The eyes of millions of television viewers from across the globe are on Aroostook County, all watching World Cup Biathlon races being aired live from Presque Isle through Feb. 14 and appearing in prime time on the other side of the Atlantic.
Combining cross-country skiing and marksmanship, biathlon is the most televised winter sport in Europe.
Presque Isle’s Nordic Heritage Center is the eighth of nine stops on the 2015-16 World Cup tour, which ends in Oslo, Norway, in March with the world championships, where top performers will be singled out for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
What viewers worldwide will not see is the way the community came together in days leading up to the event to assure that northern Maine trails would be skiable.
Ten days before some 300 athletes from more than 30 countries around the world were due to arrive, snow on the racecourse was not deep enough to sustain one day of training. Not only had snowfall been light, but warm weather, even rain, was forecast.
The planning committee was worried. Event manager Steve Towle was signing his emails, “Dance and pray, Dance and pray.”
So, for a second weekend in a row, a call went out at the end of January for help moving snow from the woods to the trails.
“We really appreciate all of the effort given so far. This entire venture is 100 percent volunteer-driven, and we cannot put on the event without you,” said committee member Kyle Washington in an appeal to volunteers to return to the center for another day of shoveling.
“We have found that large scoop-type snow-moving devices that can take a large scoop of snow and be easily dragged onto the trail to be the best and most efficient method — always being cognizant of large twigs/sticks.”
Lacking a scoop, I threw a couple of shovels into the car and headed for Presque Isle on Saturday, Jan. 30, joining dozens of others lugging shovels, scoops and tarps to help move the snow. Scattered among the trees between trails, volunteers of all ages were dragging, throwing and pushing snow out of the woods.
I spotted a group with a tarp and began helping them fill it with snow to be hauled down from the woods onto the racecourse. I discovered I had joined a community service project of Cub Scout Pack 170 in Mapleton, led by Chris Maple and Jay and Kelly Lamoreau.
“It’s better than picking up garbage,” Kelly said, adding that the chance of encountering dangerous drug-related waste discouraged the group from collecting trash. Five third-grade Cubs and a couple of their friends had as much fun sliding as they did shoveling.
“We’re going to be ready,” said Dave Cambridge, assistant chief of the team responsible for grooming and marking the course, in an interview with Jason Parent, chief of media and promotion. He said between 50 and 60 people at a time had helped shovel and scoop.
But hand labor was just part of the effort. Equipment from four local construction companies joined municipal vehicles from Fort Fairfield and Presque Isle to move towering piles of machine-made snow onto the trails.
“We’ve made between 8,000 and 10,000 cubic yards of snow,” Josh Martin of Earthworks Inc. in Presque Isle told a group of volunteers during a break from shoveling. In addition to Earthworks, Soderberg, Buck and McGillan construction companies from Caribou, Mapleton and Fort Fairfield respectively, sent equipment to the Nordic Heritage Center for the snow-moving project.
“Over 200 dump truck loads and counting,” said the biathlonmaine.com website, describing a series of photos by Paul Cyr of the payloaders, bulldozers and trucks that rumbled around the center on Feb. 2.
“I was not expecting this level of stress,” said Towle when I met up with him Feb. 2, as truck after truck moved snow onto the racecourse.
But by Feb. 5, Towle was confident the massive efforts of muscles and machines had been successful.
“We can work with what we have, and any new accumulation (next Tues/Wed!!!) will be a much anticipated BONUS,” he said in an email.
And, of course, the bonus arrived Tuesday, just in time for biathletes to begin training on freshly groomed trails.
“What most impresses me is the volunteers who come again and again,” said Jane Towle, event director, adding that European organizers pay for such services. “It’s the best example of our work ethic. Everybody has to be proud.”
For information, visit biathlonmaine.com or biathlonworld.com.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.