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Over our skis: Wintertime fun beyond the slopes

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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.

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.

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Snowmobiling

An interesting email came my way just the other day.

According to a new study by the University of Maine in collaboration with the Maine Snowmobile Association and the state Snowmobile Program, 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.

That study sports 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 $45 for a year, while nonresidents can pay $49 for a three-day registration, $75 for a 10-day or $99 for a year.

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 think I may have 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.

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Sledding

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 for a couple of winters, 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. Hermon Mountain’s tubing is locally beloved, but there are plenty of other options out there as well.

(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.)

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Curling

Full disclosure: I am in the bag for curling, despite having VERY limited experience with playing the game. It is a delight.

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 (which runs for another six weeks or so – check their website at belfastcurlingclub.org for more specific information).

A few years back, I participated in one of the club’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.

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 pinetreecurlingclub.com.)

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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 mainedogsledding.com.

Others include Augusta’s Heywood Kennel Sled Dog Adventures – they have a variety of packages to meet different interest and commitment levels – and a number of operations in southern and western Maine.

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 want to confirm before you arrive.

(As an aside, if dog skijoring seems a little small to you, you can always go to Skijor Skowhegan on February 29. Instead of a dog pulling the skier, it’s a horse. It all takes place on a 1,000-foot track featuring jumps and gates and more; fastest time takes it all. This is Maine’s first equestrian skijoring competition – it’s the Northeast Equestrian Skijoring Regionals!)

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.

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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. Not a word about snow forts and snowball fights, 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 try to have a little fun.

Last modified on Wednesday, 19 February 2020 08:35

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