We've had a relatively snow-free winter in Carroll County this year.That's good news for salt truck drivers and merchants with parking lots to clear.

For snowmobilers it's disaster -- the equivalent of a day without sunshine.

The Pigeon Hills Snowmobile Club didn't let the lack of frozen precipitation dampen their ardor for the sport, however -- they simply took off for the mountains of South Dakota, where the powder is deep and the thermometer stays low . . . down to minus 27 degrees one morning.

In short, snowmobile heaven.

Among the Carroll County residents who flew to Spearfish, S.D., on a recent Sunday were Jack and Sally Ensor of New Windsor, Emerson and Margaret "Moxie" Barnes of Hampstead, Jim and Rose Blevins of Hampstead, Charles and Wendy Miller of Westminster, Ray Ferrier of Hampstead, and Jerry Hagen and his son Shawn of Sykesville.

The group's destination was an area that boasts 280 miles of groomed trails with spectacular views from mountains towering to 6,600 feet.

Club member Wilbur Nauman of Ephrata, Pa.,preceded the group with his tractor-trailer loaded with 26 sleds. Upon arrival, everyone was eager to don their gear and experience the thrills of ideal snowmobiling conditions.

"Each corner you turned created something new . . . each more beautiful than the one before," Jim Blevins said.

Emerson Barnes of Hampstead agreed that the sheer beauty of the area made the experience unforgettable.

"There were canyons with colored rock walls that towered 100 feet and more," Barnes said. "We also were able to observe a variety of wild game closeup -- among the species we sighted were mule deer, moose, white-tailed deer, elk, coyotes and eagles."

Although unable to accompany the group to South Dakota, Tom Walsh of Hampstead and his bride of one day, Brenda, used a Canadian snowmobiling jaunt as their honeymoon. Along with Tom's brother, Jim Walsh, and his wife, Sheila, also of Hampstead, they covered more than 1,000 miles of snowmobiling trails during the week.

The Pigeon Hills Club was started 25 years ago by a couple of snowmobiling enthusiasts from the Hanover, Pa., area. At first, the group's meetings were conducted at a snowmobile dealership then moved to the Hanover meeting hall. Having grown to 125 members, the club now meets at the Dutch Country Restaurant in Hanover.

Whatis it that entices people from all walks of life -- doctors, mechanics, lawyers, school teachers, bankers -- to leave their warm homes for wind-swept slopes? What inspires people of all ages from preteens to golden-agers to choose this sport for their recreation?

Club secretary Norma Foster of Manchester cites the opportunity to explore otherwise unaccessible areas as a major plus.

"The very first time Iwent out it was wonderful," she reports. "I got to see places I'd never been before. I saw six deer and they didn't even run away."

Companionship and the group's compatibility also play a big role in thesport's attraction. Lots of high spirits and good fun were the reward when the group gathered at the end of the day at the Trail's Head Lodge.

"Everything at the lodge was very nice, very informal," Emerson Barnes said. "We had a wonderful time."

Club members emphasizesafety as a major concern.

"On this trip 20 sleds rode for five days, covering approximately 100 miles per day, and nobody so much as bumped into another's tail light," said Jim Walsh, one of the club's directors.

Henry Hartman of Hanover, who edits the Keystone Snowmobiler, the official publication of the Pennsylvania Snowmobile Association (of which the Pigeon Hills Club is a member), said statistics indicate a correlation between accidents and alcohol consumption.

"There were two snowmobile fatalities in Pennsylvania this past year," Hartman said. "Both involved alcohol and excessive speed or riding in an unfamiliar area."

He said the Pigeon Hills Club does not condone alcohol consumption either when snowmobiling or at club functions.

Concern about the ecological factors involved in snowmobiling is another issue of which club members are acutely aware. Snowmobiles,they said, have the lowest environmental impact of any motorized vehicles.

"When the snow melts and our tracks are gone, there is no lasting effect," said Jim Walsh.

Hartman added the federal government now requires the noise level of new snowmobiles to be below 73 decibels, less than the noise level of most lawn mowers.

However, Marilyn Mause, a state wildlife biologist, said noise is just a part of the problem. Snowmobilers encroaching on wildlife habitat in winter weather can cause the animals to move around and use precious energy, though she said responsible snowmobilers are not a threat.

The Pigeon Hills Club remains active during the non-winter months with a yearly banquet, a picnic, road rallies and a weekend retreat on an island belonging to one member. It also conducts snowmobile grass drags during summer and fall months as a fund-raising event.

Members admitsnowmobiling is not an inexpensive sport. A new sled may cost more than $6,000 and most enthusiasts find a four-wheel drive vehicle and trailer essential for transporting sleds. Special clothing includes helmets -- an absolute must for all -- and well-insulated gloves, bootsand jumpsuits.

It is obvious, however, that the true snowmobiler's enthusiasm for the sport outweighs any disadvantages or hardships.

"Anybody that gets on a snowmobile falls in love with the sport," Jim Blevins said.

He may be right.

Listening to the group discuss the many delights of their recent trip is almost enough to induce a hearth-hugging, sun-worshiping reporter like myself to give it a try.

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