Reported by JOAN JOSEPHSON
OBSERVER Staff Writer
Remnants of the snow it brought to Western New York and the Chautauqua County region lie in scattered lumps that are slowly melting into the warming earth. Snowmobiles that once ran over the groomed snow covered trails are being put up for another year.
All in all, it was a good year for snowmobiling.
Chautauqua County Sheriff's Deputy Sgt. Jack VanZile, who heads the navigation department said there were 23 snowmobile accidents during the 2009-10 season. One of those was a fatality when a snowmobiler hit a tree on Long Point State Park.
"We investigated between two and three accidents a weekend," he said.
For the first time in several seasons, he adds, no one went through the ice into any of the area's lakes.
"We never, ever tell anyone the ice is safe," he said, noting snowmobiles weight between 500 and 700 pounds.
What causes the accidents on the trails? Sgt. VanZile ticks off the reasons.
"Speed, alcohol and drivers' inadequate knowledge of the trail area," he said.
There are sleds that can travel as fast as cars and like cars, need to be kept under safe, sober control.
The trails are maintained by snowmobile clubs and are signed to indicate what lies ahead, but snowmobiles don't stop as quickly as a car and this creates problems, Sgt. VanZile said.
The sheriff's reports on the snowmobile accidents that occurred each year substantiate this. Sleds have run off the trails and hit trees or have tipped over when an unexpected module is hit.
According to its Web site, the main purpose of the Chautauqua County Sheriffs Snowmobile Patrol is to insure safety on the numerous snowmobile trails in this county.
The patrol prides itself in its presence on the snowmobile trails and its work as an agency that will help the public. This is accomplished by education, snowmobile inspections for required equipment, search and rescue operations, and enforcement of the New York State Park and Recreation Laws.
The snowmobile unit is partially funded by New York State reimbursement from snowmobile registration fees to help offset the costs to the Sheriff's Office. These fees also help the area's snowmobile clubs maintain the trails in Chautauqua County.
Chautauqua County snowmobilers became up in arms this past winter when Gov. David Paterson's proposed to make up a budget shortfall by appropriating $1 million from the state's Snowmobile Trail and Development Maintenance Fund.
An estimated 1,000 snowmobilers turned out for the eighth annual Snowmobile Ride-In at the Chautauqua County Firemen's Grounds in Stockton to share their protest about Paterson's proposed use of these dedicated snowmobile funds.
Ray Head who chaired the Ride-In said the snowmobile clubs in Chautauqua County maintain 410 miles of trails at no cost to the taxpayers.
"We use equipment purchased with the funds raised through snowmobile registration fees," he explained.
The trails are maintained by volunteers who use trail grooming machines which, according to Head, cost upwards of $65,000 apiece, used.
Members of snowmobile clubs pay $45 to register their sleds with $35 of that going to the state's Snowmobile Trail Development and Maintenance Fund.
The sheriff's snowmobile unit offer classes free of charge to anyone under the age of 18 and each year, schedules these courses at various locations.
According to state law, anyone under the age of 18 years old must have taken and completed a New York State snowmobile safety course and carry their certificate with them at all times while operating a snowmobile. Anyone between ages 14-18 with a valid safety certificate can operate as an adult. Anyone between ages 10-13 with a safety certificate can operate a snowmobile but they must be accompanied by a person 18 years old or older.
As a last piece of advice, Sgt. VanZile says its wise to make sure snowmobile sleds are properly maintained before they are stored for next season.
Snowmobilers, no doubt, are biding their time until it returns.
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