Aroostook County: Snowmobiling That Exceeds Lofty Expectations

Aroostook County
Aroostook County in Northern Maine offers long seasons, plentiful snow, great trails and unrivaled hospitality.

Hype is a funny thing. Sometimes efforts to build it can cause a letdown when the thing being hyped is experienced – be it an eagerly anticipated sequel to a blockbuster movie, a famous steak at a renowned restaurant or a long-awaited album from a historic musician.   

So, heading into my first adventure in the much ballyhooed Aroostook County in the northern tip of Maine, I was excited but also trying to keep expectations in check. I’d been told so many times that I just HAD to experience “The County” that it almost became a cliché. Still, I was jacked up to go – until a few days before my flight when my host called and said, “Well, c’mon out, but know that we’ve got April riding conditions, we’ve had some rain and some of the clubs have stopped grooming.” 

>>> Editor’s Note: This tour story first appeared in the November 2018 issue of Snow Goer magazine, and also appears in the 2022 issue of Snow Goer’s Great Escapes.

As it turns out, riding in northern Maine was all I could have ever anticipated and more, and the long, temperate days of spring made it downright spectacular, with uncrowded, wide and weaving trails, rugged and rural terrain and plenty of fresh snow during our two-day, 400-plus mile adventure.

The only thing more stunning than Aroostook’s natural beauty was its human support for snowmobiling. The trail infrastructure was immaculate – not just the grooming, but the brushing of the corridors, the impressive club-made bridges that cross broad rivers, the easy-to-use, well-placed signage and the overall sense of pride and dedication to snowmobiling that locals exhibited was inspiring. Throw in unparalleled hospitality and you’ve got expectation-exceeding fun – even if it was raised by hype.

Aroostook: It’s Really That Good

Our invitation to experience Northern Maine came from a long-lost acquaintance. Blaine King was a teenage guest rider at the 2001 Rode Reports event who we’d lost track of over the last 17 years, but when he reached out through social media to tell us about his family’s Shin Pond Village resort in Mount Chase, Maine, and then invited us out, it was an easy decision. His warning of spring riding conditions notwithstanding, we eagerly anticipated the adventure.

                After flying into Bangor, Maine, and then making a side-trip to Quebec for an unrelated meeting, the anticipation waned slightly as we drove in pouring raining and fog for a couple of hours toward Shin Pond. In fact, it was still raining when we pulled in and met our riding party.

                The lodge was quiet when we arrived – Shin Pond Village’s big on-site restaurant and snowmobile-based convenience store that are always busy from December through March were shut down for the season; the owners, Blaine’s mother and step-father, had escaped to Florida for the spring, leaving Blaine and his longtime girlfriend, Elka, in charge. They were gracious hosts, whipping together a fabulous steak and lobster feast as a welcome dinner for the riding crew.

                Overnight, while we bedded down in Shin Pond Village’s largest accommodation – a massive lake house with large, exposed wooden beams and a mostly glass front facing out to the 540-acre Lower Shin Pond – temperatures plummeted and the rain turned to light snow locally, but weather forecasts promised heavier snow would fall up north, which is where we were headed.

                A bit past sunrise, our group topped off at Shin Pond Village’s fuel pumps and headed north on the trail that bisects the Village property, with King leading on his Ski-Doo Renegade Backcountry. I was aboard a shiny 2018 Polaris 800 Switchback XCR that was graciously offered by Daigle Polaris in Madawaska, Maine, and followed Craig Daigle from the dealership-owning family on his 600 Rush XCR. Relative recent Aroostook County convert Derek Comeau, who was instrumental in pulling together our riding team, swept for our group while tucked behind the huge window of another Daigle-borrowed machine – a Polaris 800 Titan Adventure cruiser.

Aroostook County
An early stop at the Robert Mountain lookout gave us a glimpse of the beautiful terrain we would encounter on this day.

                The combined Trail 81/85 was a gently weaving path, groomed wide on what was likely a gravel road in the summer for automotive traffic. The trail’s edges were heavily forested by a mix of hard and soft wood trees, but where there were clearings a rider could see towering hills on the horizon. We weren’t more than a half-hour into our ride before King took the first side-trip, leaving the main trail to guide us up to the Roberts Mountain lookout near the border of Penobscot and Aroostook counties. On any other day the view from the lookout might be spectacular, but low-hanging clouds on this generally hazy day masked the view, so we dropped back onto Trail 81/85 and continued north, and had one of the day’s first hair-raising moments.

                A rather large moose cow that was just off the trail became startled and charged directly at Blaine’s Renegade, then fell in line between Blaine and Curt and then wouldn’t leave the trail. Blaine putted along up front looking for a place to get out of the moose’s way while those of us behind the moose left a big gap. Eventually she opted off the trail and back into the deep snow, and we continued north, where the scenery kept getting better.

