NORWAY — On top of the hill at the end of Rye Knoll Drive chugs “the beast” — Ken Gammon’s orange 1974 Sno-Cat — ready to groom some of the town’s roughly 70 miles of snowmobile trails Sunday morning.
It’s time to climb into the small, two-seat cab, using the tread on the elongated tracks, a small step and the open door. Once inside, Gammon eases the shifter into low gear and the heavy machine lurches forward, ascending the snow pile he’s plowed at the edge of his driveway before climbing down the white hill and into the Norway woods beyond.
Gammon’s been a member of the Norway Trackers Snowmobile Club for the past two decades, joining when his love for snowmobiling was rekindled after he purchased a Yamaha franchise — Ken’s Yahama on Main Street in Norway. He bought the hardy Sno-Cat about 10 years ago for roughly $10,000 and estimated a new one would cost upwards of $150,000.
It’s equipped with a CB radio, a Mag-lite, heat (thankfully), and a cooler for his long grooming treks. He spent four hours last night in the wind and bitter cold grooming the trails for riders and plans to spend another six to eight today.
When some think of snowmobiling, they envision of sleds zipping down nicely groomed trails and all of the thrill and fun that comes with riding. Most don’t consider the effort it takes to maintain the trail system.
“People just have no idea how much time is involved,” Gammon says.
He works 60 hours a week at his business and usually takes two runs each week to groom the trails. The club owns another machine and often they go out together because some bumps in the trail need to be gone over twice to be smoothed out.
“Once a week it has to be done and sometimes it probably should be done more often than that but we’re all volunteers,” Gammon says.
On Sunday, he has to go over parts of the trail he did the night before to reach the portions that need grooming. Even so, there’s some areas that need to be smoothed out again since some snowmobiles had passed over it. He points to a dip in the trail.
“Like this hole right here, it will be gone when I get done,” Gammon says. “That’s the idea. We’re trying to smooth it out.”
And low and behold, the Sno-Cat and the drag that’s pulled behind it, fill in an about foot-deep hole, leaving a smooth eight-foot wide trail in their wake. He explains that the drag’s edges cut the snow, which then rolls to the back of the drag to the packer, which pushes down the white stuff to create the trail. It was built by club member.
“It makes you wonder if we’ll fit through,” Gammon says about the narrow pathway. “All of these I’ve been through before so I know it will fit through. … These trails that I groom … I could always do them with my eyes closed.”
The beast lumbers down the trail between five and seven miles per hour. Gammon says it wasn’t designed to go much faster than that. And with all the twists and turns in Norway’s trail system, it would be dangerous to run it quicker in such a large machine. Gammon shifts and slows down to travel around a corner and once he’s on the straightaway, he expertly grabs a stick of wood and props it against the window to keep it from vibrating open.
The Sno-Cat passes a grove of small pine trees, some of which are buried deep in the powdery snow, with only their tops poking out. On the trail, bunny tracks that appear to lead the machine on its journey through the woods are quickly covered by the drag.
“Once in a while you’ll see wildlife. This thing makes so much noise it usually scares them off,” Gammon says.
The only sign of human life — besides the snowed over snowmobile tracks — is the abandoned pickup truck on the right side of the trail, with a smidgen of the red door and handle exposed, a stark contrast to the pure white snow. That is until Gammon hits a road he must travel on to get to the next part of the trail. Following the old adage learned in elementary school, he looks both ways before crossing the road with the beast.
On the trail system once again, Gammon talks about the Oxford Hills ATV Trailblazers, the all terrain vehicle club of which he’s president. Many of the trackers are also trailblazers and work together to help maintain the long trail system. Every Sunday since October they’ve been out in the woods cutting back brush, getting ready for the snow.
“We ultimately have the same goal — to recreate,” he says.
Gammon doesn’t meet up with any snowmobilers until he hits the Sodom Road Bridge, near the Harrison border and the heavily traveled IDS 89 trail, which connects Norway to South Paris, West Paris and Bethel. It’s fellow tracker and Norway resident Mark Truman and his three sons, 15-year-old Connor, 12-year-old Caden and eight-year-old Brady.
“We saw groomed tracks and said, ‘Follow the groomed trails.’ It’s just nice to get some snow,” Mark Truman says, adding that he can hit speeds between 45 and 50 mph on groomed trails. “It’s much better, the groomed trails. Not only do you not take a pounding from all the bumps, you can pay attention to what’s going on around you.”
Those who want to help the trackers maintain the snowmobile trails for area residents to enjoy can hit up the Oxford Hills Chowder Fest from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Norway Masonic Lodge at 9 Temple St. The fundraiser includes all-you-can-eat fish, clam and corn chowders, chili, beef stew, bread basket, desserts and soda. Adults are $9, children two to 12 are $4 and kids younger than two are free. For more information, call 743-8256.