Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Corn chowder and Buckaroos: The economic impact of the VAST trail

A group of snowmobilers gather in a snowy gas station parking lot.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
The Buckaroos of 302 suit up in the parking lot of Marty's First Stop in Danville. The store is a popular spot for snowmobilers to park, fuel up and grab some hot soup before hitting the VAST trails.

Snowmobiling is one of the top contributors to Vermont’s winter economy. But what does the future hold for a sport so dependent on reliable snow?

Brave Little State is Vermont Public’s listener-driven journalism show. In each episode, we answer a question about Vermont that’s been asked — and voted on — by you, our audience. Today, a question from Barb Huibregtse of Danville:

“What is the impact of the VAST trail on Vermont’s economy?”

Reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman visits a Northeast Kingdom institution, chats with trail volunteers and jumps in the driver's seat to learn the ropes of snowmobiling.

Note: Our show is made for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript. Transcripts are generated using a combination of robots and human transcribers, and they may contain errors.


Josh Crane: From Vermont Public, this is Brave Little State. I’m Josh Crane.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: And I’m Howard Weiss-Tisman.

Store clerk: Jeanie, do you know how much these bags are? 

Jeanie: A dollar thirty nine. 

Howard Weiss-Tisman: It’s a busy Saturday afternoon at Marty’s First Stop in Danville. There are three employees working the cash registers, and a steady line of customers moving through the checkout with bags of groceries.

Store clerk: Who’s next? 

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Over in the corner, at the deli counter, they’re slinging cups of soup. Their corn chowder is a favorite with the snowmobile crowd.

It’s the kind of winter day Vermonters are becoming increasingly more familiar with: kind of warm and misty.

And it’s a little quiet in the deli — not at all like the old days.

Martin Beattie: In the ’80s, this whole place would be just packed with snow machines, so we did need to prepare extra food.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Meet Martin Beattie. He opened Marty’s First Stop 35 years ago here in the Northeast Kingdom along Route Two.

Martin Beattie: I saw a need for a store, it was going to be a small store that I was going to develop, and run it for five years and sell it. And Feb. 19 we’ll be starting our 35th year of business. So, I was wrong about that part. (Laughs) 

Howard Weiss-Tisman: The store has grown over time, from a small convenience store into a full-service grocery store, which is now an important source of provisions for this corner of the Kingdom.

It’s also a popular spot for snowmobilers. Marty’s is right along an extensive trail system maintained by the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, also known as VAST. The trails connect forests and open fields from one end of the state to the other.

And there’s an access trail that starts right at the end of the store’s parking lot.

Marty’s keeps the area plowed out so riders can park their trailers for the day.

Martin Beattie: From here you can head north and work your way all the way up to Island Pond, to Newport, to different areas. So we were just kind of central, and ended up as being one of the, you know, ‘Well we’ll meet at Marty’s and go from there.’ And, it all evolved together, so they need fuel, they need food. And go out and enjoy Vermont.

A group of snowmobilers fill up on gas
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
Marty's remains an important spot for snowmobilers in the Northeast Kingdom, even as unreliable winters are threatening the sport's survival.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Marty’s has it all. Gas. Hot Soup. A place to park. Even covered picnic tables for the snowmobilers to sit down and enjoy their hot food.

But what Marty can’t control is the weather. And he says as Vermont’s winters have been getting warmer, there are simply fewer days to fire up the snowmobile and hit the trail.

And that means he’s selling a lot less corn chowder than he did back in the day.

Martin Beattie: Yeah, it’s pretty mild out right now compared to Januarys back in the ’90s, and the amount of snow that there is for them to ride on is a lot less, and seems to start a little bit later and end a little bit sooner. So, it’s taken a toll on the number of people participating in the sport.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Marty’s First Stop is open all year, and it’s never been only about the snowmobile business.

