Maine winters are shrinking. That's raising existential questions for the state's snowmobilers
It's been said that to get through winter in Maine you have to embrace it. For many people, that means heading out in the wilds of Maine on a snowmobile.
One of the prime spots for riding the trails is near the western edge of Franklin County in Rangeley. But the snowmobiling industry in the area is coming face to face with a new reality brought on by climate change. Some local enthusiasts are worried, both for the future of their sport and for the local economy.
This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."
In Rangeley, Dec. 15 is a big day. That's the target day for snowmobile trails to open. But there wasn't enough snow to open on that date, or the week after, or the week after that. It took a full month — till the middle of January — to accumulate just barely enough snow to groom the trails.
"It's been a long time overdue. We've all been eager," says Tyler Philbrick, who is warming up his groomer on a frigid January afternoon at Bald Mountain Camps.
The resort has been around since the 1800s, but Philbrick says it only started opening for the winter season about a decade ago, catering to snowmobile clientele. And it's been worth it.
"It brings us so many customers," he says.
Especially on this particular weekend. It's the annual Snodeo, put on by the Rangeley Lakes Snowmobile Club — the largest in Maine. The festival of snowmobile races and other events is a huge draw to the area, and it almost didn't happen this year for lack of snow. But with a just-in-time storm that dropped 8 inches, Snodeo is a go.
As club president, Jonny Wakefield is one of the people who decides when to open trails. With snowfalls starting later, he says he gets ulcers watching weather forecasts, and seeing the effects on local businesses.
"You're driving by restaurants that would, you know, in middle of December would have, they'd be full on a Friday night, and they'd be half full. And you feel this pressure on you that, you know, something's got to happen. Thank God it did," he says.
Other winter sports are also feeling the changes. Up the road, Saddleback Mountain is in the middle of its second season after a five-year hiatus. Senior vice president of operations, Jim Quimby, says snowmaking is critical to getting trails open. But it has become more difficult with shorter winters and wide temperature swings.
"The ability to start making snow earlier in November, we haven't had that opportunity the last couple of years. And we've had to push through weather that would typically be warmer than if we had our, you know, our choice, we wouldn't have pushed through it," he says.
Quimby says it's more efficient to make snow when temperatures are in the single digits or teens. But there aren't enough of those days, so Saddleback now makes snow when it's warmer, which is more expensive. It's one of the reasons the ski area is installing a community solar farm on its property — to generate a sustainable source of energy and to lower its costs.
At the base of Saddleback at the Rangeley Lakes Trail Center, manager Beth Flynn says Nordic skiers haven't felt the changes brought by climate change as deeply as other sports, but the facility is taking steps to prepare. She says the plan is to smooth out trails this summer so in the winter they can be groomed with less snow.
"And then we're also in talks with the mountain about perhaps making a loop up closer to their snow making so we can have a Nordic trail up there if we don’t have any snow," she says.
But where the ski industry may be able to compensate for some of the challenges of climate change through snowmaking, that's not an option for snowmobilers.
At this year's Snodeo, subzero temperatures don't deter young snowmobilers competing in the kid races on a loop track. They are the next generation of snowmobile riders. But some here, like club board member John Lewis, worry about snowmobiling's future because of the weather changes he has witnessed over the past couple of decades.
"You would have days up here where it would snow every single day. Now, we're lucky to get a storm every month," he says. "I think in 10 years, we’re not going to get any snow up here. I hope that’s not the case."
All this would have major implications for the local economy, says snowmobile club treasurer Ashley Quimby.
"It’s a huge industry in Rangeley, I mean, especially — now we have Saddleback open again, which is great. But when Saddleback wasn’t open, snowmobiling industry is what carried us through the winters," she says.
The state climatologist, Dr. Sean Birkel, says in the past century, Maine has lost one to two weeks of winter and by 2050, we'll lose another one to two weeks.
How much more the season shrinks after that depends on the measures taken now to limit greenhouse gases. And some of those changes may come from within the snowmobile industry, as more electric snowmobiles are introduced to the market.
But Wakefield, Rangeley snowmobile club president, says he's not sure how the industry will be able to adapt to less snow.
"I don't know how. That's like, I guess, the infamous million dollar question. Where do we go from here? How do we go from here? It's scary," he says.
For now, snowmobilers here say they'll make the most of the time they do have.