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June 08. 2013 1:26AM

John Harrigan: A watershed moment for ATV fraternity

It was an early winter day back in the early 1960s, and our family had just moved from Park Street to a 165-acre farm three miles out of town. My father and mother and I were standing in the front driveway when, with a roar, a snowmobile came up through the pasture and slewed around to a stop.

It was a distant neighbor's kid, obviously pleased as all get-out to be riding all over the place showing off this new machine that had recently arrived on the recreation scene. My father didn't care for it. He was enraged.

"Get out," he shouted, waving his arms for emphasis, and the kid did.

My Dad hated any form of motorized recreation, and like many others in the early days, he had a particular dislike for snowmobiles. But almost overnight, the pioneers of snowmobiling realized that they had to rein in rogue riders and build good relations with landowners to have any hope for the future. And so these early leaders set about organizing, and new clubs quickly appeared all over the state. The result is the huge snowmobile sport, tourism and industry we see today.

ATV riders and the ATV industry today are at the exact same point snowmobiling was at half a century ago. And now towns and clubs north of the notches are engaged in a grand experiment that could determine the future of ATVing in New Hampshire. Already, just two weekends into this project's infancy, word has gone far and wide, and riders have flocked in to take part.

The sum of it is this:

Several towns have opened their rural roads and downtown streets to ATVs on carefully-thought-out and well-marked routes. In the back country, meanwhile, landowners have done the same, allowing ATV clubs to link farm roads, logging roads, snowmobile trails and skidder trails to form a gigantic circle in the Colebrook-Errol-Pittsburg region, with hundreds of spur trails linking dozens of other towns and destinations.

"There's nothing anywhere like it that I know of, at least in the East," says Harry Brown of Colebrook, one of the founders of the Metallak ATV Club, one of the several clubs in the region that have joined forces to make it all happen. Hundreds of people have spent thousands of hours cementing relations with landowners, marking trails and putting up signs making it clear where ATVs are supposed to go and where they are not.

The grand scheme is to eventually connect existing trails into a grand loop, enabling riders to go from Lancaster to Gorham and Berlin, then on to Errol, Pittsburg, West Stewartstown, Colebrook, and on down to Stratford and Groveton and back to Lancaster.

This is quite a piece of country, to put it mildly, and the sheer time and distance are exactly what would make it appeal to what the tourism gurus call the target demographic - couples, families and retired people who are seeking something different. They'll be able to park their vehicles and trailers, load up the front and rear racks of their ATVs, and set out for a trip that could last two days or a week, knowing that the loop trail and side-trails offer not just food, lodging and gas, but also plenty of wild country to enjoy.

All this has enormous economic potential, and businesses throughout the North Country are gearing up for it. Already, for instance, an ATV rental outfit has sprung up in the Bear Rock section of Stewartstown, and at least one local ATV rider is pondering advertising himself as a guide.

For now, a somewhat smaller loop is already in place and in use, although "smaller" still means one huge chunk of territory. Riders can go from Gorham, for example, up to the Seven Island Bridge on the Androscoggin, then make a large circle to Errol, Pittsburg, Colebrook, Dixville and back to Seven Islands, and then back to Gorham.

In the statewide ATV community, word of this new opportunity is spreading fast, and I know this just from personal observation because a key link in the loop goes right by my front lawn.

Last weekend was sort of the unofficial opening of the system, and riders came by the hundreds, from near and far. I sat on the front porch reading the papers, my ATV decked out with flags and parked in the front driveway, and returned wave after wave as ATV riders of all age and stripe drove by.

And Friday morning, as I wrote this, six machines and riders, some doubled up, went slowly by, again with a wave, and this by now is nothing unusual - except that the front and back racks on all six machines were loaded to the hilt with packs and duffels. Clearly these riders were on their way from one town to another, undoubtedly to enjoy the scenery, but also to enjoy the abundant food and lodging services the region has to offer. It was a clear sign, to me, of what stands to become a huge economic engine for the North Country, that region, as Sherman Adams so succinctly put it, that land to the north of the great notches.

(Several ATV clubs, local and state officials will hold a grand opening ceremony on Saturday, June 15, at noon at Coleman State Park on Little Diamond Pond, the turn for which is well-marked and is about halfway between Colebrook and The Balsams on Route 26.)

John Harrigan's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. His address is Box 39, Colebrook 03576. Email him at hooligan@ncia.net.


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