But he says back when we had reliable snow, business from the snowmobiles, or “snow machines” as Marty calls them, made it easier to bridge the gap between the busy leaf-peeping season and the warmer weather.

Martin Beattie: If we had a good snow machine weekend and they support us well, it was a real bonus. But you don’t want to plan on making your payments on something that’s dependent on the weather in Vermont, for sure.


Josh Crane: Welcome to Brave Little State, Vermont Public’s listener-powered journalism show. Each episode starts with a question about Vermont that’s been asked — and voted on — by you, our audience.

Today: A question from a listener in Danville:

Barbara Huibregtse: What is the impact of the VAST trail on Vermont’s economy?

Josh Crane: Reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman digs into the world of snowmobiling, the second largest contributor to Vermont’s winter economy.

Robert Reid: We don’t live in a ski area town where we have this influx of finances coming in. 

Josh Crane: And he looks into what the future holds for a sport so dependent on reliable weather conditions.

Cindy Locke: If we continue to have less and less snow, you know, the sport will probably, you know, go away. 

Josh Crane: We’re a proud member of the NPR network. Welcome.

Economic influence

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Are we going to be going through snow? I have boots. Should I put my boots on? 

Barb Huibregtse: It’s pretty flat. It will be like the road. 

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Today’s winning question-asker is Barb Huibregtse. She’s relatively new to Vermont, but her interest in snowmobiling goes back more than a decade.

A couple stands in the snow.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
Question-asker Barb Huibregtse and her husband, Brian Henderson.

Barb Huibregtse: So, I used to come up here from Massachusetts when my kids were growing up. And we’d ski at Sugarbush, or whatever. But you’d see all these trailers.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Snowmobile trailers, with Connecticut and Massachusetts plates.

Barb had never been on a snowmobile, but she wondered what the deal was.

Barb Huibregtse: Because you’d see in the paper articles about the ski resorts, right, and how much influence that has on the economy. But I feel this is apeople don’t really think about the VAST trail, and what that contributes to Vermont.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: VAST — again, that’s the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers. They have more than 20,000 members, and the group builds and maintains more than 6,000 miles of trails.

Vermont is one of the only states in the nation that has a nonprofit group overseeing its snowmobile trail system. In most other states, it’s the Department of Forest and Parks or the Department of Natural Resources that keep the trails open.

And in Vermont, all of the trail work is done by volunteers.

But it’s not only volunteers that make the whole Vermont snowmobile culture hum. Eighty percent of VAST trails are on private land. And there are more than 9,000 landowners who allow the riders to use their land. In the warmer months, they allow crews with chainsaws and ATVs to clear out downed trees.

When Barb and her family moved to Danville seven years ago, she became one of those landowners.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: So tell me where we are. This is your land up here?

Barb Huibregtse: Yeah.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: How much land do you guys got?

Barb Huibregtse: About 200 acres?

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Uh-huh.

Barb Huibregtse: And um, we bought that, what, in 2017?

Brian Henderson: Yeah. 

Barb Huibregtse: So we closed on the house, and it turned out there was a VAST trail on it, so.


Howard Weiss-Tisman: Barb has about a half-mile of trail on her land. And she’s cool with it. She walks her dog along the trails, and steps out of the way when the machines come by.

Such a personal connection to the trail network has only made her more curious.

Barb Huibregtse: I mean, some of it is you just go to Marty’s and you see all of those machines there, and when you look at the paper now, they’re talking about the effect of climate change, always on the ski resorts, but I didn’t see anything about the snow machine trails, and I thought I’d put that out there.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Barb wants to know more about the impact of the VAST trail on the Vermont economy. So I traveled to the organization’s headquarters to talk with the director.

Cindy Locke: My name is Cindy Locke. I’m the executive director of the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, or better known as VAST.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Cindy’s office is located at the end of VAST Lane in Berlin. It’s a small, low-slung building with snowmobiles and trailers out back.

Cindy says the last time VAST did an economic impact study was 2001.

