Happy trails
(Note: While it appears that this is all about winter fun in Maine, the bottom line to property rights and recreation, nationwide, is that there is no economy without access, the ability to travel -- whether to and from one's hometown to a vacation destination or traveling on miles of awesome roads and trails -- and people who are able to afford these fun chapters in their lives. Roads -- and keeping them open and accessible to both locals and out-of-towners -- are of an importance that cannot be overstated. Roads get firefighters and paramedics from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. A practical network of open and maintained roads keep schoolchildren from spending many hours going to and from their education. Open roads make ranching, farming, timbering, and mining viable in America. Without roads, America's remaining arteries become clogged and a major cardiac arrest in the form of economic collapse is imminent. Roaded areas that are open to folks from Maine to Alaska and from Florida to the southern tip of California -- not "roadless" areas that grow like a cancer as The Wildlands Project is sicced upon Americans -- are part of America's health and wealth, the circulatory system that keeps our Constitutional Republic alive and well. How important are roads? Please consider!)
December 10, 2005
By Kristen Andresen kandresen@bangordailynews.net or 207-990-8287
Bangor Daily News
Bangor, Maine
To submit a Letter to the Editor: letters@bangordailynews.net
Sixteen and a half hours.
One way.

That's how long it takes Roger Auker to travel from his home in Pennsylvania Dutch Country to Fort Kent. And he's not alone. Every January, for the last eight years, Auker and 80 of his friends, business associates and customers from the sporting-goods store he runs have made the trek north. It's a long drive, to be sure, but the payoff is sublime.

"Ah, the friendliness," Auker said from his office at Hollinger's Sports 'n Turf in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. "And awesome riding. It doesn't get any better."

If you're going to haul a trailer full of snowmobiles 800 miles, the riding had better be good, and for die-hard sledders, Fort Kent is considered "the Mecca."

"Snowmobiling is great everywhere in this state," Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, said from his office in Augusta. "Obviously, up there they have weather, for starters, which gives them lots and lots of snow. They also have access to pretty wide open tracts of land, wide trails, rolling hills and things."

Maine has 13,000 miles of what many consider the best trails in the eastern United States. In the St. John Valley, a long, cold winter with consistently heavy snowfall means great trail grooming and a season that has been known to extend into April.

Thanks to faster, warmer, more comfortable sleds, the sport's popularity has grown nationwide in the last decade. In Maine, the industry contributes an estimated $350 million annually to the economy -- spent by people "from away" and in-state.

"It's part of life up here now, and it's a huge economic boost," said Darlene Kelly Dumond, the Allagash native who ran several successful businesses in southern Maine and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, before returning to the area last year. She bought Bee-Jays tavern, a Fort Kent hot spot, in March.

Fort Kent is the kind of town where, in the winter, you have to wait in line behind 10 sleds to fill your car with gas. The parking lot at the Northern Door Inn is huge for a reason -- come January, there needs to be room for all the trailers. Restaurants don't just have coat racks; they have helmet trees. And in a town of 4,200 people, Fort Kent Ski-Doo sells between 150 and 175 new sleds every year.

The whole region feels the benefits of the snowmobile boom. In Allagash, Dumond's mom, Leitha Kelly, owns Two Rivers Lunch, a roadside diner whose walls are dotted with deer and bear mounts. Her brother Wade Kelly recently took over the guiding service started by her father, Tylor.

"During the winter months, the parking lot of Two Rivers Lunch is filled with snowmobiles," Dumond said. "It's not cars; it's snowmobiles. My mother is busier in the winter months than she is during hunting season, and we're an outfitter."

More than a dozen small, new cabins are part of a "neighborhood" that wasn't there when Dumond, now 46, was a girl. It's like snowmobile suburbia.

"Here's another one, and another one," Dumond said, driving her Jeep Grand Cherokee down a rutted road and pointing at the cabins.

