Photograph by Michelle Heimerman

Friendship fuels this women-only snowmobile club in Old Forge, even in the shadow of a deadly winter

On a freezing night last winter,
Kristyn Abbale, 28, left Daikers, a shorefront bar popular with snowmobilers, an hour before last call and drove her sled onto the frozen ice of Fourth Lake in the Fulton Chain. A resident of Saratoga Springs, Abbale was heading to her family’s camp south of Eagle Bay. She never made it home. The next morning Town of Webb police were dispatched on snowmobiles to the area where she was reported missing, and her body was found among a stand of trees near a dock on Lawrence Point. They determined she likely became disoriented and crashed, the preliminary causes of the accident both unsafe speed and alcohol impairment. Abbale was one of four to die that weekend in upstate New York.

Snowmobile fatalities tripled last season in the region, and the accident reports read like a litany of tragic mistakes and poor judgment: thrown from sled, crashed into tree, crashed with no helmet, failure to keep right, visibility impaired, hit a ditch, snowmobiling while intoxicated. Most frequently, the cause listed is “imprudent speed for conditions.”

The Fastgirls knew Abbale. The members of this all-women snowmobile club have been riding the Town of Webb trails together since 1997 and are regulars at the same winter hangouts Abbale frequented. They had invited me to ride with them on one of those late winter days, the lucky kind, right after fresh snowfall with uninterrupted blue skies. We’d been planning for this most of the winter, but weather conditions were either poor or schedules conflicted, so when I finally drove up Route 28 in mid-March, the timing turned out to be a grim coincidence that couldn’t go unremarked.

The women’s usual boisterous mood turned solemn as they talked about it. “Kristyn was the second friend I’ve lost this year,” said Denise Wenhold. “She was turning 29 two days after she was killed.”

“We’re all still messed by it,” said Kimberly Hoy.

On the Fastgirls’ Facebook page, the frequently posted motto “Smiles not miles” reinforces their emphasis on having fun while minimizing the risks of an inherently dangerous sport.

The Fastgirls usually avoid riding during weekends, when local trails can be clogged with out-of-town riders intent on less sober fun. The day I was there, SnoFest was in full throttle, and almost 4,000 snowmobilers had descended on the Old Forge area to ride the trail network and attend new model reveals by Polaris, Ski-Doo and Arctic Cat. Sleds lined up at a temporary refueling station next to the Enchanted Forest Water Safari. Parking lots at roadside lodges and inns were packed with pickups and trailers. A freestyle jumping show attracted a boisterous crowd. Rental outfits and gear shops advertised end-of-season sales.

Hoy, who has a nursing degree, owns a vacation cabin on Fourth Lake with her partner, Karl Dodson. They operate a graphics business in Lewisberry, Pennsylvania, and created the logo-wear sported by the club’s dozen members. A black banner with “Fastgirls” in pink Gothic lettering hung between two pines in their driveway. Several snowmobiles bearing the same emblem were already parked outside, and five of the regular riders were drinking coffee in the open kitchen, decorated with stuffed moose and owl toys, snowflakes and a snowmobile sign with the couple’s affectionate nickname “Bickersons” outlined in neon.

Marie LaPorte, 74, is the oldest Fastgirl. Most are in their mid-50s, and all have close ties to the Adirondacks. LaPorte’s daughter, Crystal, recently reopened the Old Mill Restaurant in Old Forge. Julie Manzi is an Inlet native. Stephanie Clark’s husband owns a fuel supply company in Eagle Bay.

“I met my husband in California, where I was surfing,” said Clark. “And then I’m shoveling four feet of snow.”

Denise Wenhold, laughing, said: “I like to say it’s the most wonderful time of the year, so everybody thinks I’m referring to Christmas, but I’m just talking about snow.”

LaPorte has been snowmobiling for 46 years—she was president of a snowmobile club in central New York before relocating to the Adirondacks. Wenhold grew up riding with her family. Hoy learned to ride after meeting her boyfriend, who was only half-joking when he hinted their relationship hinged on it. And while Hoy originally formed the Fastgirls as an auxiliary to her partner’s Fastboys club, these close women friends quickly learned they enjoyed sledding together as a way to “vent and bond,” while going at their own speed.

Hoy often acts as the club’s “sweeper.” The last position in a group ride, she is responsible for maintaining proper spacing between sleds and keeping an eye out for other problems during trips that can sometimes traverse 250 miles, anywhere from Cranberry Lake to Stillwater. Some of the Fastgirls have also taken their sleds on backpacking tours in Quebec. 

“You have to have a destination,” said Clark.

The region between Old Forge and Eagle Bay provides access to some of the Adirondacks’ largest swaths of protected land, including the Pigeon Lake Wilderness, Sargent Pond Wild Forest, Black River Wild Forest and Ha-De-Ron-Dah Wilderness (snowmobiling is prohibited in Wilderness Areas but permitted on Wild Forest land), as well as the private Adirondack League Club preserve. These tracts are adjacent to Moose River Plains, the largest block of public land accessible by snowmobile, and the trail system here extends outward for 500 miles, connecting to other popular networks outside the Blue Line.

The clashing ideologies over land use in the Adirondacks that divide motorized-sports enthusiasts from environmentalists is less prevalent here than elsewhere in the park. (A current controversy up north revolves around proposed tree-cutting to create a complex of snowmobile trails connecting High Peaks communities.) The Town of Webb has embraced snowmobile culture. While other hamlets hibernate, Old Forge and Inlet are open for business.