                This section of Maine is wonderfully rugged, rustic and largely uninhabited. Road crossings are rare and houses are even more scarce – except for tracks of moose and other critters in the fresh snow, it seemed we had the vast region all to ourselves. In fact, our moose sightings weren’t done; we’d find another momma moose, this one with a youngster in tow, further up the trail, and they wanted no part of leaving the trail. When we came across them, they turned and ran up-trail so we stopped and enjoyed an extended trailside break. Upon refiring the machines 15 minutes later, however, we found them on the trail a mile further up and repeated the process – pull over, give them time, start again – and then came upon the duo again… and again. They were gangly, majestic creatures and amazing to see, but they certainly stalled our momentum heading north, and a herd of deer would do the same shortly thereafter – and gave Blaine another close call.

Carl Sherman Bridge
The Carl Sherman Bridge helps riders cross the Aroostook River between Masardis and Oxbow.

                There was more than wildlife to see, however. First came the impressive Carl Sherman Memorial suspension bridge over the Aroostook River near the sister towns of Masardis and Oxbow. The narrow, one-lane bridge is a piece of art, taking riders over a 165-foot, arc-shaped surface with a wood and steel cable overhead structure. Next, we came across a large dam at the outlet of Scopan Lake. No water was coming through the dam, but the open water of the Scopan Stream at the outlet created a dramatic backdrop against the increasingly deep snow.

                The heavy cloud cover broke for a bit during mid-afternoon but then returned as we continued to venture north. When trails 85 and 81 split at Ashland, we hung a left and stuck with 85 to the scenic town of Portage, where we topped off the fuel tanks and took a requisite beef jerky nourishment break across the street from Y-shape, 2,200-acre Portage Lake.

We wouldn’t see another town or hardly even another road for many hours as we ventured into an even more sparsely populated region – where the trees must outnumber people by 10 million to one! My leaders wanted to show me one of the most remote areas called The Allagash (and who was I to argue?), so we soon hung another left on ITS Trail 20, and things got increasingly interesting as the snow got deeper, the trail got more dynamic and we had our own special brand of chaos.

Aroostook: Dealing With The Unexpected

We soon found ourselves in rapidly changing weather conditions. As the heavy clouds returned, we drove in and out of snow squalls while strong winds rippled our jackets and tried to find open paths to our skin.

Moose tracks in aroostook county
Here are some of the moose tracks we came across during our ride. Those moose like to use the groomed snowmobile trails as much as we do!

                Trail 20 was fascinating, with some fast and straight stretches, more tight and twisting sections than we’d experienced to this point, and a mix of dense woods and open fields. We were making great time and having the same, with Craig now leading since he was more familiar with the trails in the north part of the county than Blaine. We stopped for pictures on Togue Pond, which was surrounded on three sides by towing hills, but we couldn’t see far in the blowing snow, so we returned to Trail 120. Shortly thereafter the hand of luck both cursed and kissed young Blaine.

                While traveling at a fairly high rate of speed on a straightaway next to a swamp, the front suspension on Blaine’s Backcountry Adventure came apart, with a spindle separating from the A-arm. Blaine was suddenly and unexpectedly pitched violently from his sled when the now disconnected right ski turned at a sharp right angle and dug into the trial. While  following behind him in the snow dust we saw a sled suddenly tumble one way and the driver fly the other. 

                As it turns out, neither the sled nor the driver was seriously damaged – anywhere else during our ride the incident could have been extremely serious, but Blaine and his sled both landed in relatively soft snow in a broad clearing. We were able to generally cobble the front suspension back together (yes, duct tape was involved!) but without a bolt on the bottom of the ball joint. Blaine – once he shook the cobwebs out of his head – would have to ride his sled the next 30-plus miles to Fort Kent while standing on the right side running board to help keep the ball joint in pace.

                The slower pace may have been a blessing, as it allowed us to truly soak in the scenery. We didn’t go all the way out to the Allagash, opting instead to jump on Trail 92 toward Fort Kent, home of the nearest Ski-Doo dealership. That trail was my favorite of the day, with real tight and weaving sections and more rugged terrain that had us going up and down hills and crossing more creeks. It really was spectacular.

small town charm
You won’t find a lot of gas station, hotel or fast food chains up here. Instead, the area is populated by charming, independent Ma’ & Pa’ businesses.

                The variety stopped for a while after our next gas stop at the delightful Joe’s in St. Francis, as Trail 92 turned into an arrow-straight rail trail that took us along the border between Maine and New Brunswick, following the St. John River that separates the U.S. from Canada. Looking across the river, we gazed at the bluffs and tall hills in the neighboring country.

