FORT KENT, Maine — Back-to-back snowstorms over the past week means Aroostook County is open for winter business.
“This is the way I wish winter would be every year,” Kathy Mazzuchelli, Superintendent of the Caribou Parks and Recreation Department and longtime northern Maine snowmobiling spokesperson, said Friday. “For our small businesses this is going to be a real shot in the arm.”
Grooming operations were already well under way along the county’s 1,600 miles of posted snowmobile trails with volunteers busily packing the trails and clearing them of fallen trees and brush.
“We are pretty excited to have such good snow this early in the season,” Mazzuchelli said. “It’s setting up to be a really good year.”
And that is good news for business owners such as Jean Ouellette, owner of Martins’ Motel in Madawaska.
“It is definitely a Godsend getting this snow,” Ouellette said. “Calls are coming in from people who want to spend the week between Christmas and New Years [and] it’s the first time in five years we’ve seen that.”
Northern Maine saw up to 18 inches in some areas this past week, assuring some residents it will be a very white Christmas.
More importantly, according to Mazzuchelli, extreme cold temperatures before the snow means the ground had a chance to freeze to create a hard, snowmobiling-friendly base.
“The lakes and rivers were also freezing great, but the way the last snow came down wet and heavy has settled the ice on the those lakes making it slushy and not safe,” she said. “But if we can get some cold weather, that will improve.”
That cold weather is on the way, according to officials with the National Weather Service in Caribou.
“It is going to get decidedly colder,” Richard Norton, meteorological intern at the National Weather Service in Caribou, said Friday, adding the next storm system should hit Down East and central Maine with snow and rain Thursday.
Heavy and freezing rain Friday night washed away about half of the northern Maine snowpack, but that still leaves about a foot in the Fort Kent area and around 7-10 inches around Caribou and Presque Isle, Joseph Hewitt, lead forecaster at Caribou NWS, said Sunday.
“The snow we have on the ground is here for the winter,” Norton said. “There is a great base.”
Those who make their living in snow-related businesses have one thing to say.
“‘Thank you’ is what we are saying, this is white gold to us,” said Darlene Kelly-Dumond, whose family owns Two Rivers Lunch in Allagash. “Our groomers are already running and have been for a week now getting the trails ready.”
It’s not just the snowmobilers. Organizers of two area sled dog races were also thrilled by last week’s snow.
“Those back-to-back snowstorms last week are a blessing and nearly guarantees the running of the Irving Woodlands Mad Bomber Sled Dog Races,” Tenley Bennett, race organizer and owner of Fish River Lodge in Eagle Lake, said.
That race is slated for Jan. 19, and organizers of the annual Can Am Crown Sled Dog Race are equally enthused.
“This gives our people time to get out there and work on the trails,” Beurmond Banville, Can Am Crown president, said. “It also gives the mushers a chance to get out there to train on snow, which is something they have not been able to do in past years.”
Northern Maine’s ski hills are also busily grooming trails with facilities at 10th Mountain Lodge in Fort Kent reporting 25 km of cross-country ski trails groomed and open to skiing.
The Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle is also reporting all trails groomed and open with night skiing also available under the trail lights.
“Getting snow like this is crucial for us to get the snowmobilers and other winter enthusiasts up here,” Jean Ouellette said. “Without them we might as well close the doors.”
It’s been rough on the snow business industry over the past years with shorter winter seasons and snow arriving later and later in the seasons.
“Winter is definitely not like it used to be,” Ouellette said. “We need the snow earlier.”
“After several years with little, or late snowfall, these storms are providing an early start to the snowmobiling season,” she said. “Let’s get the word out that northern Maine is open for business this winter.”
Snowmobilers, Mazzuchelli said, spend more per capita than any other recreational visitor to the area.
“It is a very important industry for us,” she said. “We need to get those sledders here early [and] once we get them here, they love it.”
One of the reasons the area is so popular, Mazzuchelli said, is due to the volunteer efforts of snowmobile club members who groom and maintain the trail network.
“They need all the support they can get,” she said, noting the state has informed clubs they will be getting 10 percent less funding this year due to fewer sled registrations, the source of snowmobile club funding.
“So go out and support those club fundraisers and attend their spaghetti dinners and hot dog roasts,” she said.
“The snowmobilers spend more than any other winter sports person,” Mazzuchelli said. “It’s certainly a nice welcome ka-ching to the pocketbooks and for the mom-and-pop businesses.”
And it looks like there will be plenty of snow for winter enthusiasts, according to Hewitt.
“There is a significant event shaping up for Thursday into Friday,” he said Sunday evening. “There is the potential for a foot-plus of snow across northern Maine and, not to rub salt in the wound, another significant storm behind that one.”