FORT KENT, Maine — Unseasonably warm temperatures, rain and winds this week have essentially shut down snowmobiling in Aroostook County.
“I’ve been around a long time and we get thaws and we all know there have been times you can draw a line from Ashland to Caribou to Van Buren where you can sled to the north but not to the south,” Kathy Mazzuchelli said Friday. “But I have never seen the whole county shut down.
“Unfortunately our season for the most part has come to an end [and] it would be difficult to find contiguous trails at this juncture,” Mazzuchelli, the superintendent of Caribou Parks and Recreation Department and longtime northern Maine snowmobiling spokesperson, stated in her snowmobile trail report released this week.
Anyone wishing to ride in northern Maine should first check with local clubs on trail conditions in specific areas, she recommended.
“Unless they have picks and wheels on their sleds, I don’t know where they are going to go,” Mazzuchelli said. “There might be a couple of places you can ride a mile but then you are going to run out of snow.”
Calling the current situation a “fragmented system,” Mazzuchelli said it is almost useless for people to come to Aroostook County if they are looking for groomed trails.
“Believe me, I hate to even say that,” she said. “But as far as groomed trail snowmobiling is concerned, we are on hold until there is more snow.”
Temperature records were broken around Maine on Thursday when the thermometer rose to 53 in Caribou and 54 in Bangor, according to the National Weather Service’s website.
Those conditions, coupled with up to a half inch of rain, took their toll on the existing snowpack, according to Chris Norcross, meteorologist at the NWS offices in Caribou.
“Generally most of the area lost four to six inches of snow,” he said Friday. “In some places that could be as high as six to nine inches but there is a lot of variation.”
Temperatures dropped rapidly Thursday night, leaving trails frozen and, in places, glare ice, Mazzuchelli said.
It was enough to put the brakes on grooming operations in northern Maine, she said.
“There is nothing to groom in most places,” she added. “What is out there is ice.”
The loss of snow and high winds also toppled thousands of trail markers volunteers had staked in the snow along the trails in open areas and fields.
So this weekend Mazzuchelli and volunteers will be out in trucks picking up thousands of trail markers along the hundreds of miles of county trails that have fallen and are in danger of being covered with any future snow.
“All the [grooming] projects across Aroostook County have thousands and thousands of field markers out and they are all down now,” Mazzuchelli said. “They all need to be picked up because they all got rained on and are stuck in the ice.”
In the Shin Pond area of northern Penobscot County, trail groomers are heading out this weekend to see what — if any part — of their system can be salvaged.
“You can call it grooming,” Terry Hill at Shin Pond Village said Friday. “We will be calling it ‘chewing it up.’”
Hill said the snowpack in the woods held up fairly well and the trail system’s base remains intact.
“The problem is it is so frozen solid it’s going to take a lot to chew it up,” she said. “There is some limited riding but we recommend anyone interested in getting out give us a call first to check on conditions.”
Farther south and west in the Katahdin and Millinocket area, which had gotten more snow earlier in the season than northern Maine, trails are open and grooming is well under way, according to Matt Polstein, owner of the New England Outdoor Center.
“Our groomers are out there right now,” Polstein said Friday. “We have enough to groom and to ride [and] we have people riding today.”
Trails running between Shin Pond south to Millinocket, Katahdin and the Kokadjo areas are holding up, albeit a bit icy, Polstein said.
“I’d like to see a little snow on top of these trails,” he said. “People do need to be aware that conditions are icy and they should ride with caution.”
Mazzuchelli wants to see a lot more snow.
“We’d need 10 to 18 inches right up front to be able to come back,” she said. “Then another good storm would take us through to March.”
There is nothing like that in the forecast, according to Norcross, who said a system could bring a bit of snow to Down East Maine on Saturday night into Sunday with the possibility of another system bringing snow to the state Sunday night into Monday.
“This is really tough from an economic standpoint,” Mazzuchelli said. “This is the third year in a row we are taking a hit.”
The warm up and loss of snow has affected more than snowmobiling, Mazzuchelli said noting alpine and nordic venues lost snow on those trails, as well.
In Greenville the annual Wilderness Sled Dog Race has been postponed from this weekend to Feb. 9 with organizers saying participants and spectators should check the race website at www.100milewildernessrace.org for updates on course changes and conditions.
“We are going to be out looking at the trails this weekend,” Amy Dugan, one of the race organizers said Friday. “There is the chance it could still be canceled.”
Mazzuchelli is choosing to remain optimistic for the season.
“Last Tuesday I was out riding and it was spectacularly beautiful,” she said. “The Farmers’ Almanac is saying February is going to be a good snow month so I am hoping Mother Nature gets her seasons right.”