That study estimated that snowmobilers that year spent about $511 million on gas, food, lodging and snowmobiles — including parts and service. That figure also includes vehicle registration and VAST membership fees, which go right back into the organization.

But a lot has changed since that study was done more than twenty years ago. VAST is selling about half the number of annual trail passes it did back then. And the number of snowmobiles registered in Vermont is also down by about half, according to the Agency of Transportation.

So, the cost of things like insurance, snow grooming machines and gas is going up — and the amount of money that VAST takes in is melting away.

Cindy says it’s not a sustainable economic model.

Cindy Locke: If we continue to have less and less snow, you know, the sport will probably, you know, go away. 

Green and yellow signs on a tree.
Josh Crane
Vermont Public
Eighty percent of VAST trails are on private land. And there are more than 9,000 landowners who allow the riders to use their land.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: A recent study from the University of Vermont found that annual snowfall has been decreasing since the 1960s, and that a greater proportion of winter precipitation is now falling as rain, rather than as snow.

Unlike ski resorts, which can make snow when the weather isn’t cooperating, snowmobiling is almost entirely reliant on natural snow.

No snow means Marty sells less corn chowder in Danville. And it means VAST has less money to support the local clubs that maintain the trails in their communities.

Cindy Locke: Will we survive this? I don’t know. You know, I don’t know if snowmobiling will survive, you know, winters without snow. I know they won’t. Like, we won’t survive after just a few, if we have brown winters.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: And it’s not just the snowpack that’s being affected by climate change.

Flooding this summer did a number on the VAST trail system as well.

There are still four major bridges out, which Cindy says will cost an estimated $4 million to fix. She says at this point it isn’t at all clear how they’re going to cover those costs.

Cindy Locke: Do snowmobiles, you know, are they combustion engines? You know, are they a part of the  problem? Sure. But it’s not about pointing fingers, it's about everybody participating in whatever is going to save this world. And we’ve got a lot of things to worry about.

Buckaroos and Sno-Bees

Howard Weiss-Tisman: But if you were charting all of this economic data on a spreadsheet, there is an “X” factor that doesn’t show up in the organization’s annual budget: the volunteer labor that keeps the trail system open year in and year out.

Gary Lamberton: It will not run without the volunteers, will not run.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: That’s Gary Lamberton..

Gary Lamberton: Groton, Vermont, Trailmaster for the Buckaroos of 302.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: The Buckaroos of 302 is just one of the 120 snowmobile clubs that take care of the trails from the Massachusetts state line all the way up to the Canadian border.

Along with the Buckaroos, you’ve got the Lunenburg Polar Bears, the Frigid Frost Fighters, the Pittsford Snomads and the Sno-Bees of Barre.

Gary says The Buckaroos of 302 have about 50 folks in Groton, Peacham and Cabot who come out in the fall to get their 60 miles of trails ready for the season.

Gary Lamberton: And then we go out Oct. 1, and we go out every weekend, one day of the weekend, with a crew of 10 to 20 people, and it’s all hand work with chainsaws and brush cutters, and people hauling brush out of the woods, occasionally re-decking a bridge or putting a new bridge in.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: During the snow season, from December to April, the Buckaroos operate a groomer day and night to keep trails rideable and clear. Riders come from all over — and some end up sticking around to volunteer.

Bruce Cwirka: We’re from Wallingford, Connecticut, and we’ve been coming here since 1983. 

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Bruce Cwirka is another one of the Buckaroos.

Bruce Cwirka: And every year we come here to ride, and this is our first weekend ride of the year that we’ve had so far this year.

Two people gear up on snowmobiles.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
Joan and Bruce Cwirka, from Wallingford, Connecticut, have been coming to Vermont to snowmobile for four decades.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Bruce has been bringing his kids, and now his grandkids, up to Vermont for about 40 years.

