Thrills, chills and a near spill in the Valley

Posted Feb. 01, 2010, at 8:20 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:35 a.m.
Meeting friends along the trail is all part of snowmobiling in northern Maine. Gary Pelletier, right, takes a moment to talk conditions over with Jerry Beaulieu who was on his way to open up a section of trail around Square Lake following Friday's snowfall. PHOTO BY JULIA BAYLY
Meeting friends along the trail is all part of snowmobiling in northern Maine. Gary Pelletier, right, takes a moment to talk conditions over with Jerry Beaulieu who was on his way to open up a section of trail around Square Lake following Friday's snowfall. PHOTO BY JULIA BAYLY
Snowmobiling Newtonian physics means when an object in motion meets an immovable object, the rider had better be wearing a helmet to prevent serious injury. PHOTO BY JULIA BAYLY
Snowmobiling Newtonian physics means when an object in motion meets an immovable object, the rider had better be wearing a helmet to prevent serious injury. PHOTO BY JULIA BAYLY

Editor’s Note: Part 3 of a three-part series on snowmobiling in Maine.

FORT KENT, Maine — The only thought going through my head as the tree came closer was: “Thank goodness I borrowed that helmet.”

Not exactly the most auspicious start to my morning of snowmobiling adventure in northern Maine, but it was a good lesson in how fast things can go wrong when a 400-pound sled is not given the respect it’s due.

Things had started out so well. Leaving from my house, my guide and I intended to join the nearby snowmobile trail system by way of my own dog-sledding trails, a distance of about a half-mile.

Since I knew that section of trail, I took the lead with perhaps a bit too much confidence and definitely too much hubris.

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I was pulled into a small section of open water and slam, right into that tree.

After the jolt, I was still upright on the sled and found myself looking at a big gash in the bark. I couldn’t tell who got the worst of it, as neither the tree nor the sled escaped unscathed. The plastic fitting over the bumper was cracked.

Let me be perfectly honest right upfront — I had no one to blame but myself, something that was cold comfort when looking at the damage to the tree and to my sled.

My guide for the morning – retired game warden and backcountry sledding guide Gary Pelletier — summed up the mishap in five words: “You were going too fast.”

Not that I was zooming down the trail, but given the conditions — an ungroomed, drift-covered trail — I admittedly took the corner a bit too fast.

After Gary got me unstuck, the rest of the day was a piece of cake, albeit an Arctic-type adventure.

The plan was to ride a loop from Fort Kent through St. Agatha out to Cross Lake and back into Fort Kent by way of Little Black Lake, just under 35 miles altogether.

On a clear day we would see lakes, snow-covered fields, woodland and maybe even some northern Maine wildlife.

This past Saturday I saw snow and, when I was lucky, the taillight of Gary’s snowmobile.

It was northern Maine winter at its best — 30 mph winds, subzero temperatures, whiteouts, drifting snow — and Gary was in his element.

“I love powder riding,” he said with a big grin during one stop.

Gary has been guiding backcountry snowmobile trips and trail rides for years. The man has been operating the machines since 1961, so he knows a thing or two about safe riding for the conditions.

“When I hear people saying they have a tough time riding, I remind them they need to ride the sled and don’t let it ride them,” Pelletier said. “It’s never a good idea to ride alone, and people should always let someone know where they are going to be going and when they plan on returning.”

He possesses the equipment, the knowledge, the experience and — perhaps most importantly — the patience to guide novices such as myself.

I’ll confess to being far more comfortable on the runners of a dog sled with a team of huskies in front of me than on the heavy Skidoo Expedition I normally use to groom my trails, but Saturday’s ride with Gary gave me a real appreciation for what snowmobiling means to northern Maine.

“It’s a great way to see the country,” Pelletier said. “Just yesterday I took a group up to Estcourt [Quebec] for a steak dinner and they couldn’t believe it.”

Along the way Pelletier would stop and point out signs placed by the various clubs indicating directions to different towns, restaurants or lodging.

“There’s a whole lot of work that goes into keeping all this open,” he said.

Soon after, we met up with snowmobiler Jerry Beaulieu — one of only three sledders we saw on the trails all morning — who was on his way to inspect the trail leading to Square Lake.

“He’s one of the guys that keeps things open,” Pelletier said. “Without people like that, we’d have no trails.”

In the woods, where the trails were relatively sheltered from the wind, it was obvious some serious time had been spent grooming.

As wide as a town road, the trails are divided in hills and curves to prevent head-on accidents, something Pelletier said has evolved over the years.

In the open, it was a different story.

Thank goodness those clubs and volunteers take the time to mark the trails with stakes. If not, I have no doubt I’d still be out there somewhere.

Luckily, Pelletier knew exactly where he was going, and all I had to do was pay attention and follow.

After a bit, I was able to relax and look around. I realized I was seeing parts of the St. John Valley I’d never seen before — in between the gusts of snow, that is.

Our ride lasted just the morning and ended just the way Pelletier likes all of his trips to finish.

“We left nothing but trails and brought home nothing but memories,” he said.

For this reporter, memories and maybe even a hankering to try the trails again. Slower next time, and provided Pelletier’s willing.

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