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January warmth takes its toll on winter recreation in Maine

The lift at the Camden Snow Bowl on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023.
Murray Carpenter
Maine Public
The lift at the Camden Snow Bowl on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023.

With temperatures in the 50s and rain across much of the state, it hardly feels like winter in Maine. And the warm weather is leaving snowmobile trails bare and frustrating skiers in some areas.

Holly Anderson, assistant manager of Camden Snowbowl, says the area should have been bustling on Friday. Instead, it was closed to protect the existing snow pack in the warm weather.

"It's raining, and it's 45, almost 50 degrees at times," she says.

Although the Snow Bowl has made snow when temperatures allow, and some of the slopes have good snow cover, Ted Davis, a lift operator at the mountain and a self-proclaimed weather nerd, says it's far less than in a normal year.

"Our average snowfall in a season to date would be probably around 30 inches," he says. "This year we have three."

The Snow Bowl plans to reopen Saturday, thanks to the man-made snow, but snowmobilers aren't so lucky.

"We depend on the snow," says Al Swett, president of the Maine Snowmobile Association. "We don't have have snowmakers, snowblowers, like the big mountains do, so we're stuck."

He says not only are many snowmobile trails bare, they are actually muddy as brooks overflow with snowmelt and rain.

Swett says he has been fielding calls from snowmobilers in southern New England and he's encouraging them to stay home.

"Nothing's frozen, we don't have much snow, I don't want you to travel 4-5 hours to get up here and be discouraged because the trails are in such poor condition," he says. "You know, it's pre-season, in mid-January now. I don't want you to do it. I don't want you coming up here, and I don't want you getting hurt, and for heaven's sake, don't go on the ice."

Swett says he has seen open water in places he has never before this time of year in his 60-plus years in Maine, and urges extreme caution.

"I wouldn't dare go on any ice right now," Swett says. "You know, we had two fatalities, one on North Pond in Smithfield, and another gentleman went through Seboeis Lake up in the Millinocket area. I would not go on any ice. Period."

The lack of solid ice has prompted some ice-fishing tournaments to be canceled. Mark Latti, of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, says ice conditions remain variable, at best.

"In northern Maine or central Maine you may have some ponds you can get on to fish or walk on," Latti says. "But larger lakes are still pretty treacherous, most ponds in southern Maine are difficult to get on due to the rain and warm weather."

Latti says you should always check the ice, and avoid any areas with less than four inches of hard ice.

Back at the Snow Bowl, a creek is flowing hard with rain and snowmelt.

Anderson says Maine's changing climate is prompting conversations about how best to use the municipally owned recreation area, as snow and ice become less reliable. That might include encouraging fat-tire biking, for example.

And she says this winter's weather is unsettling.

"It's weird, it's really odd, for sure," Anderson says. "This doesn't feel right. And we keep looking at the weather, and hoping that the forecasters are wrong."

But she also says, whatever the weather, the toboggan championships that are a highlight of the ski area's season will go on next month, even if the course has to be changed to avoid thin ice on the nearby pond.

Murray Carpenter is Maine Public’s climate reporter, covering climate change and other environmental news.