Snowmobilers in Calais shed cabin fever with poker ride

Posted Feb. 08, 2009, at 11:22 p.m.

CALAIS, Maine — It’s winter in Maine.

And what better way to spend it than on the back of a snowmobile, Calais businessman John Marchese said Saturday.

That’s how the more than 50 participants in Break Out of the Winter Blues felt about the two-day snowmobile event held by the Sunrise Snowmobilers.

The event started Friday night with a parade of sleds and a bonfire. Then on Saturday morning it was the popular Calais Lioness breakfast followed by the annual poker run. At each stop a snowmobiler picked up a playing card. The hope was to have the highest five-card hand at the end of the competition.

The morning started with temperatures hovering around 17 degrees. As the day progressed and the sun did its part to heat the Earth’s atmosphere, the temperature rose to around 38 degrees.

The event was billed as a family outing, and out they were, from 6-year-old Josh Davenport of Calais to a 65-year-old reporter who had been on a snowmobile only once before in her life.

The Bangor Daily News was invited by Sunrise Snowmobilers club president David Daggett to participate in the annual event on the back of a snowmobile.

The snowmobile Daggett chose belonged to Calais businessman Ken Thomas, 50.

Outfitted in long underwear and lined jeans and six layers on the top, the reporter was ready for her Saturday morning ride.

Unlike the reporter, Thomas was dressed in snowmobile gear. He has been snowmobiling since he was 10 years old. He started with his father.

“We always had snowmobiles to get to camp because it was the only way you could get in the roads in the wintertime back then,” he said. “Then it grew more and more away from the utility ride and became more of a sport.”

Sitting atop his Polaris Widetrack, the drumbeat of the engine surging under us, it was time to get moving. It was a picture-perfect day.

The 50-mile-plus trip began at downtown Triangle Park, where the first sealed poker card was picked up. From there it was off to Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in Baring, where a second card waited. The federal agency allows the club to use some of the trails there. After that it was a longer trip traveling parallel with North Street and Route 1 to Route 9 in Baileyville, where a third card awaited.

Zipping across the trails, Thomas was the perfect tour guide. There were parts of Washington County the reporter had never seen in her more than 20 years of covering the area, including trails that circled through the refuge and under snow-covered tree tunnels out onto beaver ponds. We stopped at the Clark Brook Bridge in the refuge. “That was an 18-wheeler trailer that was donated,” Thomas said, pointing to the base of the short bridge. “We cut the wheels and axles off it and planked it over.”

The next leg of the journey was Nash’s Lake just outside the city, where the fourth card was picked up. It was a mad dash across the lake, frozen, of course.

The final run traveled behind Washington County Community College and back into the city, with a final stop at the Boy Scout Hall, where hot food and warm embraces were waiting along with the final card.

The event ended at 3 p.m. and by then more than 60 people had turned in their cards. Thomas had a pair of queens over 10s. The reporter had one of every suit — none of them matched.

Thomas said he loves the sport and he is one of the volunteers who maintain the trails.

But not everyone agrees that snowmobiling is such a fun sport because of the impact on the environment and the number of accidents. A 12-year-old Lisbon Falls girl was killed just last week, bringing to five the number of snowmobile fatalities this season.

But Thomas says it doesn’t have to be that way if everyone rides safely.

“All you have to do is be careful, stay on your side of the trail and be aware of others coming,” Marchese said in agreement.

“It is beautiful out here,” Marchese said. “It’s all about the outdoors. It is wintertime. There’s not a whole lot you can do. You might as well get on a snowmobile and enjoy the outdoors. It is where we live and it’s what we should do.”

There were women competitors, too, and Mary Beers of Calais was one of them. “I love to ride,” she said Saturday.

The Calais woman said she has been riding snowmobiles since she was a youngster. She said the equipment today is a lot better than when she was younger. “You had to lean with them,” she said of the older sleds. “You didn’t go real fast — 20 mph was tops.”

Tyson Seeley, 18, of Baileyville was on the trail with some of his friends. He has been snowmobiling all his life, he said. He started with his parents. “We still go together,” he said of the family outings.

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