For several years, backwoods adventurers, including paddlers, hunters and hikers, have followed a simple rule to make them safer in the woods: They file a plan, or share details with a trusted friend, before heading afield. Included in that plan is a specific return date and time.
With winter trips into Maine’s vast woods on many people’s agendas in the coming weeks, the Maine Emergency Management Agency last week shared a reminder: Snowmobilers are among those who ought to file a trip plan before venturing into the frozen forests.
In its regular preparedness newsletter, MEMA included a link to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which provides a printable trip itinerary that asks for the basics of a traveler’s planned snowmobile trip.
“The Maine Warden Service is responsible for searching for lost and missing snowmobilers,” the sheet reads. “Often, the Warden Service is called to search for snowmobilers who really are not lost or missing, which results in expending many unnecessary hours of effort by wardens. You can help us by filling out this trip itinerary and leaving it on your door or under the wiper of your vehicle. Your cooperation is greatly appreciated.”
Cpl. John MacDonald, public relations and information officer for the Maine Warden Service, said he and others have been encouraging the practice for some time, but the addition of a printable form is new. Until Tuesday, MacDonald was unaware that the printable form was available on the DIF&W website.
“We’ve always pushed … for people to make up their own [itinerary cards],” MacDonald said. “We’ve been preaching for people to put a note on their car. Having something official [on the website] is even better.”
Bob Meyers, the executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, said his organization has handed out snowmobile trip itinerary cards for at least a dozen years. But he said the effort has been inconsistent.
“It kind of goes in waves,” he said. “We push [the concept] and we pass them out at the snowmobile show and other places, it falls by the wayside, and then usually something happens and we say, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’”
Meyers said that for many riders, becoming the subject of an emergency search is the last thing on their minds. But it’s easy to end up in unforeseen situations.
“People are out in the woods, they’re playing, and they kind of forget where they are sometimes, or forget where they’re going,” Meyers said. “This [itinerary] at least provides a start point.”
And that can be crucial, according to MacDonald.
“You can just imagine, without [having any] information at all, we first have to find the person’s truck,” MacDonald said. “If they simply said to their family down in Connecticut, ‘We’re going to Maine and we’re going snowmobiling near Greenville,’ [that’s an incomplete way to start a search] … It can be a little bit of a wild goose chase for a little while if they’ve given absolutely no indication of where they’re going.”
Meyers said that the MSA’s 289 clubs often help game wardens mount searches in their own areas, where their local knowledge of the trails proves valuable. And with 14,500 miles of snowmobile trails in the state, there are plenty of remote areas that might need searching in a given emergency.
“People just have no comprehension of how big the woods are and how easy it is to get turned around,” said Meyers, who described himself as “a notoriously wrong-way kind of guy.”
Meyers also cautioned riders who might think their GPS or cellphones will keep them out of trouble. Many folks have GPS units, but don’t know how to use them, Meyers said. And cellphones don’t always work.
“The assumption [of some users] is that they’re going to function the same as they would if you were driving down I-95,” Meyers said. “The truth of the matter is, particularly with cellphones, is that they are very spotty.”