X-Factor

Finding the heart of Rangeley’s annual Snodeo in a sea of revving engines, wintertime revelry, and snowmobile backflips

A stunt rider gets some air at the 2019 Rangeley Snodeo.

In a parking lot on Main Street in Rangeley, a young man is getting ready to perform a death-defying stunt. His face is invisible behind his helmet, but I imagine him gritting his teeth as he glances at the heap of snow, readying himself for the first jump of the day. He guns his engine and guides the snowmobile quickly around a turn and up the ramp. Fists tight on the handlebars, he soars. In a few runs, he’ll take the jump again, and raise his arms in the air—look Ma, no hands—then he’ll kick his legs up behind him, body launched off the seat, temporarily hovering above the sturdy metal of his sled. An announcer yells at the crowd: “Put your hands up everybody! Be loud, fire them up!” But there’s no way the stuntmen can hear behind their helmets, over the low roar of engines, over the sounds of their own breath.

Watching an athlete is electrifying by proxy. It’s a sip of adrenaline rather than the whole drink, a taste of danger without any risk. My head will feel fine tomorrow, but his might not. He might fall. He might break.

To me, it’s a minor miracle that this doesn’t happen, but to someone who has been riding snowmobiles for years, it’s not that unbelievable. Snowmobiles are good for a lot of practical things: they allow people to get around in the deep winter in the deep north; they grant access to beautiful public lands; they make it possible for rangers to rescue ill-fated backcountry skiers. But the number-one reason to ride is because you enjoy speed. People might tell you otherwise, but I’ve been on a snowmobile, and I’ve felt the engine humming and the wind biting my neck. In the winter, we crave this kind of sensation: the icy slap of a polar plunge, the zip of skis on snow, blades on ice, bodies moving faster and faster in defiance of the stillness and quiet of dark nights and heavy snow.

The three-day event brings much-needed tourism to the town. In recent years organizers have featured more spectator-friendly events to encourage those who don’t “ride sled” to attend.

The Rangeley Snodeo has always been a defiant event. It takes place over three days in late January—days of snowmobile racing and parades, nights of chili feasts and raucous parties, all of which are organized by the Rangeley Lakes Snowmobile Club. In 2019 the Snodeo drew between 5,000 and 7,500 people from all across Maine, New England, and the East Coast. According to Jonny Wakefield, board member of the Rangeley Lakes Snowmobile Club and event organizer, 2019’s was the “biggest event so far.” The crowds swarming to watch the Rave X trick riders were just a small part of the whole, but this event was easily the most cinematic moment of the weekend. The stunt riders show off the wild and bold side of Snodeo and cater to one type of participant (the casual one, usually). To a soundtrack of alt-rock hits from the early 2000s, riders perform their tricks in midair, and sometimes in costume. One hype man wears a shaggy gorilla suit and a neon T-shirt as he drives around the small arena, clapping his hands above his head and pumping up the crowd pressed tight against the police tape. It’s fun, like watching a football game on a big screen. “It’s turned into more of a spectator event in the past few years,” explains Wakefield. “The Snodeo is becoming an event to come up and watch. We’re working on several new events next year to honor that.”

The 2019 Snodeo was Rangeley’s biggest yet, according to Wakefield.

Although this is a community-driven event, thrown by volunteers and beloved by locals, it’s purposefully tailored to bring fresh blood into the mountain region. Wakefield considers 2019 to be a success partially because of how many people patronized local businesses during their stay. “Every bed in town was full,” he says. “There wasn’t an empty table at any of the restaurants.” Rangeley, population 1,325, swelled with guests who bought gas at local stations and snacks at local stores, ate at the town’s independently owned restaurants (there’s not a McDonald’s or other fast-food joint in sight), and booked rooms in hotels, motels, and Airbnbs. “It’s easily a six-figure weekend for the town,” says Wakefield. “We’re dependent on tourism up here. The locals, the second homeowners, the seasonal visitors—we all know that. We have to roll out the red carpet for our guests.”

I’ve been to Rangeley in the off-season before, when there wasn’t a big event going on. It’s not dead, but it is quiet and sleepy. You don’t have to wait for a table at the Red Onion, and you don’t have to worry about booking a bedroom too far in advance. At the time, the town struck me as charming and quaint—a far cry from the energized scene here outside the Rave X arena. After the Saddleback Maine ski resort closed in 2015, winter traffic into downtown Rangeley slowed significantly, and the area suffered without that extra income from skiers. Like many towns in Maine, Rangeley needs to attract visitors and newcomers in order to survive, so the loss of a ski resort was a huge blow to the economic health of the region. Snowmobiling, Wakefield hopes, may replace skiing as the winter sport of choice for tourists. “We’re struggling,” he says bluntly. “Our average age is significantly older up here, which is a huge issue for all the volunteer organizations.” The snowmobile club will need to recruit some new members soon, to help shoulder the burden of putting on such a big event, especially if it’s going to continue growing, attracting new participants every year.

While Rangeley could survive without the Snodeo, it’s not clear whether the town would thrive without so many seasonal events. According to Mary Brey, vice president of the snowmobile club and full-time resident of Rangeley, the town has had a “huge turnaround in the last eight or nine years. People are actually investing money in businesses, and it’s becoming a four-season area.” In the summer, people come to fish in the seven lakes nearby, drive motorboats around with tubes dragging behind them, and watch the Fourth of July fireworks show. In the fall, they hike in the Appalachian Mountains and watch the leaves turn. In winter and early spring, snowmobilers ride the trails, coasting between towns, visiting out-of-the-way destinations like Quill Hill (a scenic mountain peak located between Eustis and Rangeley) and Tea Pond Lodge and Cabins (an old fashioned, off-the-grid hunting lodge that has a restaurant and cabins).