“We depend on winter,” said Michael Farmer, the Town of Webb publicity director. “And what drives winter tourism [here] is snowmobiles. We have the only paid permit trail system in the state. Last year we issued in excess of 12,000 permits, with over 80 percent sold to non-residents. People have been coming here 20 to 30 years for snowmobiling. They’re not going south to Florida. Per capita spending is much higher by our snowmobilers than summer visitors. On average, way over $200 per day. It means millions of dollars for the central Adirondacks.”

In addition to the snowmobiler-friendly amenities in Old Forge, the main advantage the Town of Webb has over other sledding destinations in the state is its groomed trails, said Farmer.

Funds from seasonal permits cover salaries for the trail-grooming staff. A dozen full-time professionals construct and repair the snow base throughout the Town of Webb system, including Trail 5, which parallels Route 28 and is subjected to the most traffic. For perspective, the town employs six law enforcement officials.

The Fastgirls finished their coffee and donned their gear. Hoy’s helmet was playfully embellished with a day-glo nylon ponytail. Clarke’s neoprene barn boots were custom pink. Marie LaPorte’s daughter Crystal arrived in time to join us. I climbed on behind as Clark revved her MXZ X Ski-Doo, and we followed the others down the road and into the parking lot at Daikers. Sunlight bounced off piles of snow to warm customers lounging on the open deck overlooking Fourth Lake. Despite unseasonal thaws, the lake remained frozen to a depth of two feet. Halfway out on the ice the group braked and dismounted as other sleds roared past in a drag race. Bald Mountain was visible in the distance.

“Can’t believe how beautiful it is out here,” said Hoy. “No wind today.”

Crystal LaPorte reclined on her sled seat, tired after her restaurant’s opening night.

“Suck it in, Crystal,” said Wenhold, smiling.

Clark jumped back on her sunburst yellow sled to show me the lake. We went fast. Then we went faster. Tamaracks on the shoreline blurred. All I could hear inside my helmet was the rushing wind and the loud brahp of the two-stroke engine. We hit a slight bump and my muscles froze. I grabbed Clark’s waist tighter. At some point I stopped being afraid. Then the ride started to be fun. We passed ice fishermen next to an island, and they waved, holding aloft cans of beer.

By the time we returned to the point where the other Fastgirls waited, they were ready for lunch, so we drove off the lake again. The Tavern in Eagle Bay was packed with snowmobilers eating hamburgers. A sign next to the pool table read: “I didn’t climb to the top of the food chain to become a vegetarian.” Behind the bar hung “I Survived Trail 5” T-shirts for sale. Fundraiser jars for needy pets and an orphanage sat next to plastic squirt bottles of ketchup and mustard. Helmets were racked on a shelf above the tables.

After placing our orders, the conversation turned to the hazards of a sport involving high speeds and heavy machinery, especially as the women age. Clark admitted to having her hip replaced and recently broke her wrist. Though Clark’s injuries weren’t sledding-related, Hoy once broke her wrist while snowmobiling.

“Her and I are like twins,” said Hoy, grinning. “I got metal in here.”

So why is it still worth being a Fastgirl?

“You can’t sit back and not take risks in life,” said Wenhold. “The pleasure we get from it is greater than the risk. Snowmobilers are happy people.”

Due to so many accidents during a winter characterized by icy conditions and erratic temperatures, the Town of Webb had initiated sobriety checkpoints to crack down on drunk sledding and speeding—the statewide speed limit is 55 mph—but only on supervised trails, not open lakes. The women pointed out that it’s easy to become disoriented in blizzard conditions and wander too close to shore, where docks and other obstacles may be obscured, especially if alcohol is involved.

Other winter sports can be hazardous—ice climbing and backcountry skiing also have certain risk factors—but they lack an engine and the social stigma associated with snowmobiling and its party culture. For the Fastgirls, however, it’s a mental sport, requiring both stamina and acuity. They explained to me that skill and experience are essential to riding safely. (All have passed certified safety courses.) Earlier, the women had mentioned that newer equipment has more horsepower than older models. “They’re dangerous if you’re not respectful of the sled,” said Hoy. “Don’t overpower yourself.”

“Don’t drive above your ability,” said LaPorte. “Just because you can afford to go out and buy the newest and the latest and the hottest doesn’t mean you need all that. My sled is an ’01 and I still keep up with everyone.”

The Fastgirls work on their friendship in ways other than snowmobiling together. They meet up for happy hour in bars and potluck dinners at each other’s homes, share laughs around a firepit, plan sunset cruises on the lake or hiking and kayaking trips during summer. “The common denominator is Old Forge,” said Wenhold. “We’re a close-knit community that enjoys each other’s company. We work hard and have crazy lives. But we also want to have fun together.”     

Our burgers and bowls of chili arrived. Other customers in the bar were already drinking cocktails and beer but the Fastgirls nursed glasses of water. I envied their camaraderie. It’s hard enough to find girlfriends who pursue the same interests, let alone those who want to go fast while doing it. For most, this weekend was the last ride of the season.

“At the end of the year, if everybody’s weathered the storm, and we have no injuries, no mechanical breakdowns, anything like that?” said Wenhold. “We get off and we hug our sleds.”

Shane Mitchell is contributing editor at Saveur magazine. She is the author of Far Afield (2017, Random House) and recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award. Her “A Dairy Tale,” from the December 2018 issue of Adirondack Life, won silver in the Profiles category at the 2019 International Regional Magazine Association awards.

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