Skiing is going full speed ahead, but minimal snow on the ground has stalled Aroostook County’s snowmobiling season.
Experts said the season is about three weeks behind normal as warm temperatures and rain keep melting the snowpack.
Snowmobilers contributed more than $606 million to Maine’s economy in 2019, according to a report from Snowmobile Maine. Tourists travel from all over Maine and beyond to ride Aroostook’s 2,300 miles of snowmobile trails, eat at local restaurants and otherwise spend money in the region. But with little white stuff on the ground, few snowmobilers are around to open their wallets.
At this point, none of the local trails are being groomed, said Gary Marquis, Caribou Parks and Recreation Department superintendent.
“If the winter continues to be as it is, registrations will be on the light side and this is what the state uses to fund grooming operations, trail maintenance and purchasing grooming equipment,” Marquis said.
Tourism is critical to the survival of many small northern Maine businesses such as Two Rivers Lunch in the remote region of Allagash. Lack of snow has negatively impacted the business.
The family-owned diner, famous for home-cooked food, is a draw for snowmobilers in the winter months, but even the best meals can’t produce a profit if nobody is around to buy them.
Very few sledders have made it through, co-owner Darlene Kelly Dumond said.
The restaurant closed its doors for three weeks in response, and then opened on a modified weekend-only schedule for a few weeks after that.
“We’re finally open today with our regular hours,” Kelly Dumond said. “Never have we had to close in the winter months due to lack of snow and snowmobile traffic.”
The Fort Kent SnoRiders Snowmobile Club maintains 60 miles of trail and has been inundated with requests for trail conditions from potential snowmobile tourists.
“Without exaggeration, between individuals contacting the club by phone, email, social media, we have received hundreds of questions,” SnoRiders President Matthew Collin said. “Anytime someone mentions a snowflake people are asking about trail conditions.”
The season is about three weeks behind where it normally is, which is not necessarily unusual but not common either, he said.
The club does not encourage people to ride until all the trails are signed and marked, which requires snow. It’s a safety issue and a courtesy to landowners who allow use of their land, Collin said.
The Hampton Inn in Presque Isle isn’t seeing the extra income they usually see from snowmobilers, said General Manager Adam Cyr.
So far this season, clubs have gone out to do some grooming but there hasn’t been any snowmobiling yet, he said.
Northern Door Inn in Fort Kent often books snowmobilers a year in advance. The motel did lose some business so far this winter due to lack of snow, but manager Carl Pelletier is optimistic about the season as a whole.
“We got quite a few cancellations but most of them are rebooking further along in the season. I think we’ll be okay as long as we start getting some snow instead of rain,” Pelletier said.
Aroostook’s larger ski areas have an advantage. Because they make their own snow, skiing season has already begun.
Lonesome Pine Trails in Fort Kent was closed the first two days of the month so volunteers could whip up some snow. The popular ski mountain is back in full swing and ready for visitors this weekend.
“We’re all set; all our trails are open,” manager Mike Voisine said. “We should have a good rest of our winter now.”
In Mars Hill, Big Rock Mountain opened a day late on Dec. 27 compared to the last 2021-2022 ski season.
“We’ve been working really hard making our own snow here,” said Adam Damon, assistant general manager of Big Rock. “Even though we have been getting all this rain, we’re storing it all in our ponds and turning it back into snow.”
Big Rock has produced 8 inches of man-made snow this season. Activity has kept pace with last year, which proved phenomenal for Big Rock with new skiers and snowboarders.
Snow making has become a critical piece of BigRock’s operation, Damon said. In the event of rain they stockpile snow in shaded areas of the mountain.
The season is likely to recover as it usually does, Marquis said. After all, the winter of 2008, which set a 200-inch snowfall record, started out late as well.
“So everyone needs to put on their dancing shoes and do the snow dance,” he said.
Late Wednesday afternoon the National Weather Service office in Caribou issued a winter storm warning for Aroostook County for 5-12 inches of snow.
Staff writer Paula Brewer contributed to this report.