The ideal day for Hal Fleishman is hopping on his snowmobile, riding 50 or 60 miles through the countryside, where he stops and has lunch, then riding another 50 miles to a restaurant for dinner.
“If you don’t spend $100 for a day’s ride, then you’re not really having a great time,” he joked.
He’s not the only one having a good time, if a glance at the sleds lined up outside Schunk’s West Hill Grill in Eden, the Fireside Inn in East Concord or at the gas pumps at the Country Fair in Springville on one of the last weekends for snowmobiling is any measure.
This year’s snow and cold has made for great snowmobiling throughout New York State – the first winter in a long time when you could go from Mayville to Lake Placid. Trails close April 1, if warm weather doesn’t close them earlier.
“Best year ever,” said Dave Jarnot of Blasdell, as he sat at the bar at Schunk’s with friends Tommy Walsh and Angelo Broadbent of Blasdell and Michael Zwick of Lake View, their snowmobiles parked in the snow outside.
In a state where 118,800 sleds have been registered this season, tourism officials and local clubs are looking for more. While the number is up about 3,000 over last year, there is a great untapped potential in the surrounding states and Canada, since out-of-staters account for about 15 percent of the total number of snowmobiles. The economic impact of the sport is estimated at more than $860 million a year, according to a 2011 study by SUNY Potsdam’s Institute for Applied Research.
New York State is hoping to attract more nonresidents this weekend, by waiving the $100 registration fee for those living outside the state.
“I’m totally convinced, if they come once, they’ll come again and again and again,” said Dominic Jacangelo, executive director of the New York State Snowmobile Association.
Even those who live here are staying here. Karen and Don Nuwer of Holland and Kathy and Chuck Kuchenbeisser of Wales usually snowmobile in Canada or the Adironadacks, but Saturday they went about 100 miles in Erie County, stopping for lunch at the Fireside Inn.
“We usually go to Canada, because the trails are not as good here, usually,” Karen Nuwer said. “I’ve never seen the trails this good here.”
“We went to the Adirondacks a month ago, and came back, and it was just as beautiful here, if not more. I would say probably better than the Adirondacks,” Kathy Kuchenbeisser said.
“The trails around here are probably the best they’ve ever been, because there was so much snow,” added her husband.
Western New York is the place to go, if you look at the number of registered snowmobiles. Erie County has more snowmobiles than any other county in the state.
Last year, nearly half of the nonresidents registering their snow machines hailed from Pennsylvania, according the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, while only 86 sleds registered came from out of the country, which includes Ontario, Canada. Snowmobiles must have liability insurance and be registered with the state Department of Motor Vehicles. It costs $100 to register a snowmobile in New York, unless the owner belongs to a local snowmobile club, then it is $45.
Most of the money from registration fees goes for maintenance of the trails, and this year the state awarded $4 million in grants generated from the registration fees.
Owners used to have to go to the DMV office in person to register their snowmobiles, until New York made online registrations available two years ago. Out-of-state riders also can register online if the snowmobile is registered in their home state. They can go online, print out a temporary registration and be out to the trails the same day. But Canadians still must go to the DMV during work hours, which leaves out that spur-of-the-moment decision to go sledding in the states.
Gary Lockington, one of the owners of Peak Power Sports, which sells snowmobiles in Oakville, Ont., said he skis in Ellicottville, but he has never brought his snowmobile with him.
“Ontario snowmobiling is some of the best in the world,” he said, adding that convenience and cost enter into the decision for many Canadians.
He said most would purchase registrations in Ontario, and probably would not want the added expense and trouble of registering a sled in New York, too.
“It’s already a very expensive sport,” Lockington said.
But this weekend the state is waiving the registration fee in an effort to boost local small businesses and promote the 10,400 miles of trails.
Fleishman, who is president of the Erie County Federation of Snowmobile Clubs, said the key to increasing use of the trails is to make it as easy to get a registration as it is to buy a fishing license.
“I can go across the bridge in Fort Erie and get a trail pass 24 hours a day,” he said. “You might decide on Friday afternoon to come to New York to ride. If you can’t get a registration, you’re not going to do it.”
He also said work needs to be done to encourage motels and hotels to “open their doors” to snowmobilers.
“Clubs are willing to work with hotels and landowners to put trails to their doors,” he said.