8/15/2013 - “You’re not afraid to get a little muddy, a little dirty?” Buddy Dionne asked.
No, I wasn’t, actually. Dirt and mud were the least of my worries. I was far more concerned about smacking into a tree or toppling down a hill.
I was getting geared up and ready to go for my first ride on an All-Terrain Vehicle. Dionne, the president of the New Hampshire ATV Association, let me practice riding his wife’s ATV around his Nashua home.
After the initial whiplash I felt when I first touched the throttle — lightly, I thought — I started to get the hang of it. But I couldn’t quite escape the feeling that with the wrong move, the machine would send me flying.
After a brief warm-up, Dionne took me down to the shore of the Merrimack River. Trails wove around trees and alongside the train tracks, where a constant undulation left me bouncing up and down for a few hundred yards. Once the initial nervousness dissipated, I could see why ATV riding has become so popular in New Hampshire.
“We can pick up the pace here,” Dionne said. “Try out a little fun riding.”
We did pick up the pace and we whisked by thick greenery on either side, the wind whipping against my face.
“You OK to ride for another 10 minutes or so?” Dionne asked as he paused to wait for me.
“This is a little more technical, so don’t panic,” he said. “I just want you to get a feel for it.”
The riding was a little slower as we cut tight turns around trees, and then rolled right over fallen limbs and rocks. As we approached a steep hill, the nervousness returned.
“Technically, we should be able to do this in two-wheel drive, but since you’re a beginner, I’d like you to put it into four-wheel drive,” Dionne said.
Much to my initial chagrin, it was clear the plan was to go up the hill. Dionne accelerated right up the hill, quickly turning at the top. I followed suit. I made it up just fine, despite my racing heart.
“You wouldn’t feel it there, but if you ever started to feel the front wheels rising up, just lean forward,” Dionne said.
More trails, more riders
ATV riding appears to be gaining in popularity in New Hampshire, and even if it isn’t, officials say it surely will. That’s thanks to a recently opened swath of 1,000 miles of connected trails in New Hampshire’s North Country. Previously, the largest section of connected riding in the eastern half of the country was in West Virginia, which featured 800 miles of connected ATV trails.
“It’s the biggest thing to happen to riding ever, here,” Dionne said of Ride the Wilds, the new trail system in Coos County.
All of a sudden, New Hampshire is a sort of mecca for trail riding.
“It’s become a much more popular recreational activity, certainly in northern New Hampshire,” said Chris Gamache, chief of the New Hampshire Trails Bureau, fresh off the Jericho Mountain ATV Festival in July. “Many communities have asked to be tied into the existing trail system.”
While the North Country features the marquee riding, ATV riding is extremely popular in southern New Hampshire, as well as Massachusetts. People can find spots such as Bear Brook State Park or Plough State Park to ride their ATVs for a couple hours. But people who are into the sport will gladly tow their ATVs farther north to ride for 100 miles or so in a given day.
Fish and Game Lt. Wayne Saunders, who is based in Lancaster, has seen the increase in ATV riders. He said the Jericho ATV Festival drew about 3,000 people.
“It seems to be gaining by the week,” Saunders said.
A new way to get outside
Dionne has been riding for more than 30 years. Since he started riding when he was 31, it’s become a family passion, some would probably say obsession. His wife rides. His son rides. His grandchildren ride. He’s got a lot to say when it comes to ATVs.
“I talk fast, because I have so much to tell you,” Dionne said.
Dionne has ridden in Utah, Hawaii, West Virginia and Arizona. He proudly displays photo albums of his excursions. He pointed out one photo where his one-and-a-half-year-old son is laying on Dionne’s ATV. He’s most proud of a photo that shows himself, his son and his grandson. For his family, it’s a way of life.
In 1983, Dionne was looking for something fun to do in the winter. He asked a buddy if he knew anybody selling a used snowmobile for about $1,000. His friend suggested that instead of a snowmobile, Dionne should consider purchasing an ATC (all-terrain cycle), which is a three-wheel version of an ATV. His friend said you can ride those all winter long. Dionne bought an ATC, and he never looked back. By the following spring, he’d bought another ATC for his wife.
At that time, Dionne said, it was referred to as “old-school riding.”
