FORT KENT, Maine — She took her own sweet time, but once Mother Nature decided to deliver winter to northern Maine, she did it in grand style.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time for local economies.
Winter is big business in an area which relies heavily on seasonal activities such as snowmobiling, the Can Am sled dog races, ski competitions and other snow-related recreation.
Trouble was, through the first part of January, conditions were poor and were keeping away regular visitors — and the money they spend.
“Between Christmas and New Year’s, I did not have enough erasers for the cancellations,” said Arlene Lerman of the Long Lake Motor Inn. “The first week of January there was no snow, but since then we have filled up.”
Lerman owns the St. Agatha inn with her husband, Ken Lerman, and said the turnaround after substantial snowfalls over the past two months has been a major shot in the arm for their business.
“The snow came and we were saved,” she said. “We have 20 rooms here and we are full.”
According to the National Weather Service’s Northeast snow depth map, as of March 10, Aroostook County has the deepest snow in the state, with an estimated snowpack between 20 and 25 inches in the St. John Valley and 15 to 20 inches around the rest of The County.
“This is really good,” said Kathy Mazzuchelli of the Caribou Parks and Recreation Department, a longtime voice of snowmobiling in northern Maine. “Motel vacancy rates went down significantly after we got snow, and now we are seeing snowmobiles outnumbering cars in restaurant parking lots.”
She said grooming operations did the best job they could with minimal snow to work with early in the season, but those efforts created an excellent base to work and ride on, which could last well into April.
“Now you can’t find a bad trail out there,” Mazzuchelli said.
Up in the St. John Valley, the annual Can Am Crown sled dog races drew scores of mushers with hundreds of dogs to the area last weekend. For many traveling from points south, it was the first time they and their teams had been on snow this year.
Trail groomers had worked with what snow there was and by early February had a packed trail established for the event’s three races, ranging from 30 to 250 miles.
Less than two weeks before the race, the area got hit with a major snowstorm that dumped more than 2 feet of new snow. On race day, another 10 inches of snow provided a lot of icing on the winter recreation cake for dog sledding and other sports.
“Although we waited for the snow to come this year, our conditions have been excellent for over two months now,” said Colin Jandreau of Four Seasons Trails in Madawaska. “Our snow base on the ski trail was well below normal for mid-February, so the late snowfalls over the past two weeks have in reality only brought our snowpack back to normal for this time of year.”
And just in time, as the facility is hosting a county middle school race this Tuesday, the Acadia Federal Credit Union Ski Marathon on March 18 and the annual Tiki Torch Night ski on March 24.
“We are in excellent shape for hosting these events,” Jandreau said. “Snowshoeing and skiing at Four Seasons will continue into late March and early April if the weather patterns are normal for March.”
According to officials at the National Weather Service in Caribou, Jandreau and other outdoor winter enthusiasts may be in luck.
“For spring as a whole, which includes March, April and May, we are going to be about normal for temperatures and precipitation, as well,” Maureen Hastings, NWS forecaster in Caribou, said Saturday. “It has been a warmer than normal year across the rest of the country with a lot less snow than normal.”
In Caribou the snow levels are about 6½ inches below normal for this time of year, Hastings said.
“The first part of the season was warmer than normal, so it seemed like a lot of the storms we got started as snow and then changed over to a snow-rain mix,” she said. “When we got into the late part of winter, we got more snow and it stayed colder, [but] it looks we have gone back into that warmer pattern.”
Temperatures hit 58 degrees in Caribou on Thursday, setting a new record for the high, previously 50 degrees in 1995.
Mazzuchelli was philosophic about the warm-up.
“It’s March, it will be short-lived,” she predicted. “The snowpack is still good [and] overall people like spring riding and [Aroostook County] is a great place to do it.”
Mazzuchelli is worried that despite the recent heavy snowfalls, it may be too little too late for some businesses this year.
“Whether or not some businesses can make up what they lost over the season is still a question out there,” she said. “But it’s still good they can make up some ground.”
For Lindy Howe and Kevin Quist at Heywood Kennels in Stockholm, winter could not arrive soon enough.
The couple gives guided sled dog rides during the winter and it’s a simple equation — no snow means no clients and no income.
“We counted on our winter income a bit early this year and [the weather] certainly did have an impact,” Howe said. “Once you start getting behind, it is twice as hard to catch up [and] when snow-related events were being canceled we were losing money twice as fast.”
At Martins’ Motel in Madawaska, owner Jean Ouellette was welcoming the good trail conditions.
“It was a slow start to the season,” she said. “But for the past three weeks we have been really busy [and] that foot and half of snow we got last week was really a blessing.”
She said the motel did not have many cancellations as “people are getting used to our late winter conditions and not making plans early.”
The snow marked a dramatic turnaround at Heywood Kennels, where Howe said “the phones are ringing off the hook” and emails are piling up from people looking to book spring dog sled rides and help boost the local economy.
“Our customers are staying at local motels and cabins, eating at the restaurants and shopping for summer cottages,” she said. “Business is finally booming and it’s time to catch up.”
The late season did translate into a decline in snowmobile registrations, the driving force behind local clubs’ grooming and operating budgets, Mazzuchelli said.
“Sled registrations are down significantly this year based on the February reports,” she said. “If registrations go down, there is no money [for the clubs] and it is conceivable [they] could throw up their hands and walk away.”
Seasonal equipment breakdowns and the rising cost of diesel fuels have stressed many of the volunteer grooming operations around Aroostook County, she said.
“You have a $250 million economy that rides on the backs of volunteers,” Mazzuchelli said. “They need all the help they can get — join a club, register your machine, and when you see a fundraising breakfast or spaghetti feed, stop in.”