At a somber Monday morning press conference, Roland “Dan” Martin stood up and said many of the same things he says several times each year.
Drive your snowmobile safely.
Don’t drink and ride.
Wear your helmet.
This time, the safety message espoused by commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife likely held a bit more weight.
Over a three-day period ending Monday morning, five snowmobilers died on Maine trails.
That, Maine’s acting chief game warden said, may be unprecedented.
“[We haven’t had a weekend this bad] since I’ve been a game warden,” said Maj. Gregg Sanborn, an 18-year veteran. That brought the season’s total to nine fatalities. The most ever recorded in Maine during a snowmobile season is 16, during the winter of 2002-2003.
In Shirley and New Sweden and Brooksville and Bremen and Ashland, five sledders lost their lives.
On Damariscotta Lake, four others dodged death Saturday when they ended up in the frigid water.
As the deadly weekend progressed, the governor had heard enough. He called Martin, and asked what was going to be done.
And Monday, Martin – along with representatives of the Maine Department of Public Safety, the Maine State Police and the Maine Snowmobile Association – met the assembled media and vowed to make a difference.
“Today, I am directing our acting chief warden, Maj. Sanborn, to increase our presence on the state’s snowmobile trails, especially in areas of the state where the traffic is heavy,” Martin said, before delivering a sobering punch line. “And as we all know, this year, that pretty much covers the entire state of Maine.”
The problem, as Martin later allowed, is this: There aren’t a whole lot of wardens out there.
“We have well over 100 game wardens that are certified and provide enforcement actions,” Martin explained. “But on any given day, because of scheduling and vacations and etc., we probably have 35 to 45 game wardens out in the field. We have limited resources. However, what I’m asking the major to do is to redirect our efforts and re-establish our priorities.”
That’s 35 to 45 wardens, stretched over 13,500 miles of the state’s snowmobile trail system, from Kittery to Fort Kent, Eastport to Jackman.
Sanborn accepted what obviously amounts to a huge challenge.
“We’re going to do the best we can by putting every game warden that we have working on the trails,” Sanborn said. “We just had a conference call on how we’re going to do that.”
Warden enforcement is an essential part of the equation, as is snowmobiler attention to an important detail: If you screw up … just once … it may kill you. It won’t matter if the wardens are watching or not.
Unfortunately, that message doesn’t seem to be getting through. Not now … not after five needless deaths in a 72-hour period.
And up until last weekend, Sanborn thought things were going well.
The warden service pays attention to snowmobile statistics, and year in, year out, the last weekend of February school vacation is a bad one. Usually, Sanborn said, there are fatalities. This year, there were none.
“Last weekend was great. We had very few minor accidents,” Sanborn said. “This weekend wasn’t so great. It will probably go down as one of the worst ones.”
Want to know how tough this safety nut is to crack? Try these facts on for size.
While Martin says the wardens will be making safety a priority in high-traffic areas, Sanborn admits only two of the most recent five fatalities occurred on what the Maine Warden Service refers to as “groomed trails.”
Otherwise known as, “high-traffic areas.”
Snowmobilers are everywhere. Bob Meyers, the executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, says there have been about 100,000 registrations sold in the state this year.
As of Feb. 24, only 10 of those 100,000 or so had been charged with operating a sled under the influence of alcohol.
And of those 100,000, nearly as many – nine – had died while driving their sleds.
Yes, the Maine Warden Service can change its priorities, and make rider safety its top concern for the rest of the winter. In light of recent events, that seems to make sense.
But until safety becomes the top priority of another group, it simply won’t happen. Sledders, after all, hold the ultimate responsibility.
Meyers says the statistics show about four out of every 1,000 registered snowmobilers will be in an accident in Maine each year.
That might mean that nearly all riders are either conscientious, or lucky, or both.
“It’s all about personal responsibility,” Meyers said. “You look at a lot of these accidents that happen and it’s all about making good decisions when you’re out there.”
Good decisions. Just as Martin keeps saying, at regular press conferences. Just as writers keep writing, in twice-a-year columns. Just as TV anchors keep announcing, after yet another fatality.
Say the right things often enough, and it might sink in, we figure.
“We’re talking about an activity that’s supposed to be fun,” Sanborn said, on a day that was anything but. “Snowmobiling is what people do for recreation. It’s meant to be a good time. And everything we’ve talked about today has to happen. People have to slow down. They have to be aware of the conditions.”
I’ll add another one for the major: They also have to be aware that it can, in fact, happen to them.
Just like it happened to five others who didn’t expect it.