Maine winters can be long, cold and difficult for small businesses. But there’s one recreational pursuit that has been quietly — or loudly, as the case may be — putting money into some of the most remote tills in the state.
On the trails of western Maine, the whir of snowmobiling provides an economic engine all its own.
Jonny Wakefield of Rangeley works in sales at Oquossoc Marine on the shores of Rangeley Lake. In the summertime, the business outfits recreational boaters who come to fish and water ski on the lake. But in winter, it’s one of a growing number of local businesses that rely on power sledders to see them through the less hospitable months.
With the Saddleback ski resort closed for three years now, Wakefield says without snowmobiling — and the kind of winter weather that sends beach worshipers fleeing south — you could put a “closed” sign on the little mountain town until late spring.
“I don’t even want to think what what would happen if we didn’t have a good season up here until the mountain opens again,” he says.
Mary Brey of Rangeley was also disappointed when Saddleback closed, but she says it was a pleasant surprise to discover that winter tourism could still thrive. Brey, who is vice president of the local volunteer snowmobile club, says her group redoubled efforts to assist businesses hurt by the loss of downhill skiing. After three years, she says the town’s efforts to rebrand and market the region as a snowmobiling destination are paying off.
“I’ve never seen it this busy, as it is this year. All the restaurants, all the hotels are packed every weekend, it’s just been phenomenal. It shows that we can go on without the mountain,” she says.
But Wakefield says while volunteer snowmobile clubs in Rangeley, Eustis, Stratton and Jackman have successfully started doing PR, he thinks the state could be more helpful in marketing power sports in “The Other Maine.”
“They’re funneling a lot more money to coastal and lobsters and things like that. And they push a lot on the ski industry. There’s definitely a lot more money that could go to snowmobiling,” he says.
Both Wakefield and Brey belong to the Rangeley Lakes Snowmobile Club, a volunteer group that manages the region’s trail system. More than 280 similar clubs across Maine collectively maintain some 14,000 miles of snowy trails.
On this day, we’re taking what’s considered a “short,” 70-mile round-trip ride to have lunch at a remote lodge on the northern shore of Aziscohos Lake. Wakefield and Brey lead our expedition down an alpine trail snaking through the woods, over streams and around active logging operations. And then we cross the frozen lake itself.
After some minor mishaps involving tight turns and deep snow, we arrive at Bosebuck Mountain Camps, not far from the New Hampshire border. There are 16 sleds in the parking lot.
Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, and safety specialist Al Swett, have come along for the ride, their first of the season.
“It felt good to be out there. Felt nice. It’s a beautiful day, got a little snow, trails are good, good scenery,” Meyers says.
Built in 1912, Bosebuck is a traditional sporting lodge known for its rustic hospitality, and especially for its home-cooked meals. A sign on the front desk encourages guests to talk to each other.
But as one of Maine’s remote outposts, Bosebuck is a bit of a paradox, where snowmobilers power down the trail in a hurry to get to one of the slowest spots around. There's no WiFi or cell service, and it's off the grid.
“It’s kind of like a traditional stop. Come on in, have a beer or something to eat if you’re hungry, then continue off and go for a little more riding in Maine,” says Jay Lawrence of Attleboro, Massachusetts, who is on an annual weeklong father-son journey with his 19-year-old son Nick.
Nick says snowmobiling is something he’s been doing since he was young.
“It’s just what we like to do in the winter,” he says.
Asked the length of his longest ride, Nick says, “Uh, probably like around 200 to 250 miles in one day.
“Usually we’ve got to find [pit stops along the way]. That’s how we can go that far, so we can get more gas and stuff like that,” he says.
Bosebuck’s co-owner, Wendy Yates, says snowmobiling was a big factor in her family’s decision to purchase the lodge in 2007. They needed it to be a four-season business, but she says there aren’t enough skiers or snowshoers to sustain the business.
“It just would not have the volume of people we would need in order to sustain a full staff year-round. So being able to be open year-round really helps to keep the same staff year-round, you provide somebody full-time employment,” she says.
Last year more than 80,000 people registered sleds to ride in Maine. What’s not known is how much they contributed to the economy. But this year, the Maine Snowmobile Association and the University of Maine are planning a study this year to find out. Swett has a guess.
“I know it’s billions,” he says. “It’s gotta be billions.”