Traveling through customs riding a snowmobile
PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Dressed in a heavily insulated winter jacket and pants, helmet, thick gloves, and steel-toed boots, I was not only equipped to battle subzero temperatures, but also ready to wrestle polar bears if need be. I hopped on my Ski-Doo and followed guide Kevin Freeman across Main Street onto the first of many trails we would sample that day.
Within minutes, I was immersed in a wonderland of snowed-over fields, forest, and mountains. I zipped up hills, though corridors hemmed in with pine and fir trees, past lonely barns and stacked wood, the remnants of a logging operation.
I was starting a two-nation snowmobile vacation that would lead me from the north of Maine into neighboring New Brunswick. Attached to my sled were panniers, two bags that would carry my clothing and other necessities for an overnight in Canada. First, I would get to play in Aroostook County.
Head north past Bangor and Baxter State Park and you reach The County, as Mainers call it, the largest county east of the Mississippi River. In summer, it’s known for its patchwork quilt of potato and broccoli fields. Come winter, when the land is covered with snow, the region is home to a 2,300-mile snowmobile network.
“You could ride every day for a week and not do the same trail,” said Freeman, 52, who should know a thing or two about snowmobiling here, having amassed more than 250,000 miles on a series of Ski-Doos. Before opening The Sled Shop in Presque Isle, Freeman was a professional snowmobiler for a dozen years, racing on iced-over lakes. Now he sells snowmobiles, rents gear, and guides a growing legion of out-of-towners who are quickly seduced by the sport and the scenery.
Freeman showed me the spot where the first successful trans-Atlantic hot air balloon crossing was launched. Then he led me to the top of Aroostook State Park for a view of snowcapped Haystack Mountain. Trails are a mix of club routes and Interconnecting Trail System (ITS) byways. It’s easy to find a detailed trail map in Presque Isle, the economic hub of the county, and signage is excellent on the trails.
As I glided on a freshly groomed route, staring at the backside of Mount Katahdin, I couldn’t help feeling that I was privy to some American subculture, like horseback riding with ranchers in Montana. Snowmobiling is more than mere recreation in these parts, it’s a way of life and a mode of travel. Freeman was only 7 when his father took him to an open field and let him do circles on a pint-size sled. Now he’s a natural, leaning into turns and dips and leaving me in a cloud of snow on the open fields.
Forty snowmobile clubs in Aroostook and Penobscot counties maintain the trails in northern Maine and I felt their impact when following a large grooming machine that makes the route feel as smooth as driving a Mercedes on an autobahn. I stopped to stare at a large snowy owl standing tall on the upper branches of a birch tree and then spotted deer on the outskirts of Ashland.
Just past the 50-mile mark, we arrived for lunch at Dean’s, a favorite stopover on the shores of Portage Lake. The fish chowder tasted especially good after being outdoors for three hours in temperatures that had warmed up to only 8 degrees Fahrenheit. Thankfully, my garb, while making me look as round as the Pillsbury Doughboy, shielded me from the cold. Freeman worked the room, talking to snowmobilers who come up each year from Connecticut. Lured by the promise of snow, people from around the country come to his shop to try the sport.
“Each year, I have at least one group from Florida or Louisiana, who have never even seen snow,” said Freeman, adding that snowmobile magazines consistently rank The County as one of the top places in the country to try the sport, along with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Alaska.
For a novice, snowmobiling is very accessible. The machine might look intimidating, but all you have to do is plop down, turn it on, and practice accelerating and braking. A heater on the handles warms up your hands while your feet are snug inside a foothold, away from the wind. Gone are the days when you’re sucking gas fumes and feeling every vibration. On my 110 horsepower Ski-Doo, I never smelled gas and barely noticed the engine’s hum, the sound muffled by my helmet.
Indeed, the afternoon became an exhilarating blur as I spent the bulk of the time traveling on a relatively level former railroad corridor, ITS 105, heading northeast. A smile plastered to my face, I reached speeds of 75 miles per hour, thinking to myself, please God, don’t have a moose stumble onto the route in some hypothermic slumber.
In Van Buren we cruised over the Saint John River and followed the lineup of cars at border control. I dug into my overnight bag to locate my passport. They waved me through, and I said goodbye to Freeman and hello to Ross Antworth, general manager of the New Brunswick Federation of Snowmobile Clubs. With the sun starting to set, Antworth quickly led me to a Quality Inn in nearby Grand Falls, our room for the night.
Over dessert, an Acadian specialty of sublime sugar pie, Antworth told me that New Brunswick is home to 7,000 kilometers of groomed snowmobile routes.
“More than 50 percent of the trails are on crown land, under the jurisdiction of the province,” he noted, as compared with the numerous trails in Maine that are on private land.
The next morning, after gassing up at an Irving station, I spotted a rare white ermine digging into the snow. Then we were off and running to once again cross the Saint John, this time on a long railroad bridge that spans the river.
We would spend the morning snowmobiling through dense forest and on logging roads past timber mills. The highlight was Route 19, a narrow railroad bed lined with towering balsams weighted down with a fresh dusting of snow. For lunch, we stopped in the small French village of Saint-Quentin and dined on croque monsieurs while talking with other snowmobilers.
Heading back to the Maine border with the sun beating down, rays splintering through the tall trees, I followed Antworth at a good 60 mile-an-hour clip. All was bliss. My 225-mile weekend jaunt was coming to an end, yet I was in a Zen mode, taking it all in. This is why I live in New England during the harsh winter months, to play outdoors.