent on Sledders
Nevertheless, the proprietors of the mostly family-run businesses in the town of Webb say that without the sledders, many of them would not be there.
"Without the snowmobilers, the town of Webb is nothing," says Carl Muller, gravel-voiced owner of the Glenmore Hotel on Big Moose Lake. "We need 'em bad. You can't live on summer business alone anymore--expenses are too high."
Muller accentuates his gaunt and bearded Abe Lincoln looks with a stovepipe hat as he hustles to serve the husky hordes who leave their Cats and Yamahas under the big pine outside the rambling inn, pile their helmets in the mud room, peel their insulated coveralls to the waist and warm themselves at the granite hearth before digging into thick slabs of prime rib and foamy mugs of brew.
Mike McMahon, a construction worker, has come with 11 friends 300 miles from Buffalo, where there is more than three feet of new snow but "no trails like these."
'80 Miles an Hour'
"These sleds will go more than 80 miles an hour on a good packed trail, with a little fresh powder for lubrication," says McMahon's companion, Donald T. Radder, squinting out of his wool balaclava to watch a bullet-shape form catapult down the airstrip, sending up a rooster tail of snowdust.
The gatherings on the runway tend to scatter when Dan Appler and Russ Brombacher sidle up on sleds outfitted with blinking red headlights, two-way radios and the logo "Town of Webb Police" in place of the usual pin striping --the Adirondack version of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The police enforce the 20-m.p.h. speed limit on the highways--there is no limit on trails--as well as other snowmobile rules, and help those who are injured in the woods.
Wayne Morgan, who with his wife Joan runs the Pine Knoll, left his job as a mail carrier near Philadelphia to buy the motel here after coming up to snowmobile for 10 years.
"Most of our customers are regulars, and we work hard to keep them happy," Morgan says. "We had a couple from Allentown (Pa.) just got married out on Trail No. 6, had 10 snowmobiles all decorated with pompons."
Also transplanted from Pennsylvania are Tom and Judy Smith, who own a Ski-Doo dealership in New Britain, Pa., and just opened a franchise in Old Forge that competes with Big Moose Yamaha in Eagle Bay.
Across the road from Smith Marine is yet another Pennsylvania transplant--Frank Bernat, Dartmouth graduate, non-snowmobiler, formerly an industrial engineer in Philadelphia. He came here with his wife Bev to start a summer fruit stand, which grew into the Farm Restaurant, where the family serves up hearty breakfasts to snowmobilers who crowd in before hitting the trails.
"They use Old Forge as a base and head out 50 miles in each direction," says Bernat.
Influx Not Appreciated
Of course, there are some who do not appreciate the annual influx of snowmobiles. Marleau, who was a forest ranger for 35 years, says the trails he blazed as a young trapper have been taken over by ruffians who roar from bar to bar all night and make Big Moose Road unsafe to drive.
Major Bowes, who with his wife, Diana, owns the Covewood Lodge and cottages on Big Moose Lake, sees both good and bad in the sport.
"Big Moose Road is basically a snowmobile trail that tolerates cars," says Bowes, a lean, tanned outdoorsman with thinning white hair. "I was run into the snowbank yesterday by a snowmobiler speeding along without a helmet--I assume he was drunk."