“We’re always in competition with the County,” admits Wakefield. “But there are two kinds of riding. The County has a lot of wide-open straightaways. The Eustis and Rangeley area is a totally different terrain. It’s a lot more wooded.” Not only is the region in competition with other snowmobile hubs, but snowmobile clubs are also pitted against other outdoor activities for government funding. “You look at other recreational sports and they get a lot more money from the state than snowmobilers,” Wakefield explains. As a result, snowmobile trails are maintained almost entirely by volunteers. Brey points out that there are over 250 snowmobile clubs in Maine, and “99 percent of those are completely volunteer.” Every year on December 15, the Rangeley Lakes Snowmobile Club begins grooming trails and readying them for riders. “In order to keep our club going we have to be able to buy, run, and maintain the groomers,” she says. “Each one costs around $250,000, and we have a fleet of four right now.” Thankfully, local businesses owners understand the benefit of having well-groomed trails in their region. Over 65 businesses contribute financially to the snowmobile club. “A lot of the town knows we need their help. People always say they’d love to help, but rarely do they show up,” says Brey. “We only have 12 board members in our club, so that means there are just 12 people who run Snodeo.” And, she adds, “It’s the biggest event that happens in the town of Rangeley all year long.”

Back in the 1960s, explains Snodeo founder Craig Sargent, there was “no one, absolutely no one” hanging around in Rangeley in the wintertime. “At most, there were a couple of skiers, maybe,” he says. “But it’s a world of difference now.” Though Sargent (owner of Sarge’s Pub Sports Pub and Grill) doesn’t say it outright, he had a big hand in changing how tourists saw this little mountain town. Sargent, whose father sold snowmobiles, began researching snowmobiling events in the early 1980s. “I spent two years going to the biggest events in the Northeast,” he says. He traveled to Lake George and Old Forge, New York, and up to Valcourt, Canada. “I knew we had limited resources compared to those two areas, but I would pick up different ideas from each event. I had to get creative.”

The future of the sport—and the future of the town—rests on small shoulders.

In 1983, with the help of several local businesses, snowmobile manufacturers, and $6,000 of his own money, Sargent threw the first-ever Snodeo in Rangeley. “Back then, it was a four-day event, Thursday through Sunday,” he remembers. “It came very close to not happening because there was almost no snow.” Luckily, the snow came—four inches, just two days before the Snodeo was set to begin. Sargent organized races and obstacle courses, a big dance, and a sunrise cookout. He built an ice palace to use as the registration area and organized short rides in a hot-air balloon. There were only 100 hotel rooms in town, but Sargent managed to get the word out, and people came from around Maine to ride through the woods, cook hot dogs on the frozen lake, and celebrate winter. Businesses pitched tents and sold their wares, and over 100 volunteers helped out. “Rangeley is an unbelievable community,” says Sargent. “If you get buy-in, which isn’t easy to get, this little town will help out tremendously.”

That said, he didn’t truly relax until the event was almost over. It was Saturday night, and the Snodeo festivities were almost behind them. As Sargent waited for the fireworks to begin, a sprinkling of snowflakes began falling from the black sky. It was nothing—a half inch of fresh powder, no more—but Sargent says it was “the most gorgeous sight.”

“Visualize it,” he tells me. “It’s totally dark, and there are fireworks shooting off. There’s white snow, but you can just see the light reflecting and refracting off each snowflake as it falls. Those were the most beautiful fireworks I’ve ever seen, to this day.”

Both kids and adults race all day at the Steven A. Bean Municipal Airport while their families tailgate nearby.

Since Sargent’s day at the helm of Snodeo, the event has grown and mutated, shifting to accommodate casual riders, serious racers, and even those who simply come to observe. Rangeley is no longer a sleepyski town but a vacation destination for outdoor enthusiasts of many kinds. Sargent gave up the reigns in 1986, but he feels “tremendously proud” of what the event has become. He takes great joy in seeing the town turn out for this party, and he loves what the party has done for the town. As an observer, I find myself gravitating toward the wild stunts and big spectacles. It takes me a while to locate the beating heart of the event—it’s so easily drowned out by the sound of wind and motors and music. But I found it at the Steven A. Bean Municipal Airport, where I was wandering aimlessly, a little bit bored, until a woman with blonde hair invited me into her family’s camper. I ate one of her hot dogs and I talked to her kids, dressed in puffy snowsuits and ready to ride their kid-sized snowmobiles. I chatted about the weather with her father-in-law, who was seated in a metal folding chair right next to the electric heater. I watched as the kids crawled up their mom’s body in anticipation, begging her to tell them the time. They were going to race soon, she explained. They live for this event.

Outside the trailer again, I watch the short races again with fresh, clear eyes. No one is going particularly fast. They are just kids, riding around in the snow. They were just parents, standing around with their travel mugs of coffee and their paper cups of hot chocolate. It is just a town in winter, tailgating a snowmobile race because, well, there’s not much else to do in Maine in January.

But this part—where multiple generations turn up together to enjoy the cold air and the camaraderie—is the most important element of the event. These families make Wakefield feel even more hopeful. “The last few years of Snodeo, I’ve noticed a lot more families coming up with their children,” he says. “It’s cool to see. I like to spend all day at the races watching the little girls and little boys getting trophies and high-fiving moms and dads.” He adds, “That’s the future of the sport right there.” And after a winter weekend watching sleds swirl around corners and crowds cheer for daring stuntmen and kids practically inhaling their hot chocolate before running out to ride, it feels safe to say that it’s the future of the town, too.

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