TUPPER LAKE - Tupper Lake is working on a shift to more of a tourism-based economy, and many in town see snowmobiling as one of the keys.
The town still has a long way to go before it's a booming snowmobile mecca like Old Forge, but locals are starting to make some progress toward that end.
A snowmobiler rides through Tupper Lake’s Municipal Park Tuesday afternoon.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
Snowmobiling is indeed big business. The State University of Potsdam's Institute for Applied Research completed a study last year that estimated the sport delivering an $860 million economic impact to the state annually.
It showed that, on average, a snowmobiler in the state spends more than $3,000 individually each year for snowmobile-related activities, not including the $45 annual state registration fee required for each sled.
Old Forge is often held up as the example of what to do to draw snowmobilers, and Tupper Lake village Trustee Rick Donah reached out to representatives from there when he decided two years ago to help push an initiative to make Tupper Lake more snowmobile friendly.
Just down the road from Tupper Lake, Long Lake sees plenty of benefits from the sport of snowmobiling. Last year, there was little snow and not much of a snowmobile season, so this year, riders were chomping at the bit to get on their sleds, according to Alexandra Roalsvig, the town's director of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. The Adirondack Hotel, one of Long Lake's most accessible restaurants and lodging options for snowmobilers, has seen solid numbers in February, with patrons spending an average of $30 per person on meals - and most of them travel in groups, Roalsvig told the Enterprise in an email.
On a typical Saturday, passersby can see 30 to 150 sleds parked on the pond near the hotel, depending on the time of day.
"Not only that, the snowmobilers are generous tippers, and the staffs are seeing a boon in the bottom line, so they have extra money to spend locally, so all businesses benefit when snowmobiling is booming, even if they aren't directly impacted by snowmobile customers because they are farther off the trail," Roalsvig wrote.
In St. Lawrence County, many small mom-and-pop businesses like gas stations and motels struggle through the winter until the snowmobilers arrive on their doorsteps, said St. Lawrence County Snowmobile Association President Debbie Christy.
"They wouldn't survive without having that other season to fill the year year-round," Christy said. "In the wintertime, they really struggle to make ends meet. ... Many of the businesses tell me it's the difference between having to close or stay open."
Many in Tupper Lake crave that kind of off-season business bolster, but there are some challenges to getting it.
Tupper Laker Pat DeVirgeles, 44, has been snowmobiling for about 30 years.
"I know through years of experience that we are losing a phenomenal amount of traffic," DeVirgeles said. "People definitely stop shy of coming here. They voice their opinions about the few trips they do take here."
He and his family snowmobile a good amount outside of Tupper Lake, around Cranberry Lake and Long Lake, and sometimes up toward Malone.
"You know, we definitely put the miles on," DeVirgeles said.
When he's in other towns, people sometimes ask him how the trails are to Tupper Lake. Though he doesn't own a business in town and doesn't stand to directly benefit from snowmobile business, he said he would love to recommend to fellow riders that they come to Tupper Lake.
But he doesn't feel comfortable doing that because he said the trails aren't groomed well enough.
"It's very disheartening when you have to tell people who were going to come as a group to Tupper Lake to not bother," DeVirgeles said. "I live here. I'd love to see my town prosper."
Several times a year, he said, he and his family will pull their snowmobiles in a trailer about 15 miles outside of Tupper Lake "just to not have to endure the horrible ride to get to the groomed trails."
He noted that everyone who registers a sled in New York pays the same amount, as long as they belong to a snowmobile club.
"I don't pay any less to do it here than someone in, say, Cranberry Lake to do it, but yet they get to ride on these phenomenal trails, and I don't," DeVirgeles said. "We're not getting a discount because our trails are crappy."
The money from registrations is distributed by the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to snowmobile groups around the state to help maintain their trail systems.
In Franklin County, the funds go to the Franklin County Snowmobile Association, which is then either used by them to groom trails throughout the county or distributed to local clubs for their own grooming uses.
Some in Tupper Lake are frustrated that money isn't being used much to improve the town's trails.
"Not only are we missing out economically, but it seems to me that, from what I understand, it's money that already should be allocated to do this," DeVirgeles said. "It makes you really wonder why it's not being done."
The state gave the Franklin County Snowmobile Association $124,000 in 2012, and the county is expecting to pass through about $90,000 to the association this year. In addition to those registration funds, Franklin County gave the snowmobile association $8,100 for insurance and $6,750 for groomers in both 2012 and this year.