Bruce Cwirka: So for us, it’s huge to be here. Yes, we enjoy coming here and we do need to be here for the economy.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: One part of the snowmobile economy that’s taken a hit is the touring sector.

At one point there were about 30 companies in Vermont renting out snow machines and taking visitors on guided tours.

But due to warm winters, insurance costs and changes in how the companies are regulated, most of the guided tour companies have shut down or moved to ski resorts, where the snow cover is more reliable.

But that hasn’t stopped April Volovski.

A woman sits on a snowmobile, explaining something to onlookers.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
April Volovski, who’s from Pennsylvania, has been leading outdoor adventure groups her entire professional life.

‘Chasing the snow’

April Volovski: Now to start off guys, we are going to start slow and easy. OK, this trail system does start out a little bit windy, a little bit narrow. And we’re gonna stay roughly between the 10- to 15-mile-per-hour mark.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: April, who’s from Pennsylvania, has been leading outdoor adventure groups her entire professional life, mostly rafting trips farther south.

She rode a snowmobile for the first time while visiting Vermont in 2017.

April Volovski: After going on that tour for the first time, I realized snowmobiling is something I want to try to do forever. 

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Three years later she helped open Vermont Mountain Adventures near Manchester.

April Volovski: It’s been out of the park since we started. The first year, in 2020, we were constantly sold out. We can kind of guarantee that Saturdays and Sundays are gonna be sold out as well. It’s been fantastic. Of course we’ve had a few mild winters, anybody that’s been here, this year specifically, is pretty aware of that. It’s been pretty mild. 

Howard Weiss-Tisman: April says there’s an intense hunger, especially among those visiting from the south, to experience winter, and appreciate all the wildness and beauty of our state.

And as long as it’s safe to ride, April says she’s going to do what she can to keep this part of Vermont’s winter economy alive.

April Volovski: So right now we’re kind of chasing the snow. We’re in southern Vermont, about, like, northern-southern Vermont, but we are definitely staring at the Northeast Kingdom as well, because they happen to be holding on to snow a little longer than we are.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: When we come back:

Tour company staff: Alright, you got a chance to sign your waiver?

Howard Weiss-Tisman: April takes me on my first ever snowmobile ride.

A man in a helmet sits on a snowmobile.
April Volovski
Prior to reporting this story, this reporter (pictured) had never been on a snowmobile.

Hitting the trail

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Welcome back to Brave Little State. I’m Howard Weiss-Tisman.

So, this is the part of this episode where I admit that I had never driven a snowmobile before working on this story.

April Volovski: Real quick show of hands, how many of you have never done this before? Everybody, huh? It’s our first time too, it’s OK. We’ll figure this out together. No, guys—

Howard Weiss-Tisman: That is, until I visit April Volovski at Vermont Mountain Adventures.

April Volovski: Alright Howard, you’re going to be right here. So when you’re using this you gotta make sure this is in the up position, when you go to use this key it’s just a quick flick to the right. You ready? 

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Yup.

(Sound of engine starting)

Howard Weiss-Tisman: April started her business specifically to explore the Vermont backcountry. For a few hours, we cruise through the Green Mountain National Forest, past iced-over trees and wild lands.

Even in this snow-starved winter, the trails are in good shape at this high elevation.

I’m having a blast.

And so is Edwin Romero from Elizabeth, New Jersey who’s on the tour with me, also riding for the first time.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: And tell me, are you going to bring your kids back?

Edwin Romero: Absolutely.

A man stands smiling with his arms outstretched. He's wearing snow gear.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
Edwin Romero from Elizabeth, New Jersey says he'll come back for another snowmobile tour with his daughters.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Edwin is exactly the kind of guy our question-asker, Barb, is wondering about.

He came up from Jersey with two friends, rented an Airbnb, ate at some restaurants and did some shopping.

And if winter holds on, Edwin tells me that he wants to come back with the rest of his family.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: How many kids you got?

