Dozens of snowmobiles parked next to Lakeview Restaurant in St. Agatha on Feb. 24. Credit: Jessica Blalock / St. John Valley Times

Before this season, when guests told Jean Ouellette they’d “never seen a winter like this before,” she would call their bluff. Ouellette has been running Martin’s Motel in Madawaska for nearly 20 years, and keeps meticulous paper records in her office. From green Christmases to snowbanks the height of power lines, she’s seen it all.

Of course, that was all before COVID-19.

The combination of the pandemic and a late first significant snow has meant a difficult season on top of a difficult year for many hotels and motels in the St. John Valley. And it all comes down to losing out on the most essential winter staple in the County economy: snowmobilers.

“It’s pretty much the only business we have,” Ouellette said. “Having snowmobilers here in the winter is a vital part of our business.”

Snowmobiling brings in hundreds of millions of dollars to Maine’s economy every year and supports thousands of jobs. In the St. John Valley, a nationwide destination for snowmobilers, that impact is felt especially heavily. But rather than simply a lack of snowmobilers, the hospitality industry is facing a more complicated problem this year — a confluence of pressures related to COVID-19 and the restrictions designed to prevent its spread including limits on gatherings and the closed U.S.-Canada border.

While weekends remain busy for Ouellette, she estimates that business at the motel is down roughly 40 percent from previous years.

Did all the snowmobilers just park their sleds in the garage for the winter? Not so.

“Apparently, the trail traffic is insane,” Ouellette said.

Fort Kent Powersports’ General Manager Brett Labbe also can’t remember another winter like this one. But for Labbe, it’s because this has been the busiest season he’s ever seen.

Snowmobiles parked at Long Lake Sporting Club in St. Agatha on Feb. 24. Credit: Jessica Blalock / St. John Valley Times

When the snowmobile selling season started at Fort Kent Powersports last summer, employees immediately noticed the heightened demand, selling out their Ski-Doo inventory back in June and having to replenish more often. Labbe said that buying has remained strong throughout the season, and when it comes to demand for repair parts, the manufacturers can’t keep up.

“It’s unmanageable at times,” Labbe said. “That’s how busy we are.”

One major barrier facing local hotels and motels is the restrictions on out-of-state travel that require incoming visitors to provide a negative COVID-19 test result 72 hours before entering the state — New Hampshire and Vermont-based travelers are exempt. Hotel and motel owners are used to seeing an influx of out-of-state guests, but that has been limited by Maine’s travel restrictions.

“I have a lot of customers that are from Pennsylvania and I have some from California that unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see this year,” Ouellette said.

In Fort Kent, Northern Door Inn General Manager Carl Pelletier said the business has been faring well this season despite the restrictions. That said, the clientele demographics are shifting.

“What we have seen is fewer out of state and more southern Maine coming up,” Pelletier said. “They don’t have reliable snow downstate.”

On top of the drop in out-of-state sledders, snowmobilers from Canada, who in a regular season travel south frequently to enjoy Aroostook County trails, can’t come at all this year. The border closed to non-essential travel in mid-March last year and won’t open until mid-March this year at the earliest.

For hotels and motels popular with Canadian sledders, this year has been especially brutal. Elaine Dionne has owned the Four Corners Inn and Suites (formerly the Gateway Motel) in Madawaska for a year and a half, and said a large percentage of her winter business was snowmobilers from out of state and Canada in particular.

“Last January and February we were 90 percent [capacity] for the month and this year we’re 25 percent,” Dionne said. “And we miss them.”

Dionne has been weathering the slow season because of her restaurant, Four Corners Bar and Grille, which she said has stayed open thanks to local customers.

One out-of-stater who did make it to The County this season is Randy Lee of North Carolina. A hot air balloon pilot most of the year, Lee spends a month each winter in Maine at the Aroostook Hospitality Inn in Washburn.

He said that the specific demands of the travel restrictions — like the 72-hour window between receiving a test and arriving in Maine — made it difficult to coordinate his trip.

“It takes a lot more planning,” Lee said.

Restrictions on the ground are also making the usual snowmobiling routine challenging. For example, caps on restaurant capacity are creating delays as sledders stop for meals throughout the day.

“They’re leaving and going on to the next one, hoping they can find a vacant seat,” Lee said.

Lee says that as a result, he’s seen more vacationers seek alternative housing — he knows of two or three groups that usually stay in hotels and eat at restaurants, but have elected to rent efficiency apartments.

Hotels and motels complying with Maine’s COVID-19 safety and sanitation mandates — like mask-wearing and increased cleaning regimens — are also facing pushback from would-be customers opposed to these guidelines.

“There’s still a lot of people that kind of have an attitude toward [COVID-19] that if you follow the restrictions they’re not going to… come to your business,” Ouellette said.

Steve Dobson, who owns Aroostook Hospitality Inn and sits on the Maine and Aroostook County Tourism Boards, said he was confronted by a customer outraged that Dobson was following the regulations closely and threatened to take their business to another local hotel that was breaking with guidelines.

“That really bothered me,” Dobson said. “If nobody follows the rules, or if we don’t do something about this, it’s never going to go away. If businesses don’t take it seriously it’s not fair to other businesses, it’s not fair to other people you’re dealing with, it’s not fair to the community you’re in.”

On top of everything, the whims of snowmobile tourists are unpredictable. Dobson runs two locations of Aroostook Hospitality Inn — one in Washburn and one on the border in Van Buren. He said that despite high traffic in Washburn, his Van Buren location is all but dead.

“I can’t explain why,” Dobson said. “Two weekends ago on a Sunday I hardly had two sleds in Van Buren.”

Ultimately, it’s a season unlike any other. From state-level travel restrictions to the sealed Canadian border, to the politics attached to following COVID-19 safety guidelines, hotels and motels in the St. John Valley are under more pressure than ever before.

Many are biding their time until the summer, when renewed construction projects and hopefully an abatement of COVID-19 will result in better business.

“We’ve never seen anything like this, and hopefully we never will,” Ouellette said.

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Hannah Catlin

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.