Jerry Gillmett, one of the county Snowmobile Association's past presidents, said his group does plenty of grooming in the south end of the county.
"There's been equal opportunity for both the north and south ends to get snowmobile money, and in fact, it's been shared pretty equally," Gillmett said.
The problem is that when they try to groom to Tupper Lake, it's difficult for them since the only way to get there is via the Adirondack Scenic Railroad corridor. The tracks in the corridor make it hard to take a groomer along them until there's plenty of snow.
"It's not that we don't groom to Tupper Lake," Gillmett said. "We do when there's adequate snow."
There's a campaign to get the state to replace the rails with a multi-use trail, and many snowmobilers support it. But with strong opposition from train advocates, the chances of that happening soon are slim.
The town of Tupper Lake ends up having a Highway Department worker groom most of the trails twice a week, and the snowmobile club fills in on side trails with volunteer labor when it can. The town and the club don't have the best grooming equipment, though, so they can't get out as often or make the trails as good as they'd like.
So now, Tupper Lake is working to change its strategy. In the past, the Tupper Lake Snowmobile Club has always been the kind of club that just provided vouchers to its members to give them cheaper registrations. Now, though, they plan to become a club that gets a portion of that state money distributed to it.
That requires someone to ride all the trails with a GPS device in tracking mode, so they can give the information to the state snowmobile association. The state then needs to approve the trails, and if it does, the club can get a certain dollar amount per mile of trail.
The numbers change every season based on the number of snowmobiles registered, but this year it ranges from $190 per mile to $255 per mile, with a potential for an extra $200 per mile for high-snow areas.
Tupper's club is looking to get about 30 miles of trail approved, and the county association is looking to shift about 10 miles of already-approved trail to their grooming.
The tracking wasn't done in time for this season, but the club is hoping to see the money next season.
"Next year, we'll finally get paid to do it," said Pete Edwards. Edwards is a member of the snowmobile club, and he has been a big force behind trying to get snowmobiling up to snuff in Tupper Lake.
With that money, the town hopes to be able to purchase a new groomer that would be more efficient. Snowmobile Club President Gary Beaudette approached the town recently about buying a used groomer from the Franklin County Snowmobile Association, but that was recently sold to the town of Indian Lake. Tupper Lake town Supervisor Roger Amell told the Enterprise that maybe that's for the best. He wants to look at groomers that might be made of softer materials like rubber and might be able to work for more of the season on the railroad tracks.
Christy, from St. Lawrence County, has been helping Edwards with the process. She said they met at a state Department of Environmental Conservation workshop on trail work, and they discovered that they were both hoping to build a trail in the same area.
"I said, 'We really need a good connection from St. Lawrence County to Franklin County,'" Christy said. "And he said, 'We wanted it too.'"
So they worked together last year on that connector project, which needed DEC permits and had to be ruled non-jurisdictional by the state Adirondack Park Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. They pushed it, and it was completed in time for this year's snowmobile season.
Christy said that she loves helping foster volunteers who are enthusiastic, but it's also good for St. Lawrence County if Tupper Lake's trails are in shape.
"People don't want to just ride in one area," she told the Enterprise. "They want to ride from one destination to another."
They want community connectors, like riding from Cranberry Lake through Tupper Lake to Saranac Lake.
"That's what snowmobilers are looking for," Christy said.
Now that trail in Piercefield connects two areas that previously snowmobilers couldn't cross. The Tupper Lake Snowmobile Club has plans to look for opportunities to create connectors to other communities, as well.
The next step is to start working up toward Lead Pond and Rollins Pond in the town of Santa Clara, Edwards said. That area has been cut off from Tupper Lake for part of the snowmobile season, since the only trail there is the railroad corridor.
Edwards said some Tupper Lake representatives have met with DEC staff about that idea, something he said the department was already working on, and they're hoping to collaborate on it in the future.
In addition to connecting to other communities, Tupper Lake has been working to draw snowmobilers into the village, to encourage them to patronize local businesses. Donah worked with the Tupper Lake Chamber of Commerce to get signs made for local businesses and posted around snowmobile trails to draw riders in.
Edwards and the village have also been working on trails that people can ride though the village to get to Park Street and Demars Boulevard motels. Edwards said people coming into the local motels can now ride right in rather than having to pull sleds behind their trucks to a trailhead.
Even DeVirgeles said that he has seen an improvement getting around on a snowmobile within Tupper Lake.
It's a long path, but many are hoping these steps are a start to a brighter snowmobiling future in Tupper Lake.
Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.