Edwin Romero: Two girls. Nice experience. Highly recommend it. Like, a lot of fun. A lot of fun. 

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Have they ever been on motorcycles? Or jet skis? 

Edwin Romero: Never. Neither has me. First time.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Is that right? Tell me a little more. What’d you love about it? Why do you want to come back?

Edwin Romero: The experience. The views. Everything. It’s like something different, something like, nothing we’ve seen in Jersey for a long time. So it’s a nice experience. Nice. Very nice.


Changing with the times

Howard Weiss-Tisman: We’re going to wrap up this episode where we started, at Marty’s First Stop in Danville.

I catch Robert Reid sitting outside finishing lunch. Robert says he’s been snowmobiling in Vermont since the 1970s.

Robert Reid: We don’t live in a ski area town where we have this influx of, you know, finances coming in. We live in rural Northeast Kingdom. We don’t have the Stowes. We don’t have the Sugarbushes. You know, this is small towns with, you know, snowmobilers and four-wheelers, and fishermen and hunters. You know, that’s the income.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Inside the store, Martin Beattie tells me that a lot has changed in the Kingdom since he opened up 35 years ago.

Martin Beattie: We’ve had to change with the times and change the quality of what we’re doing. And #10 cans of peas don’t mean anything anymore, but they’re looking for organic frozen peas. And you have to change with the times, and this is part of the change we’re making now is — what my mother wanted was 50 pound bags of flour and sugar, because she did all the home baking and everything, and what I cooked was a lot of big block hams and turkeys, and now it’s a new generation where they’re making tacos (laughs) and different things. So, things change.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Marty’s 70 now, and he’s ready to retire. His daughter-in-law, Lyndsay, is taking over the store.

She lives in Marty’s old house with her husband and kids, the seventh generation of Beatties to live on the same farm, right up the hill from the store.

A young woman and an older man stand in a store aisle next to condiments on one side and wine bottles on the other.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
Lyndsay and Martin Beattie in Marty's First Stop.

Lyndsay Beattie: Danville is extremely important to me. I mean I grew up here. Went to school here. It’s a very tight, close-knit community. And Marty has been a big supporter of the town.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Lyndsay’s got big plans. She’s hoping to start a major expansion next year to make the store bigger, and bring in more local fresh produce and local meat.

But she says there will always be hot corn chowder waiting for the snowmobilers, as long as they show up.

Lyndsay Beattie: We love having the snowmobilers here in the winter. We make sure that the parking lot is clear so that there’s room for trailers. We always have hot soups and other lunch specials for the snowmobilers to come in and grab and go and get warm, and so it is important to our business to have the snowmobilers here, and we like to accommodate as much as we can for them.

Two snowmobilers ride on a snowy wooded trail.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
Lyndsay Beattie says as long as the snowmobilers show up, there's a place for them at Marty's.



This episode was reported by Howard Weiss-Tisman and produced by Sabine Poux. Editing and additional production from Burgess Brown and Josh Crane. Angela Evancie is Brave Little State’s Executive Producer. Our theme music is by Ty Gibbons; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.

Special thanks to Sophie Stephens, Augie Melendez, Brian Henderson, Joan Cwirka, Kevin McDonnell, Becca Washburn and Zachary Amerling.

As always, our journalism is better when you’re a part of it:

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public and a proud member of the NPR Network.

Corrected: March 15, 2024 at 11:05 AM EDT
Correction: We removed a statistic that said that the number of days with an inch or more of snow in Vermont had dropped 40% since 1960, because we could not verify where it originated. According to data from NOAA, the total days of snow cover greater than one inch in Vermont was actually the same in 1960 and 2016, with variability from year to year. The story has been updated with additional reporting.
Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
Sabine Poux is a reporter/producer with Brave Little State. She comes to Vermont by way of Kenai, Alaska, where she was a reporter, news director, and on-air host for almost three years. Her reporting on commercial fishing and energy has been syndicated across Alaska and on NPR.