“You just rode the power line or the fields or whatever, and if people complained … you just didn’t ride there anymore,” Dionne said.
He fondly remembered getting together with neighbors with ATVs. His family and two others would ride all morning, have lunch together, ride all afternoon, and have a cookout that evening.
Dionne showed off his modified trailer camper, which he and other ATV riders refer to as a toy hollow: the place to store all the toys for trips. The camper features all the amenities, including beds, couches, a sink, bathroom, shower, refrigerator and a cleared out space where Dionne can park as many as three ATVs. He’s booked pretty much every weekend from now through the early fall with camping trips and ATV trips.
Communities want more ATV accessibility in their towns. Why? Because ATV riders bring money to the local community. They stay in local hotels. They eat in local restaurants. They buy goods at local stores. And that’s all good for the state’s tourism economy. But that’s also a change.
Twenty years ago, people didn’t want ATV users in their towns. The machines and the people who rode them had a bad reputation. People feared ATVs would rip up trails. ATVs were loud, and people associated ATV riders with littering and vandalism, Dionne said.
“The best thing that happened to ATV riding was the bad economy,” Dionne said, noting that the economic dip helped depressed communities see the dollar signs ATVs could bring in. “Now they want us. They want our money. … I can’t even imagine how many thousands of dollars were brought in to restaurants and hotels and area businesses [during the ATV Festival].”
While 1,000 miles of trails is pretty extensive, Gamache said there are still connections left to be made. In the northern region, there aren’t a lot of trail users other than ATV riders, which minimizes conflicts and maximizes benefits.
“There are not a lot of bicycles,” Gamache said. “There isn’t hiking, per se. It’s the major snowmobile system in the winter. They’re using that footprint for the summer ATV system. It’s bringing in dollars. They rely on snowmobilers in the winter up in Coos County. They’re redefining themselves … to rely more heavily on recreation.”
Dionne was among the first three riders to run the new network all the way from Gorham to Pittsburg. He rode one way for about 100 miles with two friends, stayed overnight, and returned a different, more challenging route the following day.
Every rider is different. Some people want to push the speed. Others want to motor along at 5 mph to take in the scenery.
ATVs are fun, but they carry safety concerns. Physically, they’re heavy. Dionne estimated his big Honda ATV weighs about 600 pounds, so injuries could be serious if it flips over on a rider. They’re also fast. Powerful models can top out at 70 mph.
“It really depends 100 percent on the person sitting on the machine,” Gamache said. “They are a motorized vehicle. They do have a higher level of risk than some other activities. If you are a prudent person who operates the machine reasonably … who is wearing helmet and eye protection, and riding correctly, then it’s really a great way to see a lot more of the backcountry.”
Saunders worries about infrastructure in terms of making sure riding is safe. Fish and Game’s Search and Rescue operation has long been underfunded, and it has fewer officers now than it did 10 years ago.
“And we’re dealing with probably 10 times more volume,” Saunders said. “We’re trying to do a lot more with less than we had.”
Saunders has seen a rise in accidents, which he tied simply to more people riding, not necessarily that more people are riding irresponsibly.
The state provides a series of safety courses.
“You see a lot of younger people taking them and certainly older folks as well, which is good,” Saunders said.
Given that ATVs can cover, easily, 100 miles in a day, it can be difficult for Fish and Game officers to access riders who have gotten hurt or lost. The big thing, Saunders said, is to simply stay on trails.
Saunders pointed to the positives. Even with 3,000 ATV riders gathered at the Jericho ATV Festival, there were no accidents. Saunders said that for the most part, riders are safer today. That’s good, since the state’s North Country network of trails doesn’t put riders particularly close to hospitals or other emergency services.
It’s a sport that still draws the ire of some. ATVs can be loud. For someone looking for a serene experience out in the woods, ATVs can be disruptive. Like anything else, officials say, a few bad eggs can give the whole lot a bad name. But Gamache said education and awareness are improving. People tend to be more aware that ATVs are out there, and ATV riders tend to be more aware of others, Gamache said.
“There can be conflicts, just in perception,” Gamache said.
