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Winter recreation off to a mixed start

MARS HILL, Maine — While the ski slopes and cross country trails are in relatively good shape going into the new year, Mother Nature has been asking snowmobilers to be patient this winter.

This photo captured on Dec. 28 looks north on the ITS 83 snowmobile trail that runs through Mars Hill. Aroostook County’s snowmobile season is off to a mixed start due to rain and above-freezing temperatures around the winter solstice. (Anthony Brino | Star-Herald)

The rain and thaw around the winter solstice followed by frigid temperatures left Aroostook County’s snowmobile trails in difficult shape.

“Most places need more than five inches of snow, and we don’t need any rain,” said Steve Dobson, owner owner of the Aroostook Hospitality Inns in Washburn and in Van Buren.

Dobson’s inns are among the Aroostook County businesses that host the thousands of people who visit the region to ride more than 2,000 miles of snowmobile trails every winter.

Oftentimes, the weekend ahead of New Year’s Day is often a strong and unofficial start to the snowmobile season, Dobson said. But when visitors who booked a room call about the state of the snowmobile trails, “You have to be truthful with them,” Dobson said.

“I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s had a bunch of cancellations.”

Dobson said that the snowmobile clubs who maintain the trails will be doing what they can after the weekend’s snowfall. According to the National Weather Service in Caribou, central Aroostook County was expected to receive about four inches of snow followed by temperatures reaching into the upper 30s Saturday before again staying below freezing through the beginning of the new year.

Snowmobile clubs have been asking riders to avoid the trails until more snow arrives and the trails can be groomed.

Meanwhile, Nordic ski trails and downhill ski areas have fared better.

Quoggy Jo Ski Hill in Presque Isle, Bigrock Mountain in Mars Hill and Lonesome Pines in Fort Kent were open Friday, Dec. 28. Cross country ski trails also are in good condition at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle and the Fort Kent Outdoor Center, which hosted high school cross country teams from southern Maine over the Christmas week break.

While snowmobiling attracts many winter visitors to Aroostook County, Dobson said that skiing and other activities are also are a draw. He’s expecting that hotels and motels in the area will see a boost from visiting ski teams in late March when the Nordic Heritage Center hosts the International Ski Federation’s Final and Long Distance National Championships, a qualifying event for the Winter Olympics.

“That’s going to be a good plus toward the latter part of the season,” said Dobson, a member of the board of Aroostook County Tourism. “A little bit of everything is what makes a good tourism season and destination.”

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