As she drove through town, Dumond pointed out other homes bought by people from out of state. Despite the influx of people, she said the Valley - and Allagash in particular -- is unique because it still feels wild. It's not uncommon to see herds of deer or a pack of coyotes as you traverse the border between Maine and Canada.

"It's a place to come just to get away, is what they all say," Leitha Kelly said over a bowl of chicken

soup at Two Rivers Lunch.

The restaurant's guest books, which Kelly has kept for years, tell of another draw: "Nice river. Nicer people," one entry reads.

The St. John Valley is a bit like Cheers. Once you've been there, everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came.

"You get to meet so many wonderful people from all over," said Natalie Stoops of Madawaska, a waitress at the appropriately named Lakeview restaurant in St. Agatha.

At the height of snowmobile season, the large dining room and lounge are full all day, with a lull between 3 and 4 in the afternoon. Riders come for the prime rib and the fried clams, and for another reason, as well.

"They say they like to come up here because it's away from the hectic life," Stoops said.

If you ask Kenneth "Doody" Michaud, Fort Kent's police chief and chief trail groomer, he'll tell you sledders choose the Valley for the wider trails, the friendly people and the fact that "dog paths" -- narrow, poorly groomed trails -- are few and far between.

For Michaud, pristine trails are a point of pride. He volunteers hours upon hours driving the groomer - he and his dog, Brandy, hop into one of the town's two tanklike grooming machines and make a day of it. On his desk at the police station, he has a phone list of more than a dozen other volunteers who will groom at a moment's notice.

"The thing that makes this all so remarkable is the infrastructure -- and it's a huge infrastructure -- is almost entirely made up of volunteers," Meyers of the MSA said. "[Towns and clubs] get a lot of help from local businesses, and communities realize how valuable it is to them."

Last year, when Michaud and his crew ran out of gas money for the groomer, townspeople and businesses donated $1,700 to the cause.
He didn't even have to ask.
When the sledders from Pennsylvania want to know trail conditions, they call Doody, or Gary Dumond at Fort Kent Ski-Doo, or the front desk at the Northern Door, because they know they'll tell it like it is.

"We even have trailer hitches on our police cars," the chief said.

Just in case someone gets stranded on the trail.

Call it northern hospitality: People love knowing the police chief will be there if they break down. They adore staying in a rustic cabin in Allagash, having a post-ride beer at Bee-Jays, indulging in a 31/2-pound lobster and ployes at the Long Lake Sporting Club in Sinclair.

They love the fact that the guys at Fort Kent Ski-Doo will do whatever it takes to get their sled back on the trail, even if it means taking a part off a new snowmobile. And they love riding 30 miles one way for an omelet or a big-as-a-plate pancake at Two Rivers. That's what keeps people like Roger Auker and his Pennsylvania pals coming back to the Valley.

"We appreciate them, we need them, and then they just become one of us," said Darlene Kelly Dumond, who recently befriended a York contractor and two of his friends who originally came up for snowmobiling and now spend weekends year-round in Fort Kent. "It doesn't take very long for somebody from outside to feel like they're part of the community."

Destination: St. John Valley

Here are a few snowmobiling hot spots. For trail conditions, or more information about sledding in Maine, visit the Maine Snowmobile Association at http://www.mesnow.com

The American Dream Resort, food and lodging, Fort Kent, 207-834-6452

Bee Jays Tavern, food and drink, 207-834-3826

Long Lake Sporting Club, food, Sinclair, 207-543-7584

Lakeview Restaurant, food, St. Agatha, 207-543-6331

Northern Door Inn, lodging, Fort Kent, 207-834-3133

The Riverhouse, food, Fort Kent, 207-834-5266

Rock's Diner, food, Fort Kent, 207-834-3133

The Swamp Buck, food, Fort Kent, 207-834-6472

Track Down Kennels and Lodge, food and lodging, Wallagrass, 207-834-3612

Two Rivers Lunch, food, Allagash, 207-398-3393
Copyright 2005, Bangor Daily News.