PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — On some afternoons in the winter, Heather Mladek, a freelance photographer from Stockholm, likes to go cross-country skiing with her two sons and groups of other youngsters on the trails around the New Sweden Consolidation School.
“I’m thrilled that they get a chance to do this. It gets them outside after school,” said Mladek, whose kindergartener and sixth-grader participate in the school district’s after school ski program two days per week in the winter.
Mladek’s sons were among the more than 2,000 students from around northern Maine expected to visit the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle to watch the fastest cross-country skiers from around the world compete through Feb. 14 in the World Cup Biathlon. Many of those students also are likely to be cross-country and alpine skiers themselves, after two decades of community skiing efforts by the Maine Winter Sports Center and others trying to get Mainers back in touch with the state’s Nordic heritage.
“It’s a part of life here,” Ernie Easter, a retired New Sweden teacher who now leads the local after school ski outing, said.
Nordic skiing in the United States evolved from the traditions of the Swedes, who settled in Aroostook County in the late 1800s — families like the Andersons and Ostlunds. Used for winter travel and hunting before the rise of motor vehicles, cross-country skiing became popular enough in 1930s for a number of 100-mile plus marathons, from Bangor to Caribou and from Riviere du Loup, Quebec, to Caribou.
While the biathlon competition in Presque Isle offers an extreme end of skiing — professional athletes vying in multimillion-dollar competitions — a large part of skiing’s broader appeal is simply the joy of skiing, gliding underneath a forest canopy or tucking in for windy descent, Easter said.
“Skiing is a lifelong sport. It is something you just don’t stop,” he said. Bigrock Mountain in Mars Hill also hosts a Ski for Life program, where kids learn the basics of downhill skiing.
There also are the benefits of keeping kids active during the cold of winter, in an age of ubiquitous digital entertainment and concerns about diabetes and weight problems. Since 2009, the obesity rate among Aroostook County’s high school students has grown from 13 percent to nearly 18 percent, and Maine’s statewide rate is more than 16 percent.
“It seems like the more active they are the more ready they are to sit down when it’s time,” Mladek said. “With my kids, I bring them home after a day that we’ve done this, and they’re ready to help with dinner and eat and they’ve got stories to talk about.”
“There is still an incredible amount of opportunity to see Nordic ski programs grow in every corner of our state,” said Presque Isle native Mike Smith, a cross-country and alpine skier who leads the Maine Winter Sports Center’s Healthy Hometowns program.
“Our experience in 17 years has been that many adults think they’ve missed the chance to pick up” cross-country skiing and other outdoor pursuits, Smith said. “But the reality is that it’s never too late to get started.”
Ed Hendrickson, a 95-year-old Brewer resident who was hanging out in the Biathlon’s VIP room Thursday, would echo that sentiment. Hendrickson grew up downhill skiing and continues to ski — earlier this winter in Park City, Utah, and regularly at Hermon Mountain.
“There are some people that could ski if they had a mind to go out and try it,” Hendrickson said of the other retirees at the Ellen Leach Memorial Home independent living complex where he resides. “Fifty years old is a good place to start.”