FORT KENT, Maine — The calendar says Maine is in the depths of winter, but anyone who spends time outdoors will tell you conditions are feeling a bit more like spring.
Warmer than average temperatures over the past several weeks have created conditions normally not seen until April, leaving some wondering whether the state’s economically important snowmobiling season is over for the year.
“Absolutely not,” Matt Polstein, owner of Twin Pine Camps in Millinocket, said Tuesday. “We have a good, ridable product right now.”
Granted, the quality of that snow varies greatly around the state depending on where last weekend’s snow-rain line passed, but overall trails are open for business from The Forks to Aroostook County.
“Part of our system got more than 2 feet of snow last weekend,” Polstein said. “But just over that snowline in slightly lower elevations, we got 3 to 4 inches.”
That was the same story in the Greenville area, where Moosehead Snowmobile Riders club President Tom McCormack said up to a foot of snow fell over the weekend, and even with above-freezing temperatures, snow is sticking around.
“We’ve been grooming, but definitely going out after dark when it cools down some,” McCormack said.
In fact, it is temperature more than snowfall — or lack thereof — that is playing havoc with the trails.
“We need some consistent cold to freeze things up,” Polstein said. “We’ve been grooming but the snow is wet and heavy, and we are doing more filling in of holes than smoothing things out.”
In The Forks, Russell Walters, president of Northern Outdoors, said the season definitely is not over, but he has had to get a bit creative with his clientele.
“In the Kennebec River Valley area, the trails are just too soft and getting really beat up going in and out of town,” Walters said. “So we moved our rental sleds to a location near the ITS trails about eight miles out and are taking our guests there to begin their rides.”
Elevation played a huge role when it came to the recent snow haves and have-nots, Walters said.
“Four [hundred] to 500 [feet] can make all the difference,” he said. “Where we got 4 or 5 inches [here], up in Jackman they are dealing with a couple of feet.”
According to Tamara Cowen at Cozy Cove Cabins in Jackman, riders are flocking to the area to take advantage of all that new snow.
“There is so much new snow and so many people, the groomers could not get the trails groomed fast enough,” Cowen said. “What we got was a heavy, wet snow [and] we got around 18 inches — I should know because I moved it all with shovels and a plow.”
Cowen said it is the efforts of local volunteers that are keeping the riders happy on those trails.
“The [snowmobile] clubs are incredible,” she said. “They are doing a great job opening and rerouting trails and are just an incredible team.”
Back in Greenville, McCormack said the trails remain open, even over the lakes, which have areas of glare ice or slush.
“We have plenty of snow now,” McCormack said, “but who knows what’s coming?”
According to the National Weather Service, northern Maine will see daytime highs in the low 30s with temperatures dropping to the low teens at night through Saturday.
In the Forks and Greenville areas, those nighttime lows are forecast to drop to the midteens.
“That cold is what we need right now,” Walters said. “We can currently accommodate our guests by trailering them to the snow, but it’s not the utopia we like of riding our trails right out of our driveway.”
Polstein said about 80 percent to 90 percent of his system is snow-covered and he expects his team of groomers to be on the trails every night this week as temperatures fall.
“It’s going to be pretty tough, but we are getting out there,” Kathy Mazzuchelli, the voice of northern Maine snowmobiling, said Tuesday morning. “Luckily we had a great base from the snow in December [and] that’s what we’ve been working with for two months.”
Sledding will be spotty in northern Maine, with better conditions the farther north riders go, Mazzuchelli said.
Areas northwest of Millinocket saw substantial snow over the weekend along the ITS 85 corridor, with the area north of Shin Pond getting 11 inches, she said.
“But south of Oxbow, there is limited snow coverage,” she added.
Mazzuchelli said the trails north of a line starting at Ashland and going to Van Buren are still in pretty good shape, but proper grooming and snowmobilers who exercise patience will be key to keeping them that way.
“All the clubs have not been able to groom,” she said. “Riders don’t understand you can’t groom wet, heavy snow when it’s warm [because] it may look pretty, but the first snowmobile that goes across it tears it up and then the sun hits that and melts it faster.”
Given the expected cool-down, Mazzuchelli said, most grooming operations are expected to restart this week in northern Maine and things should really improve by the weekend.
“Riders do need to use extreme caution on lakes and rivers,” she said. “On one lake in the Fish River chain, the ice depth went from 36 to 24 inches in a week, so riders need to stay within the marked corridors.” She did not specify which lake.
Mazzuchelli, Polstein, Walters and McCormack agree there is still plenty of snowmobiling left in Maine, and riders should not go by what trails look like at road crossings or close to roads.
“Once you get out into the system, it’s still good sledding,” Mazzuchelli said. “We are not dead yet — the weather made us roll over for a while but we are not dead yet.”
Complete trail conditions and information can be found on the Maine Snowmobile Association Web site at www.mesnow.com.