(Not) Breaking the Ice With a Granite State Snowmobiling Club

Feb 27, 2017

The Brookline Icebreakers try not to live up to that name. 

During one sunny Saturday at Lake Potanipo in Brookline, New Hampshire, club president Jon Lavoie pointed to the ice fishermen in the middle of the lake. For a snowmobiler, they are the best barometer of ice safety.

"All these bobhouses out here do ice fishing – when they’re not having an adult beverage, they’re ice fishing – and they drill holes in the ice," explained Lavoie, "You go knock on a door, and they’ll be like, hey, it’s a foot deep today. They’ll let you know."

I met the IceBreakers at their annual poker run – a luck-of-the-draw contest where riders hit trail checkpoints all morning, and collect prizes at a barbeque in the afternoon. Men and women who have been riding for as long as they could walk milled around on the shore in heavy-duty snow pants and boots. Kids chased each other around on the ice - some on their own tricycle-sized rides. And snowmobiles were everywhere, shooting in blurs across the ice in limitless supply. We rode out on Lavoie’s ATV, I sat in the back next to his two-year-old son, Conor, to get a better look.

Lavoie says safety, especially on the ice, is at top of mind for the club. 

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"Every lake is different, so safety precautions are always key," said Lavoie, "But this is Lake Potanipo, and it freezes deep, it freezes hard, and we have a good time. "

There have been five snowmobiling deaths in New Hampshire this winter alone, and almost three dozen accidents. That isn’t unusual for the sport – there are usually two to four deaths a year - but it is a little high. 

Major John Wimsatt, who oversees snowmobile education programs for New Hampshire Fish and Game, says that, given the registration numbers, those stats don’t indicate a major problem with the hobby. 

"If you look at it in the big picture," said Wimsatt, "with 45,000 sleds recreating out there, the vast majority of snowmobiling that’s taking place is being done without incident and without accident." 

Chris DeJoy is a member of the Hollis Nor’Easters snowmobile club. He and Mark Tremblay of the IceBreakers walked me through their approach as we watched riders come in off the ice. 

"I think a lot of people who jump on a snowmobile don’t realize how dangerous is can be. But there is a lot of safety training at your disposal," DeJoy explained, "And a lot of people – "

"A lot of people," Tremblay interjected, "think I can just throw my ski clothes on, and I’ll be fine on a sled. Wrong."

Trembly says he has friends who have gone through the ice and rescued themselves. Which is why he carries safety gear. 

"I keep ice picks, and they’ve got foam handles and a strap that does around my neck," he detailed, "So, if I’m going in questionable water, I’ll put that around my neck and it fits around my helmet. So if you ever do go in, God forbid, you’ve got two ice picks in your hand, that you can grab hold of the edge of the ice and pull yourself out."

The view from a cross-lake snowmobile ride
Credit Hannah McCarthy/NHPR

They suggest carrying extra gloves and head socks, a towing strap, matches, water, and a trail map – even if you know where you’re going. Trembly always checks the ice conditions on social media sites or through a club. But in some cases, he says, you have to find yourself that ice fishermen. 

"Winnipesauke, for example," said Tremblay, "was declared iced in on Thursday. But only four days earlier, people died and went in right off the broads. So it’s like, that’s not safe even now. And with this forty-degree temperature, there’s no way. They can call ice in all they want, but you really need to get a report from an ice fisherman." 

Bases covered, and nerves subdued, there was only one thing left to do at Lake Potanipo. Climb onto a rumbling snowmobile - they're surprisingly comfortable - and go shooting across the ice.