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Beyond skis and skates: Outdoor winter alternatives

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With the Winter Olympics now in the rearview mirror, many people might be thinking about carrying forward the interest piqued by the many events they watched over the two weeks of the Games.

So what do you want to do?

Just about every conversation about outdoor activities in the winter here in Maine begins with skiing.

And understandably so. Skiing – both downhill and cross-country – is a huge part of Maine’s outdoor traditions. We have beloved destinations such as Sugarloaf, places that draw skiers from all over. And we have our smaller hills, recreational areas that are no less fun simply because they’re a little smaller – hit up Hermon Mountain and you’ll have a perfectly lovely time.

(Ditto all of this for snowboarding as well.)

As for cross-country, there are all manner of trails winding through the Maine woods – you can find great spots in Acadia National Park. Bangor Muni and the University of Maine both have good trail systems. And of course, tons more in both northern and southern Maine.

Confession time: I’ve never been on a pair of skis in my life. And despite their best efforts, the Olympics didn’t make me want to try.

That’s right, a Mainer by birth and by choice for some four-plus decades, and I have never strapped a pair of skis to my feet. And while I recognize that I am probably something of a relative rarity, I have to believe there are others out there like me – people whose exposure to snowy fun simply never included skis. I know that you’re out there.

This list is for us.

Let’s take a look at a few of the many other activities one might enjoy over the course of a Maine winter.



There’s an undeniable appeal to the snowmobile.

According to a study conducted by the University of Maine in collaboration with the Maine Snowmobile Association and the state Snowmobile Program just a couple of years back, snowmobiling generated $459 million in direct spending for Maine’s economy during the 2018-2019 season – a number that leaps to over $600 million when indirect and induced economic activities are accounted for.

Think about that – over $600 million thanks to snowmobiles. And while that number has doubtless seen some variance due to the circumstances of the pandemic, there’s no question that snowmobiling provides a major financial windfall for the state of Maine.

That study sported some other impressive numbers. Snowmobiling has a hand in supporting some 3,300 jobs. There are over 87,000 snowmobiles registered in the state, with over 25,000 belonging to nonresidents – resident registration is $46 for a year, while nonresidents can pay $76 for a seven-day or $91 for a full season.

Now, many of the activities in this story obviously have significant economic impacts on our state. But as someone who hasn’t been on a snowmobile in a very long time, I know I underestimated their presence and relative importance in people’s lives.

It was a very different story when I was a kid. I grew up riding snowmobiles; I have a lot of fond memories of a boyhood making some questionable decisions regarding safe operation. Poorly-considered trailblazing. Ill-conceived jumps. Getting stuck. Falling off. Having to walk home because we flew too close to the sun one too many times.

In my defense, the lion’s share of my dumbness took place on familiar property. Do not behave like a jerk on someone else’s land. Nearly all of the thousands of miles of snowmobile trails in this state are on private land and maintained by volunteers committing thousands of hours. A lot of people are working together and doing something nice, so don’t be the a-hole who ruins it for everyone. Be smart and be safe.



This is one of the absolute classic wintertime activities. There are few things quite as joyful as hitting a hill with your plastic sled or saucer and flying down the slope. If you’re at a spot that has both a) some recent and sticky snowfall, and b) a few enterprising, creative and courageous kids, you might even wind up with a jump or three to hit.

We’ve all had that wide-eyed moment of realization when we’re forced to come to terms with the possible negative outcomes of the sledding choices we’ve made. That’s when we have to decide – hang in or bail out. Often, there’s no right answer – shout out to a dear friend who shall remain nameless who wound up with a not-insignificant rib injury after opting for the latter during a recent outing with his little guy.

There are a few excellent sledding spots that are well-known to locals in the area. There’s the great hill on Union Street, near Mansfield Stadium – you can almost always see at least a handful of kids enjoying that one, assuming school’s out. Brewer’s got a couple of good ones too, with solid sledding at Doyle Field behind the Brewer Auditorium and at Indian Trail Park just off outer North Main.

