December 02, 2004 11:00 pm
Popular pastime: Snowmobilers are urged to take safety certification classes before heading to the hills.  (Observer file photo).
Popular pastime: Snowmobilers are urged to take safety certification classes before heading to the hills. (Observer file photo).

By Dick Mason

Staff Writer

Snowmobiles have come a long way since the 1930s when they resembled "Volkswagens on skis.''

Today snowmobiles have a sleek space-age appearance. Some sleds run so smoothly that it almost looks as if they are riding on air.

Snowmobile riders, though, should not be lulled into a false sense of security. Snowmobiles are more likely to break down than a standard automobile, says Larry Schlesser of the La Grande Sno-Drifters snowmobile club.

Schlesser explains that snowmobiles have parts — such as belts — that can break, two-cycle engines that are not as dependable as automobile engines and other issues. Riders must be prepared for mechanical breakdowns and should be equipped to seek help if they become stranded.

Unfortunately, some adults are stumped about what to do if their snowmobile breaks down. One reason? Adults are not required to take safety certification classes in Oregon. Anyone with a driver's license can operate a snowmobile on public land. Only people without a driver's license must take a certification class.

As a result, some people are operating snowmobiles without the knowledge they need. Schlesser calls this "expertise through purchasing power.''

He encourages adults to take safety certification classes such as those offered by the Sno-Drifters.

Among the many things one will learn is the importance of purchasing snowmobiles that have been certified by the Snowmobile Safety and Certification Committee, says Shirley VanderZanden, a snowmobile safety instructor for the Sno-Drifters.

The committee is a nonprofit organization. Under its machine safety standards program, snowmobiles are certified by an independent testing company as being in compliance with committee standards.

Schlesser warns that snowmobile riders can get into trouble not only because of too little experience but also too much. He noted that sometimes experienced snowmobile riders become too confident and begin competing with one another and taking unnecessary risks.

When thinking of safety, people should go high-tech, Schlesser urges. Cell phones and global positioning systems should be part of a snowmobile rider's equipment.

"Cell phones are a safety necessity,'' Schlesser says.

He advises people to keep their cell phones warm by positioning them close to their body. This will help keep the phone's battery strong.

Global positioning systems, meantime, are becoming more affordable. They make it much easier for emergency personnel to locate a person who calls in by cell phone or radio.

People also need to realize the old-fashioned ways they can protect themselves when stranded. One example? Getting into the well of a tree stump in cold weather.

"You are so protected you can't believe it,'' Schlesser said.

Safety certification classes will be offered this winter by the snowmobile club. Information on when the next classes will be taught can be obtained by calling Sno-Drifters snowmobile safety instructors VanderZanden at 963-4334 or Allen Hoadley at 963-5345.