GORHAM — Gorham has always made its living by serving visitors coming to view and enjoy the White Mountains and other natural resources. Now with state and local government allowing all-terrain vehicles along roadways in Coos County, the town may be poised for a renaissance, some locals say.
In the past, the small town boasted several large hotels and restaurants catering to tourists. The car put an end to some of that trade, that of families who might come by train to stay the whole summer season.
Although the big hotels are gone, Gorham has always had plenty of lodging and restaurants, but in recent years they have struggled. Businesses jumping on the ATV wagon are hoping for a turnaround.
One of those businesses is Northeast ATV Rental, owned by Ray Bergeron.
Bergeron has been in the motorcycle and snowmobile repair business in Gorham for 21 years, before adding snowmobile rentals four years ago and this year ATV rentals.
“Motorcycles were always my passion,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to be able to follow my dreams.”
Bergeron has a strong background in off-road activities. He raced dirt bikes at several tracks along the East Coast for many years, and several trophies on a shelf over his counter attest to his skill.
“It’s my stress reliever,” he says.
Four years ago he was approached by Terry MacGilveray, who was looking to branch out from his snowmobile business based in Fryeburg, Maine.
“We got together, threw some ideas around. I’ve always been known to think outside the box,” Bergeron said.
The result was Northeast Snowmobile Rental. The business now has three locations, Fryeburg and Bethel, Maine, and Gorham, with a fleet of 64 snowmobiles. They move between sites depending on business demands.
Usually, Bergeron said, most are here in Gorham, but it depends on the skill of the rider. Fryeburg is more flat and better for the novice rider. This area offers more challenging terrain.
“We’re fortunate with our local geography,” he said. “It’s amazing what we have in our own backyard.”
The ATV rental part of the business, new this year, came as a leap of faith. That’s a little unusual for Bergeron, who has grown his business conservatively and carefully over the years.
“It’s always been a dream to expand and have something for the summer,” he said. “We knew someday this would come about.”
But when he started the ATV rental business earlier this summer, neither the state or town had given its OK to allow ATVs along state roads. Gorham’s Main Street and the main roads leading into Gorham, Routes 2 and 16, are all state roads. Initially he had to truck the ATVs to the trailhead on Route 2.
Then just days before the Jericho Lake ATV Festival opened, the state approved allowing ATVs on state roads in Coos County only. Gorham selectman had already given the state its support for the plan, after a public hearing showed overwhelming support.
“The ATV freedom we have was earned,” Bergeron said. “It’s still being earned. We’re still under the microscope.”
Today an ATV rider can enter the trail in Gorham and ride all the way to Pittsburg. Gorham is the entrance to the Ride the Wilds trail that goes all the way to the Canadian border.
The opening of the state roads and the approval of many North Country towns to allow ATVs on their roads has proved to be a major boon for many businesses.
Bergeron’s small business has definitely felt the impact. The expansion allowed him to recently hire two more people. He also keeps a roster of local experienced guides available to go with ATV riders not familiar with the area, which means extra money for more local people.
The business has nine ATVs that can accommodate 26 people, including a six-person ATV that he uses to take people out on moose tours.
Many of the visitors coming to rent ATVs are looking for a new adventure. Because they may not be used to the challenging terrain here, Bergeron starts out with a 30-minute orientation.
“Safety is number one,” he said, adding that if he had doubts about a person’s ability to handle it, he will require a guide, or, on very rare occasions, has refused them.
He offers two-hour rentals and all-day rentals. Most of the time, he said, all of his vehicles are out.
There were some in Gorham who initially had reservations about allowing then to ride the streets, but most are coming to see how much of a family sport it really is.
Bergeron agreed. His typical customers are often a dad, who still has a little of the wild side in him, a cautious mom, and kids who laugh as they go through the mud puddles on the trails.
Cautious man that he is, Bergeron wouldn’t say at this point what his hopes are for the future.
“I have visions, but nothing is etched in stone,” he said.
“Everything is right here — lodging, restaurants and repairs,” he says of Gorham. “We’re lucky Gorham has opened up its arms to these dirty, dusty ATVs.”