And of course, the granddaddy of them all, the inaccurately-named Essex Street Hill, which is technically on Watchmaker – the top is right near the dog park. That was where we went when we were reckless teenagers who believed themselves to be immortal; the idea of going down that hill on a sled today fills me with legitimate anxiety – people call it Widowmaker Hill, for crap’s sake.

Shout-out to the local hill of my youth as well. We never had a name for it, but it’s in Kenduskeag. It’s out on the Levant Road, between Kenduskeag Village and the baseball field. I spent A LOT of time there, sledding to my heart’s content, making the sorts of idiotic daredevil decisions that 10-year-olds tend to make. I haven’t been over that way in some time, but I sure hope that the new generation is out there making the same joyously stupid choices.

It’s also worth noting that there are a lot of ski mountains out there who offer tubing, sledding’s safer, more reputable cousin. If you’re looking for a more consistent and curated experience, sailing down a mountain on an innertube might be the way for you to go.

(Obviously, no story about sledding would be complete without mentioning the Camden Snow Bowl and the National Toboggan Championship, which took place earlier this month. The mere existence of that chute is something that should be celebrated; I’ve gone down it a couple of times in my day, and I have no doubt that I’ll be visiting again. If you ever have the chance to hit up the NTC or just take a trip down the chute, I cannot recommend it enough.)



Full disclosure: I am in the bag for curling, despite having VERY limited experience with playing the game. It is a delight. And it’s a fire that was definitely stoked by the recent Olympics – I watched curling more than any other sport over the course of the Games.

Now, the nature of the game means that some fairly specific requirements must be met. And with a relatively niche sport like this, the odds of having access to a place that meets those requirements are rather low.

Lucky for you, there’s the Belfast Curling Club.

The BCC has been in operation for decades, bringing the sport to the area. They host tournaments and bonspiels and collegiate matchups. They have curling lessons and sessions throughout the season (check their website at for more specific information).

A few years back, I participated in one of the BCC’s YOU Can Curl offerings. I was given instruction, an overview of the game, a rundown of the basics … and I curled. I think more than anything I’ve ever done, I feel safe in saying that curling is exactly as fun as you think it is.

Now, the BCC has dealt with some facility issues in the recent – there was a particularly bad stretch where they were faced with some massive repairs – but you can’t keep a good curler down. That said, they could always use a hand.

But Belfast isn’t the only place you can curl. If you want to head north, the folks at the Piscataquis County Ice Arena in Dover run a curling club that has a low barrier to entry if you think you’d like to give it a shot – you can visit their website at to find out more. Please note that you’re going to want to reserve your sheet ahead of time.

In addition, there’s an effort currently underway in Presque Isle to revive that town’s once-thriving curling scene. There was an active club in the area up through the late ‘80s before it was shuttered due to cost; the town’s Recreation and Parks Department is looking at the possibility of reviving it.

I’m not going to go too deep into the rules, but basically, you have two four-man teams competing to score points by sliding large stones across a sheet of ice toward a target. The general goal is to get as close to the middle as you can while preventing your opponent from doing so. There is also a good deal of sweeping in front of the stone as it moves in an effort to influence its path. Again, this is a drastic oversimplification, but as a baseline, it’ll do. Think shuffleboard, only on ice with big rocks.

(Note: For those willing to head a little farther afield, Portland’s Pine Tree Curling club has some fun offerings as well. Check them out at


Ice fishing

You guessed it – yet another outdoor wintertime activity with which I have precious little experience.

That said, I know a lot of people – a LOT – who absolutely love ice fishing. They love all aspects of it. The fishing, yes, but also the camaraderie. There’s a real communal experience that comes with ice fishing, folks huddled together in a shanty or just out there on the ice, drinking beers and shooting the breeze and generally enjoying their time.

The season in Maine runs from January 1 through the end of March (or as ice conditions allow). You should note that a license is required for anyone aged 16 and up; those younger fisherfolk do not require one.

It’s a wonderful solo activity, of course, with all manner of spots available – Moosehead Lake is considered one of the best, just as an example – but if you’re looking to stoke your competitive fires, there are plenty of ice fishing derbies out there as well. And now is the time – if you pay a visit to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife website, you’ll see that there are nearly a dozen derbies taking place this coming weekend alone.

