FORT KENT - In the afternoon on Feb. 19, a 2012 Polaris snowmobile owned by Dustin Plourde of Fort Kent ended up in the St. John River near St. Francis.
Plourde was able to get out of the water with help from the group of snowmobile riders traveling with him.
District Game Warden Jeff Spencer said, "He was very lucky to get out, with the temperature of the water and the speed of the current at that location. Sometimes people aren't so lucky."
Warden Spencer said the group was crossing the open panel when something happened, and the snowmobile sank into about five feet of water. Part of the snowmobile's handlebars is still visible, sticking up out of the river.
Not only is driving a snowmobile across open water dangerous, it is illegal. Spencer said seven or eight years ago, the legislators changed the laws to make it a violation of state statute to operate a snowmobile on open water.
Spencer said one statute gives the violator 24 hours to remove the machine. If the machine is not removed within that time period, the Maine Warden Service may remove it for the owner at the owner's expense, and/or issue a summons to court. The state may also levy a fine of up to $500 and a minimum of $100. Multiple offenses will increase the severity of the punishment for violations.
Another state statute that law enforcement may apply for less hazardous offenses gives the owner 30 days after the violation, or 30 days after the ice goes out, to remove the machine. This law allows the state to levy a $200 fine, in addition to the cost of removing the machine.
No law enforcement official has filed any charges at this time.
"Snowmobiles, under the right conditions, can go quite a distance across open water. However, there are a lot of conditions that will also cause the machine to sink," said Warden Spencer. "It's not something you really want to be doing."
He said it's common for people to try it two or three times and to have no problems, but then for their luck to run out when conditions are no longer perfect. With all of the snowmobiling clothes needed for the sport and the fast current typically associated with open water in the winter, it can become quite difficult for a capsized operator to get out of the water. The situation can quickly turn life-threatening.
Warden Spencer pointed out that the water level is low in that location of the St. John River now because there are ice jams upstream. If Plourde leaves his machine in the water until after the ice melts, the water level will rise considerably, and it may become impossible to retrieve the vehicle within the 30 day window provided after ice-out.
He said if Plourde does not retrieve his machine within the required time period, the Maine Warden Service could file charges against the owner at that time. He said he thinks the owner is planning on trying to retrieve the machine this weekend.
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