Our great white north – Aroostook County – a bonanza for XC skiing, snowshoeing

Traveling north on I-95, you’ll cross into Aroostook County around mile marker 262, a little shy of the Sherman Mills exit. If you notice the snowbanks are higher up this way, well, that’s because it snows a lot and winter is long in these parts. Just the thing if you’re looking for great cross-country skiing and snowshoeing opportunities, which Aroostook has in abundance.

Leaving the four-lane highway behind at Houlton, US Route 1 heads due north through the rolling country of farmlands and forests. In a half-hour, the sharp profile of Mars Hill comes into view, and 8 miles beyond, the distinctive twin peaks of Quaggy Jo Mountain in Aroostook State Park appear on the left. The park is home to 11 miles of Nordic ski trails and 3 miles of hiking/snowshoeing trails, scenic routes that wander over and around the mountain and along three sides of beautiful Echo Lake. There’s sliding, skating and winter camping to boot.

Aroostook State Park is just one of about 20 wonderful playgrounds for ski and snowshoe fun in the region, according to Eric Hendrickson, a Presque Isle resident and unofficial ambassador for the Aroostook County outdoors. Hendrickson, a retired natural science teacher, and his wife, Elaine, ski or snowshoe as many as 150 days a year.

“Aroostook County is different than most of Maine. Our weather comes from Quebec. It’s good snow, the dry kind, not wet and grainy,” Hendrickson said. “You can generally ski from November through April and sometimes into May. It might be on rock skis in early season but come January the skiing is usually excellent. It’s not uncommon have 3-4 feet of packed snow beneath you.”

Four major areas in Aroostook County – Fort Kent, Presque Isle, Madawaska and Caribou – offer a lodge, groomed and tracked Nordic ski trails for classic and skate skiing, snowmaking, lighted trails for night skiing and dedicated snowshoeing trails. All but the Caribou facility provide a ski shop with equipment rentals and lessons.

The Fort Kent Outdoor Center occupies the slopes of Stevens Hill immediately south of the village proper of Fort Kent. The center features close to 40 kilometers of excellent skiing on the Lodge, Violette Settlement and Green Bean trail networks. Seven miles of meandering snowshoe trails lead north through Lonesome Pine Trails ski area to town.

Located in Presque Isle about 5 miles northeast of downtown, the Nordic Heritage Center is managed and operated by the Nordic Heritage Sport Club. Seven lovely loops and a couple of trails emanating from the hilltop lodge account for 20 kilometers of outstanding skiing. Complementing this is a sinuous 20-mile system of snowshoeing trails.

At Four Seasons Trail in Madawaska, seven different ski loops are possible on 14 kilometers of sweet trails that weave through the pretty woods and meadows just south of town. Snowshoe enthusiasts can take to 12 kilometers of twisting trails, and a sliding hill rounds out the enjoyment possibilities.

The Caribou Ski Center, situated behind Caribou High School on the western edge of the city, sports 5 kilometers of Nordic trails and 3 miles of trails for snowshoeing.

Hendrickson’s favorite place to explore is the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge on the grounds of the old Loring Air Force Base northwest of Limestone. From the visitor center on Refuge Road, 7 miles of trails are readily accessible, a portion of them groomed for cross-country skiing. From West Gate Road, snowshoeing on 3 miles of trails is possible, with Chapman Pond a natural focal point.

In addition to the aforementioned destinations, there are probably a dozen small, under-the-radar community areas around “The County” to investigate for more Nordic skiing and snowshoeing good times, places like New Sweden, Stockholm, Woodland and Trafton Lake in Limestone .

“There’s something for everyone here, from easy to difficult trails,” Hendrickson said. “Every area is different. And there’s always lots of snow.”

First-time visitors to Maine’s largest county will quickly discover what the rest of us already know and love: that the local folk in the restaurants, stores, hotels and such are very welcoming and helpful with information and advice.

“We’re not inundated with tourists.” Hendrickson noted. “It’s a slower pace of life and people are friendly and warm.”

The temperature perhaps not so much: “It’s cold and windy up here, so be prepared.”

Carey Kish of Mount Desert Island is a veteran adventurer and freelance writer. His latest book, “Beer Hiking New England,” will be available this spring. Follow more of Carey’s adventures on Facebook @CareyKish

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