Riding the Trails–Snowmobiling is an exhilarating
On a brilliant winter’s day, nothing gets the blood coursing through a snowmobiler’s veins like riding on a freshly groomed trail. Sunbeams and tree shadows flash by as a pair of Skidoos wind through the woods and slice across frozen lakes. This kind of outing, and the camaraderie that travels along with it, is a surefire cure for cabin fever.
Last winter, I was looking for such a cure. I had never been on a snowmobile and was told that the best way to get started is to contact a local club and arrange for a ride. So I reach out to Brian Middleton of the Knox Trail Sno-Riders in Otis. Before long, I was on my way to meet him at the Grouse House, at the base of Otis Ridge Ski Area.
Brian tells me and photographer Jay Rhind about the Sno-Riders, incorporated in the early ’70s. The club owns grooming equipment and has 40 to 60 members at any given time. It’s all about meeting other enthusiasts, says Brian. “Snowmobiling is a very social sport.”
I ask him about trail maintenance, and he replies that the club keeps up miles of trails in and around Otis, where a person can snowmobile on about 80 miles of groomed pathways in a day. (It’s often safer to ride at night as you can see others’ lights, and on weekdays when there’s less traffic.)
“Most of our club rides are local, but some go to Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Quebec,” says Brian. “We also do a poker run for a fundraiser. You buy a poker ticket to enter, and there are five stations along the way. You have to stop at them and collect five cards. Best hand wins!”
Snowmobiling kicks into gear in late November or early December and goes to the end of March. Snowmobiles must be registered at the state Department of Motor Vehicles. A Massachusetts Trail Pass also is needed and can be obtained at any snowmobile club in the state, or at certain convenience stores, restaurants, and gas stations. The fee is $55 before December 15, and $70 afterwards. And you can’t cross a road without a driver’s license, says Brian.
“The coolest things I ever saw were a lynx and a catamount in Tyringham,” he says.
On queue, we all peer out the large windows and catch the sun glinting off the snow. We settle our bill quickly, step outside and into the crisp blueness of a perfect winter’s day. Just up the hill is Brian’s home where two Skidoo snowmobiles are standing by: a two-stroke 600GSX (two–stroke means you add the lubricating oil to the gasoline) and a four-stroke (oil is added to the engine separately) GSX1200. Brian carries safety gear such as a towing strap, a fire starter, an engine belt, and a self–heating blanket. “It’s all about safety,” he says. “We tell people to always stay on the trail.”
We strap on our helmets and Jay, who had some snowmobiling experience, hops aboard the more powerful GSX1200. I climb onto the seat behind Brian on the GSX600. He turns and tells me that we would go south across Route 23, cross some hilly terrain, and enter the Otis State Forest. He also says we would intersect the old Knox Trail, the club’s namesake. It’s named after Colonel Henry Knox, whose men in the Revolutionary War hauled cannons from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston over this trail. That forced the British to abandon the city in early 1776.
The engines roar to life and we cross the road to enter the woods. I am a little skittish at first and tell Brian to keep it slow until I get used to the speed and the swaying on the curves. I soon relax as he is a very steady and smooth driver. Jay follows us on the other motorized sled, and with my arms wrapped tightly around Brian’s waist, the fresh air fills our lungs as long, spindly trees streak past us. We descend, cross a shallow marsh, climb another steep hill, and head through more sun-dappled woods to the Knox Trail. We turn left and quickly find a bridge over the outlet for Upper Spectacle Pond. We stop, and the pond’s wide open frozen expanse stretches out before us.
Brian says that we will go out on the pond as the ice was plenty thick. (A note of caution: Always be sure that the ice is thick enough, be sure that it’s been cold for a long time, and follow an established trail if there is one.) Then I have an opportunity to drive a snowmobile.
I straddle the seat on the 600GSX, settle into it, and place my gloved hands on the handlebars. I am to steer it just like a bicycle. My right hand is on the throttle and my left hand is on the brake. I advance the throttle, the engine starts, and I begin to go, heading for the middle of the pond and the island in the distance. The snowmobile holds a straight line, and as I turn, it is very responsive. I am surprised that I could handle it that well.
We stop in the middle for some pictures, and then Brian asks me to follow around the island. I turn, pick up speed, and cruise around the island a few times as the pristine pond glistens. It’s absolutely glorious. It’s time to head back, so we drive to where we enter the pond and I navigate across the historic Knox Trail.
The deep woods and groomed trails await you. Call the Know Trail Sno-Riders persiend Jeff Gamelli at 413-427-8609, or their “sno-phone” at 413-931-3000, or got to knoxtrail.com