September 02, 2012 - JOHN HARRIGAN: Woods, Water, Wildlife (NH Sunday News)
Last Friday, after a dash out of the office and into the rain for lunch, I spent a few minutes under the protective eaves of Le Rendez-Vous French Bakery in downtown Colebrook, watching the Labor Day weekend traffic coming up Route 3.
It was an eye-opener. Not just for the number of kayaks on vehicles' roofs, but also because of the number of ATVs being transported via pickup beds and trailers. Thousands of New Hampshire people have ATVs (the latest registration figures hover at around 18,500, with many more from out of state), but with few places to ride. And the North Country is now in a position to create one of the longest and best multi-day riding loops in the country.
Briefly put, the ATV (for the uninitiated, "all-terrain vehicle") segment of New Hampshire's recreation scene is emulating the famously successful snowmobile fraternity's organization and self-policing movement in the late '60s and early '70s, and is organizing and policing its ranks fast. It is also forging good relations with landowners and, with the state's help, is working on new trail systems. Whether you like ATVs or don't, and for sure many people don't, this is only fair. The moment the state began taking ATV registration money way back when, it owed the ATV riders something back.
That something is now in the form of efforts to aid the private sector - the local ATV clubs and their friends and supporters in the business community - in bringing to fruition a plan to connect far-flung North Country towns via a giant looping trail system encompassing much of the region above Lancaster.
This trail would encircle a huge piece of territory with a system bigger and better than the nationally-known McCoy Hatfield Trail System in West Virginia. It would be a longer circuit, by far. And Better? You bet - because unlike the North Country's planned loop, the West Virginia trail system is not totally connected. Users have to trailer between sections.
The Upper Coos trail would run in a gigantic circle from North Stratford (a perfect unloading place, off Route 3 in the big field below Burns Truck Stop) to Gorham and Berlin, then to Errol, then to Pittsburg, over to West Stewartstown, downriver to Colebrook and back to North Stratford. Or, riders could unload along Route 16 in Gorham and accomplish the same circuit.
The demographics for ATV enthusiasts already lean heavily toward the 40 to 60-year-old age group and the visionaries of the Upper Co�s Loop have that group and families squarely in their sights. These are the riders who would come here not to ram their machines around the circuit in a single day (which inevitably some riders will), but instead would come prepared to stay in various towns along the loop and spend money at motels, gas stations, convenience stores and motels, explore side-trails that local clubs have fostered and then go on to the next stopping point for more of the same.
The New Hampshire ATV Club, one of the umbrella organizations for the various state clubs and the industry in general, lists 21 individual ATV clubs around the state, with more coming each year. There are six clubs in the upper North Country alone.
Stratford's Ted Burns is a longtime ATV enthusiast and a pioneer in (a) getting the ATV ridership organized so as to emulate snowmobiling's famed accomplishments in addressing and solving problems, and (b) stressing the need for obeying laws, adhering to basic trail manners and forging good relations with landowners and other recreational groups.
"The circuit trail is really our vision, our hope," he said, "and the state's starting to realize its potential. My hat's off to Harry Brown and Craig Washburn of the Metallak Club in Colebrook for pushing this thing along."
Harry Brown is optimistic that the dream will become a reality. All but the final link from Colebrook to North Stratford should be a reality by next spring, he believes, and the final loop should be completed by the summer of 2014.
Business people all over the North Country are beginning to realize the potential here. ATV riders clearly want trails that will take them from one destination to another, without having to trailer in between. They want to go from one place offering amenities - food, lodging, entertainment, trail provisions, local attractions - to another, and be able to stay awhile and not hurry. Riders could, for instance, unload either at the park and ride on Route 16 at Gorham or at the Ted Burns field and plan overnights in any or all of the major stops on the loop. The economic potential for regional businesses is evident and enormous.
Harry Brown says the new trail to the Dixville Peaks has been something of a litmus test for problems and has turned out well. He believes, as do many others in the forefront of emulating the snowmobiling fraternity's success, that local clubs and members can foster and enforce good ridership behavior and forge and maintain the good landowner relations that will make the sport and industry viable into the future.
Several North Country downtowns, meanwhile, have come up with ways to allow ATV riders into their midst without causing problems for motorists, pedestrians, other recreational users or residents who don't want noise into the nighttime and others are in the midst of planning.
Their collective aim is to encourage a relatively new and promising recreational and tourism asset which, like snowmobiling, will become a major and welcome shot in the arm for a region bereft of manufacturing jobs, a territory now nearly totally dependent on its scenery, its wild and remote mystique - and the entrepreneurship and hospitality of its people.
John Harrigan's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News.