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The Maine backup

W inter weather can be notoriously fickle. No matter where you live or like to ride, conditions vary greatly, and warm or cold temperatures can occur during any part of the season. Fortunately, a few places seem to always have snow – and it’s no coincidence those areas are farther north or at higher elevations.

Northern New England is one such glorious snow region and when an uncooperative jet stream wreaked havoc last season in the Oregon Cascades, and on my original travel plans, I reoriented my March and looked eastward for a backup location. There was snow in west central Maine and a couple of phone calls were all it took to line up a weekend of riding around the area of The Forks, a small town at the confluence of the Dead and Kennebec Rivers. Most of New England received a foot of new snow in the days before my visit, adding to the already impressive depth and creating prime riding conditions.

The English version Pantera
My base of operations was at Northern Outdoors, a full service year-round lodging establishment and outfitter catering to river rafters in warm weather and snowmobilers during the winter. AmSnow has been in this area before, but it had been the better part of a decade so I thought it was time to return. My host was co-proprietor Russell Walters, who helps oversee the operation, but also gets out on the river and trails when time permits. A native of England, he first visited the area in the 1990s for rafting, fell in love with the Kennebec Valley and ultimately returned to the region years later moving his entire family from England. 

My trusty mount for two days of riding was a Ski-Doo Grand Touring 550, one of the fleet of rental sleds made available at Northern Outdoors by Backcountry Expeditions (BCE) under a cooperative arrangement. BCE offers all-terrain vehicle rentals during the other three seasons of the year, so visitors have plenty of recreational options when staying at Northern Outdoors.

Russell was the Saturday guide for Jim Sullivan and me, a regular guest from Massachusetts who enjoys riding throughout the area. After enjoying a hearty breakfast at the lodge, we set off northward along the east side of the Kennebec River, crossing it on a recreational bridge at The Forks town and then heading west along the Dead River on ITS (Interconnected Trail System) route #86. Our upstream destination was Grand Falls, a trail accessible site popular with snowmobilers. We got our first look at it from downriver, then drove up to the overlook above the briskly flowing cascade, where Russell posed for a photo at my request.

We departed the falls by backtracking for several miles, then heading north on the Mystery Connector, one of the many routes in the region that have a name instead of a number. Before long we were looking up at Mount Coburn (3,750 feet) and the trail leading to its summit.

“It’s a fun ride up to the top when conditions are good,” Russell said, “but with all the new snow here, it could be tricky – or even impassable. We’ll just have to head up that way and see how the trail is before we try to make the summit.”

I followed Russell and Jim as we began our climb. Fortunately, the way was steep but clear and a few minutes later we were atop the peak, enjoying an amazing panoramic view in every direction. A few other sledders were there also, so we had the opportunity to visit and compare notes on local trail conditions before snapping some pictures and then making our descent.

Parlin Pond was our next destination and after a short hop of several miles we were at Lake Parlin Lodge, a popular pit stop that was bustling with a lively lunch crowd. The place itself has a long history, but the special attraction for winter enthusiasts is the assortment of old snowmobiles – including a rear-engined Polaris Snow Traveler – mounted up high, above the bar, for all to see and enjoy. In addition to the place’s wintry atmosphere, the menu was extensive and the bacon cheeseburger especially tasty. 

Back at The Forks, we re-crossed the Kennebec and stopped at the small riverside park, where several interpretive plaques explained the history of the river and the burgeoning lumber trade that flourished there many decades ago. Continuing on ITS #87, we looped around Northern Outdoors and came in from its east side. By the time we got there, sprinkles of precipitation had turned into a light rain and Russell was nearly out of gas, but the final half mile was downhill and we returned without incident, showing 100 miles on the odometer for the day’s effort.

Besides comfortable lodging and delicious food, Northern Outdoors also boasts an additional amenity for guests – the Kennebec River Brewery, which draws its pure water from a 300-foot well on site. Kennebec brews more than a half dozen varieties of craft beer and ale, providing plenty of options for post-ride enjoyment.
Going deep
For Sunday’s outing, my guide was Brian Crater, co-owner of Backcountry Expeditions. We headed south on ITS #87, with a side trip to Moxie Mountain Lookout (2,070 feet).  There were clear views of distant lakes and forests.

After returning to the main route, we turned north on the Bald Mountain Trail, another well groomed connector. Along the way was a large open area where we veered off-trail to have some fun. After about 20 minutes of frolicking in the powder, we resumed our journey and turned northeast on ITS #86, heading for the town of Greenville. This unplowed forest road was groomed for snowmobiles, so it was wide and conducive to higher speeds.

Greenville is at the southernmost tip of massive Moosehead Lake and the trail took us a short distance over the ice before coming ashore downtown. Lunch was at the Stress-Free Moose Café, an oddly named, but very comfortable restaurant near the marina welcoming boaters in the summer and snowmobilers in the winter.  
After lunch we refueled and went east on ITS #86, passing the headquarters of the Moosehead Riders Snowmobile Club and climbing Scammon Ridge. Ironically, the mile beyond the clubhouse was all moguls, but fortunately conditions improved greatly when we reached the top, where we were treated to a beautiful view of Moosehead Lake, the largest body of water in New England.

Continuing on, the trail took us through a logging area (which was quiet on a Sunday afternoon) and then to a junction where we picked up ITS #110. Our destination was a combination historical site and memorial – the B-52 Crash Site, marking the place where a giant jet bomber fell on the afternoon of January 24, 1963 after its vertical stabilizer fell off, killing nine of its 11 crew members. To commemorate this unfortunate tragedy, many of the aircraft parts remain in place and the debris field is accessible by trail, allowing visitors to see the site year-round. The winter snow covers most of the artifacts, but a number of the larger pieces (including two huge wheels and tires) were visible to us. It’s an interesting, but sobering place, yet well worth visiting.

Except for experiencing that mile of moguls again, it was a smooth ride back to Northern Outdoors. The highlight was taking another off-trail excursion, this time on a former trail segment that Brian knew. As we veered into the deep powder, it was immediately apparent that this was going to be more challenging than just zooming around a field. Brian did a good job of breaking trail with his Arctic Cat 800 Crossfire, so I had a track to follow – and only got stuck once. Brian helped extricate the Ski-Doo and we were on our way again, covering the mile and a half in fun fashion before rejoining the main route. When we arrived at Northern Outdoors, we had covered 121 miles and enjoyed a wonderful day.

This was my first visit to Maine and I’m already hoping to return. The state boasts more than 14,000 miles of trail. In the central and northern portion of the state, the snow comes early and often, making Maine a prime snowmobiling venue from December through March.
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