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And So It Begins, But What About the Cost?

By Jim Duke

The early snows that fell in late October got many snowmobiler’s thumbs twitching. Visions of adventures over snow-covered landscapes came just a bit sooner than usual but were exciting just the same. With more than a month to go before the snowmobile season officially begins, most avid snowmobilers have already completed the pre-season maintenance on their favorite sled and the trailer that will carry it to that first ride. A couple of items can be easily missed, however, and if not caught prior to that first outing, can turn an enjoyable adventure into an unfortunate and costly one.

We always look at the mechanical elements and make sure all is in good operation. We’ve changed the spark plugs and drive belt; we’ve checked the oil reservoir and made sure that extra quart is in the rear compartment; and we’ve filled the tank with fresh high-octane fuel. We’ve even made sure the track is properly adjusted, there are no missing traction studs and the skis have brand new carbides installed. So, we’re ready to go, right? Not necessarily. A few other things should be checked, some fairly visible and some maybe not.

How many folks really know what the law says about legal snowmobile operation? There’s much more to it than just operating the sled. Yep, much more. And, occasionally, changes are made to the requirements that may be different from those of last year. Consider the registration process, for example.  In Michigan, a snowmobile registration is valid for three years for just $30. The owner gets two copies of the registration certificate and two decals with specific instructions for placement on the snowmobile. 

It is also mandatory that a copy of the registration certificate be carried by the operator or at least by someone traveling with the operator of that snow machine. That registration must be available to a law enforcement official upon request; failure to do so is in violation of the law and can result in a citation. As mentioned, the decals must be placed exactly where required, but occasionally they might be destroyed, become dislodged from the sled or otherwise become illegible. Having a valid registration available to prove the snowmobile is legally registered may just prevent a citation.

Reciprocity between the states — and even in most Canadian provinces — for snowmobiles are the same as for other vehicles, but the same cannot be said for insurance requirements or trail permits.  So, when traveling out of state, check what is required in your destination state or province. In the past several years, almost every state and Canadian province has established a requirement that every snow machine operated within their boundaries have a valid trail permit unless the machine remains on the owner’s own property. 

In Michigan, this is also the case, with the one exception being use of a snowmobile while ice fishing. For this activity, the operator may use a snowmobile for travel on the frozen water to and from the fishing site without purchase of a permit; however, the operator must be in possession of a valid fishing license and fishing paraphernalia and must obey other requirements as well. For example, the sled must be launched onto the ice in the same manner as a boat and operation on any land in the process without a valid trail permit may result in a violation.

The cost of a trail permit varies widely, not only from state to state but also in most of the Canadian provinces. Research shows Michigan has one of the most equitable across the board. When the trail permit concept was first introduced in the early 1990s, it was adamantly opposed by both our neighboring states and by many communities near state lines within our own state for a couple of reasons. First, businesses that depended on revenue from snowmobilers that routinely crossed from one state to another felt their establishments could not survive should their customers be required to purchase a permit to ride legally in Michigan. Secondly, the snowmobilers themselves felt they were being forced to pay a tariff to ride in the state. 

In fact, the first trail permit proposal failed and was subject to a possible boycott by other state snowmobile associations and by many businesses in the state, mostly in the far western Upper Peninsula, which depended on customers primarily from Wisconsin and Minnesota for their livelihoods. Both proved to be wrong in the long run and the funding derived from trail permit sales went into the grooming program, resulting in some of the best snowmobile trails in the nation.

Unlike some other states and Canadian provinces, Michigan has but one trail permit and the cost for residents and non-residents is the same. This is considered one of the best values anywhere at an annual fee of just $48. Our immediate neighbors in Wisconsin, on the other hand, sell non-resident trail permits at a significantly higher price than what residents pay, and they have an even lower fee for members of their state snowmobile association, which is a strong incentive for snowmobilers to join.

Many of the New England states use a two-tiered program that encourages snowmobilers to join their state associations. In a couple of states, it is mandatory. In New York, for example, these is no permit per se; however, the snowmobile must be registered in the state at $100 per year to be legal but is discounted to just $45 with membership in the state association. A few locations within the state require the state registration, but also require a local permit. In the Old Forge area in the towns of Webb and Inlet, a permit is required and sold at $80 until Nov. 15, then it goes to $100. This is also true to snowmobile legally in the Adirondacks.

Vermont recognizes reciprocity of registrations but requires membership in the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) to ride legally. When previously checked, membership fees were $28 for residents and $36 for non-residents. Cost for visiting snowmobilers to New Hampshire was not available; however, registration fees are discounted to state snowmobile association members.  

Most provinces in Canada have similar programs that offer a discounted price for early buyers with increased fees after the deadline, but some also offer daily and weekly permits as well. For example, in Ontario, early bird sales for a seasonal pass runs $190 until Nov. 1 but increases to $220 after that date. Also, there is a $7.50 processing and shipping fee added to both. This province does not offer daily permits. Saskatchewan and Alberta have these same fees for both early bird sales and afterward. Manitoba’s annual Son-Pass is $125. but they have a seven-day pass also for $60.50

Quebec is by far the most expensive province to snowmobile in, but also offers the most options for trail permits. A daily trail access pass is $60; a three-day pass is $150. The season pass is $340 if purchased prior to Dec. 9 and increases to $420 after that date. It should be noted that strict compliance is enforced with a $500 on-the-spot fine for failure to produce a valid pass, and there are periodic checkpoints throughout the trails system.

Before everyone becomes outraged at the high price of trail permits by our northern neighbors, remember the monetary exchange rate, their use of the metric rather than the decimal system and the several taxes required. Many of our Canadian friends, especially those who live near our Michigan borders, say they enjoy coming to our state for snowmobiling because it is much less expensive, but also because of the exceptional trails and friendly hospitality.

In summary, snowmobiling can be a very costly wintertime recreation, especially with a short season and the dependency on good snow conditions. Only the most avid snowmobilers look forward to the onset of each season with anxious anticipation the way a young child looks forward to birthdays, the Easter Bunny and Christmas. And, yes, I am one of them.

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