JEFFERSON, Maine — As one of a handful of organizations in Maine that holds snowmobile drag races every year, the Jefferson SnoPackers usually can count on hundreds of folks turning out to watch sleds rocket across frozen Damariscotta Lake.
Those spectators’ donations, in turn, help support the Jefferson Area Food Bank, local fire departments and Cub Scout packs. But the charity event depends on the weather, and it hasn’t exactly been cooperative in recent years.
“We’ve had to cancel three years in a row, and it affects our community quite a bit because we raise thousands of dollars,” said Scott Barbour, president of the Jefferson SnoPackers snowmobile club.
Mild winters, like the current one, have a clear effect on Maine businesses that depend on ice and snow, whether they’re selling bait to fishermen, burgers and hot chocolate to sledders or renting rooms to skiers. Some charities also are feeling the pinch because many fishing derbies, snowmobile “poker runs” and other events double as fundraisers.
The annual Slim’s Fishing Derby, for instance, is the sole fundraiser for the Jimmy Douglass Memorial Scholarship Fund, which offers two scholarships to students from Deer Isle, Stonington and the Blue Hill Peninsula who are attending a two-year community college or trade schools.
Derby organizers made the difficult decision to cancel the Feb. 18-19 derby after two people fell through Alamoosook Lake — one of the two derby locations — and a nearby pond in the days leading up to the event.
Jesse Larrabee, one of the organizers, noted that the event’s namesake, Jimmy Douglass, was a young outdoorsman who died in a snowmobile accident, and organizers did not want to risk another tragedy.
They are now discussing holding another event, possibly in spring or summer. Some organizations and people — including many who pre-bought derby tickets — still have donated to the scholarship fund.
“In calling many of those people back and offering refunds, almost all of them have told use to keep the money, which is extremely generous and helped turn a bad year somewhat positive,” he said.
Many of Maine’s wintertime charity events, such as the SnoPackers’ drag races and Slim’s Fishing Derby, raise relatively modest sums that are nonetheless important to schools, volunteer fire departments, food banks and other nonprofits in rural Maine. Then there are events like the Sebago Lake Ice Fishing Derby, which also fell victim to the warm winter.
Organized by the Sebago Lake Rotary Club, the annual event draws thousands of anglers and has raised more than $750,000 for Good Shepherd Food-Bank, Camp Sunshine, the Maine Children’s Cancer Program and other charitable organizations.
This is the third time in a decade the derby on Sebago Lake — scheduled for Feb. 18-19 — had to be canceled, and event co-organizer Ingo Hartig said the cancellation will mean less revenue will be available for those charities.
But 2012 will not be a total loss. A charity “polar dip” in the lake last weekend helped raise $100,000. Additionally, the Rotary Club also added the top fish prizes from the Sebago derby to the 2012 Statewide Ice Fishing Derby — scheduled for March 3-4 — also operated by the group. That includes $100,000 to anyone who can break the state record for a togue.
“We are hoping to make up some of it then,” said Hartig, who added his organization is also discussing other potential events during the year.
This winter hasn’t been all bad for Maine. The snowmobiling season has been running strong in many areas of northern Maine and likely will be helped along by Friday night’s storm. Additionally, ice fishermen continue to try their luck throughout the state, including on many smaller ponds and lakes even in more southern areas.
Other organizers simply altered their events to account for the conditions.
This weekend’s annual Crystal Lake Ice Fishing Derby in Gray, which supports military families as well as Maine wildlife agencies and schools, is still being held albeit with restrictions on vehicles on the ice.
In the Hancock County town of Orland, meanwhile, the annual snowshoe race in Great Pond Mountain Wildlands that benefits Great Pond Mountain Conservation Trust still was held in January, only with runners wearing crampons or other traction devices.
Back in Jefferson, Scott Barbour with Jefferson SnoPackers said their third consecutive cancellation has led members to approach the owner of a local farm about holding snowmobile drag races later this year — on wet grass, instead of snow.
“We are trying to get away from holding the drag races on the lake just because of the inconsistency of what is going on,” Barbour said. “We are trying to diversify a little bit.”