This is where I’ll put the list of general tips for ice fishing safety, as found on the website

  • Ensure ice is thick enough to safely walk on
  • Pack any garbage & waste out with you when you leave
  • Don’t cut, mark or damage trees
  • Always recreate within your personal limits
  • Be weather wise & dress appropriately
  • Bring a basic first aid kit & travel with a friend
  • Bring a waterproof map & compass

As I said earlier, this is not an activity in which I have ever engaged, save for one ill-fated outing during my mercifully brief Boy Scout days. However, it is a major tradition in the lives of many Mainers – another way to engage with the outdoors in winter.


Dog Sledding

Who among us hasn’t wanted to ride on a sled being pulled by a cadre of joyful canines, speeding through the snow by way of dog power?

If you find yourself ready to finally fulfill that desire that you may not have known you had until considering the previous paragraph, there are a few options scattered around the state that you can access.

There’s Maine Dogsledding Adventures in Millinocket, for instance. They offer half- and full-day tours in which people can mush miles into the forest and experience what it’s like not only to ride on a dog sled, but to drive one as well. For more details, check out their website at

If you’re looking to head south or west, other dogsled options include Newry’s Mahoosuc Guide Service, Dogsled Maine in Carrabassett Valley and Ultimate Dogsledding Experience in Oxford.

Now, I can’t say that I myself have taken the plunge and hit the trails with a dog team, so I have no first-hand experience about which to enthuse. However, I can tell you that if you want to be dropped right into the middle of the world of casual and competitive dog sled racing, you really need to take it upon yourself to follow Blair Braverman on Twitter. In fact, there’s a surprisingly robust sled dog community on that site – Musher Twitter is very much a thing. A fascinating thing, because it offers insight into the way these people and these dogs live their lives.

Are you going to sit there and tell me that you don’t need more pictures of dogs being excited in your life? Because if you are, I am going to call you a liar.



I would be remiss if I didn’t also include the sport of skijoring in this section. What’s skijoring, you ask? Well, at the risk of oversimplifying, it’s a combination of dog sledding and cross-country skiing. Basically, you put on your Nordic skis and harness yourself to a dog or two; as a team, you make your way down the trail. There are several ski centers that allow skijoring, but you’ll definitely want to confirm before you arrive.

Note: There is also something called equestrian skijoring, which is exactly what it sounds like – you strap yourself to a horse instead of a dog. The Topsham Fair Association played host to an event earlier this month that proved wildly popular – more than a thousand people turned out to watch as competitors steered through gates and jumps on skis while being pulled by a horse. Tell me that doesn’t sound like a great time.

What’s that you say? You would have liked to go to the equestrian skijoring event and are sad to have missed it? Well then, my friend, you are in luck – there’s an event this upcoming weekend, with the Skowhegan State Fairground playing host to Skijor Skowhegan, an event that also serves as the Northeastern Equestrian Skijoring Regionals. Taking place as part of the region’s Somerset Snowfest celebration, Skijor Skowhegan hits the track starting at 11 a.m. on February 26.

Whether you want to put on skis and get pulled by various animals or just want to watch other people do it, our fair state does provide some opportunities.


Obviously, this is far from everything that you can do in the wintertime. I didn’t mention ice skates, for example – there is great fun to be had whether you’re simply skating around or playing pond hockey or what have you.

(Note: This is where I mention that not only have I never been on skis, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve worn ice skates. If it isn’t already clear, I am not particularly good at being an outdoor Mainer in the wintertime.)

Not a word about snow forts and snowball fights, either, even though those are delightful diversions. Maybe you’re a snowshoer or simply enjoy taking walks through wintery woods.

And that’s the greatest part – there’s SO MUCH to do. I just tossed off a handful of things that call to me personally, but your mileage may vary. It’s just worth occasionally taking a moment and acknowledging how lucky we are to have these things available to us in our own backyard. It’s something to hold onto when we’re shivering through a negative-25 wind chill or grumbling through yet another driveway shoveling.

Ours is a winter wonderland – even if it doesn’t always feel that way. So get out there and have some fun. You probably won’t see me, but who knows?

Last modified on Wednesday, 23 February 2022 13:38


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