Fish and Game are out regularly patrolling trails. He said officers have been inundated with ATV complaints. It’s a big piece of Fish and Game officers’ summer — too much time, in fact, Saunders said.
“We’re hoping to curtail [the number of complaints], because we do have other responsibilities,” Saunders said.
Officers run into riders who are riding where they aren’t supposed to go. Sometimes it’s just ignorance of the rules, but others are just pushing the envelope a little bit.
In the North Country, in some places, ATV riders can ride right out on the road. That’s new, so there has been a bit of a learning curve regarding that, Saunders said.
Though Fish and Game handles more complaints than it would like, Gamache said the number of complaints has actually dropped over the years.
“We have a finite land base,” Gamache said. “And more people want to get out in the woods for more different activities. People are becoming a little more tolerant of each other.”
Gamache also mentioned that all the trail maintenance dollars come from motorized trail users, which includes ATVs and snowmobiles. Those dollars are collected through registration fees. There are no fees for hiking, biking or horseback riding on state trails, Gamache said.
Most of the trails in the state are maintained by volunteer organizations, often snowmobile or ATV groups.
“I have met some of the nicest people on ATVs,” Dionne said. “I can count the bad guys.”
Open up the wallet
ATVs aren’t cheap. An entry-level four-by-four model probably runs between $4,000 and $5,000, while higher-end models approach $10,000.
Dionne sees ATVs as the toy for men who have just finished putting their kids through college.
“Finally, they have money in their pocket,” Dionne said. “And they think, ‘I want to do something fun.’”Nick Lange, a sales associate with Nault’s Power Sports in Manchester, said he tries to gauge prospective customers to see what they’re really interested in. ATV’s come in a utility line and a sport line. The sport line is lighter and faster, while utility ATVs are bigger and can be fitted with things like snow plows, racks or tow hitches. It’s rare, Lange said, that a prospective customer doesn’t mention some type of utility purpose — often presumably to justify the purchase — when discussing options.
“I try to feel out the rider,” Lange said.
For most, ATVs serve as mostly play, coupled with some utility, Lange said.
Lange figured most ATV purchases were made by men ages 30 to 55. He said he personally sells a few ATVs to women each year, though he does see it growing in popularity among women.
Customers can consider whether to purchase an ATV with fully independent suspension, fully automatic or with an electronic shift. For a first-time rider, Lange said the less he has to worry about the better. Some ATVs have power steering. It’s not a feature riders necessarily need, but once riders experience it, they don’t go back, Lange said.
Beyond general play, ATVs have become popular with hunters and anglers, who can now access backwoods areas much more quickly.
“Two up” ATVs have become popular as well. They are bigger machines with plenty of room for a passenger to sit behind the driver. They’ve become popular among husbands and wives. Lange and Dionne also said side-by-side machines, which look like off-road golf carts, are growing in popularity, though they start at about $14,000. Dionne said there has been a push to create wider trails to accommodate side-by-side ATVs.
Ready to hit the trails?
For Dionne, ATV riding has become a way to see new places. It’s a way to get away with friends and family, and it’s a way to do something that’s fun, and at least a little challenging. And it can be that for people of all ages. As Dionne likes to say, it works for people ages 4 to 104—maybe not a 4-year-old driver, but certainly a 4-year-old passenger. Any operator under the age of 12 must be accompanied by a licensed operator who is 18 or older.
Riding isn’t physically taxing. There are only two things that might hurt after day of riding: your thumb, from hitting the throttle, and your butt, from sitting on it all day.
But it’s a rush all the same.
“It’s just an incredible way to get out and disappear,” Lange said. “You’re out away from society. You can get out and feel alive.”
Riding isn’t difficult, particularly these days. The bike I rode with Dionne was fully automatic with independent suspension — that is, each wheel can bounce over obstacles on its own, rather than having the entire suspension system bounce together. It makes for a smooth ride. The bike also had the option of letting the rider shift it manually. It was easy to shift from two-wheel drive to four-wheel drive. Not all ATVs are that easy to ride, but Dionne said riders can be taught quickly.
A couple of things to keep in mind: Don’t ride through wetlands, streams, ponds or wet meadows. Doing so can result in a $10,000 fine. And ATV riders must register their ATVs if riding off their own property. Registration costs $55.