"Snow provokes responses that reach right back to childhood."
You don't have to look for very long before you find someone in the Adirondacks who enjoys snowmobiling through our winter wonderland. But for Dan Wilt, snowmobiling has evolved into much more than a recreational activity. What many consider a hobby has become a lifestyle for Wilt. No temperature is too cold, no time of day too early or late for Wilt to hop on his trusty sled. While many of us are tucked away under our warm blankets, hiding from the cold before the sun comes up, Wilt is often suiting up to take on the chill of these twilight hours so he can greet the dawn.
A family tradition
Dan Wilt has been riding snowmobiles throughout Hamilton County for most of his life. “I started snowmobiling with my father. When I was about ten years old, my father had an old Ski-Doo Olympique,” he said. Much like Wilt's father introduced him to the joy of exploring the world via snowmobile, he has passed the tradition on to his son and grandson.
“When my grandson’s father was only four years-old, he was on his snowmobile already — a little Arctic Cat Kitty Cat," Wilt said. "He made a track in the yard and he’d ride that all morning, get off it and go in to eat lunch and he’d never even shut it off. And when he was done, he’d go out and hop back on that Kitty Cat and get back on his track around the house.”
Finding a love for snowmobiling seems to be in the Wilt family bloodline. “It's kind of like a family tradition,” he said. “We all really enjoy getting out into nature and seeing areas that you really can’t see any other way, especially in the wintertime. It's just absolutely beautiful.”
Wilt’s twelve year-old grandson, Willie, loves to spend time with his grandfather on the trails. “Since I was like three, I started riding snowmobiles on my Arctic Cat Kitty Cat,” Willie said. “I enjoy riding with my grandfather. He's fast, and it’s just more fun when it's fast.” Willie also enjoys the beautiful views afforded by snowmobiling as the sun comes up. That particular morning put on a spectacular show of a lavender sky with deep purple clouds as he and his grandfather took off along the trails.
All fun for every age
In Wilt’s world, snowmobiling is as timeless as it gets. “I’ll be sixty-five in July, and I still ride every winter. I can’t see how anybody could say it’s not a lot of fun. One of my friends I ride with is seventy-five years old. I think he’s got three snowmobiles now, and he has a hard time deciding which one he wants to ride when we go for a ride. It’s a sport you can enjoy as a young kid or a senior adult. You ride to your capabilities. It makes it nice that you get a mix of different age groups that you meet out on the trail.”
A connected world
There is absolutely no shortage of trails in the southern region of the Adirondacks — we can all agree on that — but there certainly are limitations to where you can go as a hiker, alone. Snowmobiling expands an already expansive experience that much further. “There are beautiful flies — not the pests, but these wide-open plain areas that are flooded so that you can never get there in the summertime,” said Wilt. He holds a deep appreciation for snowmobiling allowing people to not only enjoy lakes that are normally difficult, if not impossible to reach, but to do so while also protecting the forest from damage.
“We're riding on frozen ice and snow,” he said. “A lot of the trails up here are interconnected by lakes, which kind of restricts riding early in the season. But once the lakes freeze over and we get good ice, and then there's a hard beaten path designating the trail across some of these lakes, it really makes connections of different towns and villages and the restaurants and the gas stations much easier and possible. If you saw these snowmobile trails in the summertime, you'd hardly believe they are snowmobile trails. It is quite nice that people can get out and see these areas this time of the year and are actually able to visit those areas, where they can’t any other way.”
There exists an abundance of research surrounding the therapeutic benefits of time spent in nature, including "improved attention, lower stress, better mood, reduced risk of psychiatric disorders and even upticks in empathy and cooperation,” according to a 2020 report from the American Psychological Association. Wilt has his own term for this phenomenon.
“I consider that 'Adirondack therapy,'” he said. “Being able to get up in the morning and, in the winter, hop on that snowmobile and go for a ride before work, clear your head, and start the day, or in the summertime, either hop in a kayak and go for a ride or hop in a fishing boat and troll for an hour or so before you go to work, or even after work — it’s therapy. It's a great thing to be able to do up here. I found that when you're in a situation at work to where it’s getting very stressful, you can always have that voice in the back of your head saying, ‘Hang in there because 4:00 comes around pretty soon and I'll be on that snowmobile going for a little ride or out on that fishing boat for an hour or so before dinner. Again, that’s what I call ‘Adirondack therapy.’”
Smoothing out the trails, one volunteer at a time
The trails throughout Hamilton County feel like smooth sailing, but they weren’t always this way. “Riding back in the ‘70s, where the trails weren't groomed very well," said Wilt. "It was fun, but it got old after a while when the bumps were so bad that the bumper would hit the next one when you're riding the snowmobile. The state has really come up and made it possible for these local clubs to purchase large pieces of equipment to keep the trails in good shape. All the groomers are volunteers. The people that do the maintenance on the equipment are all volunteers.” The result of these volunteer efforts is smoother trails which provide a much more enjoyable experience for all.
A growth in the sport brings a growth in the community
Hamilton County’s accessible trail network has turned avid snowmobilers from visitors into permanent residents. The rationale is simple: why put all the time and energy into transporting your snowmobile into town weekend after weekend when you could just live here and have unlimited access right from your own front door? A number of Wilt’s friends have gone through this very change themselves.
“I have friends that came up here just for weekends snowmobiling and finally learned that it’s a chore to load up snowmobiles in the trailer and haul them up every weekend. They resorted to, and as such I have too, is actually living up here, buying a home up here, and making it that much more easy to be able to hit the trails and enjoy the area. There’s a lot of places up here that were summer residences that have turned into year-round homes because of snowmobiling.”
Try it out!
Wilt loves introducing new riders to the sport, “I try to get them to hop up on a sled with me and don't tell him anything — just say ‘Follow me,’ take it real easy, go for a nice ride, and that's the best selling point for snowmobiling up here. For those people that don't like winter, don't like the cold, I urge them to come up here and properly suit themselves up in a snowmobile suit, hop up on a snowmobile, and take a leisurely ride. I think it will more than convince them that it's easy to adapt to the climate when you're having a lot of fun.”
Wilt truly believes that snowmobiling is a sport anyone can get behind, regardless of their age or experience. “Once they get out there on the trails and they see how beautiful it is out in nature and the winding trails through the woods and how pretty it is, it really hooks them. It isn't long after that they're looking for property up here or a home to buy so they can come up and do it every weekend.”
Last but not least: safety first
Before the conversation came to a close, Wilt made it a point to bring up safety as a priority when snowmobiling. “I think it's important that people understand that it's very important that people stay on marked trails,” he said. “There's a lot of private property that the property owners let snowmobile trails across their property. It's important that you stay on the trails and not damage the property, and be safe on that snowmobile. Use the hand signals on the trails and make it enjoyable for everybody. We have a very low number of injuries and problems related to snowmobiling because people are very courteous. We found that snowmobilers are very courteous and very environmentally friendly. They don't leave stuff in the woods, and they ‘carry it in, carry it out.’ We just like to make sure that people understand that that's important here in the park.”
This story is a feature of The Dawn Patrol, a series of videos created by Adirondacks, USA, which follows incredible locals as they share what the Adirondacks and their favorite outdoor activities mean to them. Join us for scenic wonders and unforgettable moments as the sun rises.
The Dawn Patrol series:
Episode 4: Mitchell and Bethany