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Travel: One Last Ride in Maine

A final hurrah on the snowmobile trails of the Katahdin Region and New England
RELATED TOPICS: TRAVEL | MAINE
late-season snowmobiling Maine Katahdin region
Cathy Genthner photo
The sun rises earlier and sets later as the days lengthen along with the shadows. Harsh winter days are tamed by the slow and gentle nudging of impending spring.

The trails have been packed down and groomed for months now, so they are in good shape. Traffic on trails is lighter than during the height of winter, as some people have put sleds away for the season. In Maine, as in many northeastern states with higher elevations, there can still be some great sledding, depending on the amount of snowfall in a given season.
late-season snowmobile trail Maine Katahdin region
Cathy Genthner photo
Good riding, later than you think!
Fort Kent, Maine, is located on the Canadian border, and it’s one of those areas where winter takes its time saying goodbye. Allen Chamberland, the treasurer of the Fort Kent SnoRiders Snowmobile Club, tells us they have almost 200 members and 70 miles of trails to groom, and that Maine is almost always a fantastic place to ride late in the season.

“We are just so much higher up in latitude than other areas,” says Chamberland. “There is a big difference in the climate between here (Fort Kent) and Bangor (located in the central part of the state). Our winters last three weeks longer and come three weeks sooner. We find it a challenge, but we do like to groom beyond April 1st when we can. There are a few areas in the woods region where you can ride in the middle of April and go off the trail with the landowner’s permission. It is true that people have gone snowmobiling in a T-shirt many years. Some folks have even taken a motorcycle out in the afternoon and then got on a sled at night, once it has crusted over.”

Fort Kent, as well as the entire St. John Valley, is dedicated to the comfort and convenience of snowmobilers. Snowmobile trails lead to the downtown area, with gas stations, restaurants, hotels and other services. The area offers some of the best trails in Maine and often has snow when areas just an hour’s drive south are bare.

All four brands of snowmobiles are sold in Fort Kent, so repairs, parts and accessories are very accessible. In addition, the dealers will cooperate to find a needed part, and they’ve been known to send mechanics out on the trail so snowmobilers lose as little riding time as possible.
late-season snowmobile trail sign Maine Katahdin region
Maine offers a wide variety of on- and off-trail riding in the late season. The sunny, spring weather often provides bright scenery for photos and pit stops.
Cathy Genthner photo
late-season snowmobiling Maine Katahdin region
Cathy Genthner photo
Riders can also register their sleds right at the Fort Kent Police Station. The former police chief, Kenneth “Doody” Michaud, served as the SnoRiders Trail Master for
several years and is now the Fort Kent Snowmobile Association Director, so you are in good hands up here.

“We see snowmobiling as white gold, and we are preserving a Maine tradition,” says Chamberland. “We also cooperate with other clubs. If a groomer is down, we will groom their trails or they will groom our trails. The local volunteers are very dedicated, and it isn’t uncommon for someone to groom around the clock because they love to do it. People from far away know many of the locals on a first-name basis. I think the atmosphere here is very warm and friendly.”
That is due to the warm Franco-American hospitality and heritage that permeates “The County,” where everyone knows your name – whether you are a native or a tourist. The friendliness of people and the beautiful St. John Valley attract snowmobilers from across the northeast.

To the east, in the town of Madawaska, the late-season snowmobiling is just as great. Three ITS trail systems (ITS-81, -83 and -85) either come into or run near Madawaska.

“We are in the heart of the St. John Valley; it is just a great place to be,” says Jean Ouellette, a member of the Madawaska Snowmobile Club. “It is a very friendly snowmobile community. Snowmobilers have everything they need here. Near the end of the season, it is warmer. In fact, it is the only time I ride. You don’t have to worry about battling the blistering cold. If it is in the 20s and 30s, you still have plenty of snow, but you don’t have to dress in layers and worry about the 30-below wind chills. The trails have been groomed all season and are well-packed. The trails freeze fast at night, so some of the best riding is in the morning.”

More places to go

The western Maine mountains are home to the Rangeley, Farmington, Bethel and Katahdin regions, which sometimes hold on to rideable snow pack into the month of April.

“Typically, late March and early April can be some of the best riding in the Katahdin region,” says Matthew Polstein, owner of the New England Outdoor Center, which offers lodging and rental discounts in late March and April because demand drops off. “We have deeper snow and far fewer riders. The trails tend to hold up well because they are getting less traffic.
late-season snowmobiling Maine Katahdin region Ski-Doo
The best time for off-trail riding in Maine can be had from late March into early April many seasons. Unplowed logging roads, warmer temps and longer daylight hours often add up to more fun!
Cathy Genthner photo
late-season snowmobiling Maine Katahdin region
Cathy Genthner photo
late-season snowmobiling Maine Katahdin region
Cathy Genthner photo
“The other phenomenon is that as the snow pack gets wetter and freezes at night, you can ride off trail on unused logging roads,” says Polstein. “You can go with a guide and explore some incredible areas.”

Dave Weatherbee guides in the Millinocket and Caratunk areas for the New England Outdoor Center. One of Weatherbee’s favorite late-season trips takes riders to the Wild Kingdom and Logan Pond Trails and incredible views of Mount Katahdin. The trails connect to ITS-86 and are located about eight miles north of Millinocket.

“The great thing about spring sledding is that if you step off the trail, you won’t go up to your neck in powder, and it is very unlikely that you will get stuck,” says Weatherbee. “The disadvantage is that you can run into some bare spots. I shudder as I do that. It doesn’t hurt the machine as much as it bothers me.

“It is warmer – that is for sure. You can stop along the trailside to have hot chocolate and it is so much more enjoyable. You can take off your helmet and feel the sun on your face and see views of Mt. Katahdin. I remember one day out on the trail in late March when it was sunny and we had a big snow squall. It darkened up all of a sudden and great big snowflakes fell. Then the sun came out, and there was Katahdin in all its glory.”

Off-trail riding is especially popular during the end of the season.

“It is awesome in the late season, and there is still some great snowmobiling,” says Gary Pelletier, a retired game warden who guides off-trail snowmobile trips in the Allagash area. “The backwoods roads don’t get plowed, and the scenery is breathtaking in places above the Allagash, where from the top of hills you can look out over Canada. The crust in the morning will take you places that are just out of this world. There are no leaves to obstruct your view either, so it is a unique time of year to be out riding.”

Safety should always come first, though. If you plan to do off-trail, backcountry riding, do it during the daytime with someone who knows the area. Getting lost in the Maine woods can be dangerous, even in late winter and early spring when the weather is milder. Temperatures during the night can drop down to zero or below, and spring snowstorms aren’t uncommon or unexpected in northern Maine compared to other sections of New England.

“I think when people in southern Maine and New England see green grass, they think the riding is over, when in reality, we can have great riding in the Katahdin region,” says Polstein. “It is great weather for riding, and then you can go back to your camp for some barbequing because the sun doesn’t set until five or six. My favorite time of year for snowmobiling is late March and early April.”

For more information, visit www.mesnow.com.
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