                It took a couple of stops at local businesses in Fort Kent, a meeting with the fish cops and some finagling/bribes at a dealership, but eventually we were able to get Blaine’s sled fixed correctly and get back on the trail. Local-boy Craig took us off of the main trail onto some wonderful club trails, including 73b, which features riding through wide fields filled with deep, fresh snow – getting stuck was a legitimate concern as we busted through drifts and up and down steep hills in farm territory; the locals said up to 20 inches of snow fell in that area over the previous 24 hours.

We made it to our dinner spot – the Sportsman on the shores of Long Lake – around sunset and devoured our first meal of the day, and then rode in the dark up to the border down of Madawaska, where we lost the trial for a while but eventually found the snowmobile-friendly Martin’s Motel.    

A New Day In Aroostook County

Staying at the one-story, non-franchised Martin’s Motel felt like dropping by Grandma Ruby’s large house for the night – and we mean that in the very best way. It’s folksy, friendly and quiet, and our room felt like a large bedroom in an old house – super clean, with polished wooden floors that creaked when you walked across them and a quilt that seemed sure to have been personally made by a local. Owners Bruce and Jean Ouellette are longtime supporters of snowmobiling, and when Jean inquired in the morning about the level of comfort during our stay, we can tell she honestly cared about the answer.

Maine and New Brunswick border
Our host Blaine looks out across the St. John’s River into New Brunswick, Canada.

                Well rested, we saddled up under beautiful blue skies. Our ride back toward Shin Pond wouldn’t be as circuitous or eventful as our 260-mile first day – no close calls with moose or dramatic crashes – but it was even more scenic.

First, though, we stopped by Daigle’s Sports Center in downtown Madawaska to swap sleds (Derek wanted to ditch the Titan for a Rush) and to chat with founder/owner Glenn Daigle. Glenn’s not just a business owner, he’s also a dedicated rider, a groomer operator and a huge supporter of the sport – in fact, we met him briefly the night before when he was driving the groomer near Martin’s Motel. Snowmobiling wouldn’t be what it is without dedicated folks like him, and we’re thankful for his efforts.

                Leaving town we took some of the local feeder trails and saw some wondrous sights. First we visited a huge, 35-foot-tall cross mounted on a bluff high above the town in a clearing, complete with a statue of Jesus Christ. We were told it’s a local land owner’s homage, and a reflection of the heavy Catholic population in the area. It’s a trailside site to see.

Next we worked our way along the bluff and stopped on a high point where we could gaze across the St. John River at the industrious city of Edmundston, New Brunswick, on the other side. Smoke stacks billowed clouds of white into otherwise bright skies, and beyond the town were tall, rolling hills alternatively covered with dense woods or cleared of such vegetation and showing white fields.

northern Aroostook County
When we reached upper Aroostook County, the trails cut across potato fields and follow power line cuts.

The trails in this area featured more steep hills, sometimes with a bridge at the bottom of a valley carrying riders over a trickling river or creek. We crossed potato and grain fields then plunged back into the woods, and then reappeared in agricultural lands.

We returned to Long Lake and our previous night’s dinner location to check out the construction of a huge ice carousel. Like the one in a beer commercial, it was a broad circle cut in the lake-top ice that was turned/rotated by strategically placed outboard motors. A couple of days after we left the club that constructed it broke a world record by having the largest rotating ice carousel, measured at 427 feet in diameter!

Back on the trail, we hit some wide corridor trails in picture-perfect conditions. Trails were groomed smooth, and snow hung from every branch of every conifer we passed. Trail 83 featured a few twists and turns but Trail 105 was mainly a wide rail trail that took us quickly down to the more-interesting ITS 90, on which we weaved down to Portage. We fueled up at the same place we did the previous day, then crossed the road to enjoy lunch at another snowmobilers’ hotspot – Dean’s Motor Lodge. The parking lot was showing signs of this day’s building warmth, as asphalt that was covered the previous day by snow was starting to show through. 

Our group then retraced the first day’s path back to Shin Pond Village, with a few side visits along the way. For a final stop, Blaine took us back into Penobscot County to trails he personally grooms and eventually to the Buck’s Tail Lookout, where we parked beside a mostly snow-buried picnic table and enjoyed a distant view of the famous Mount Katahdin – Maine’s highest point at 5,257 feet – on the horizon against suddenly darkening skies. It wasn’t close to sunset – those were storm clouds brewing.

After quick goodbyes we jumped in the rental car and tried to beat the storm out of town. It didn’t work – 15 minutes after leaving Blaine, Craig, Derek and Shin Pond Village in the rear view mirror we were in complete whiteout conditions for a hair-raising drive back to the airport in Bangor. Honestly, the drive sucked, but the new snow gave our newfound friends a couple more weeks of great April riding in one of our new favorite destinations.


Three Takeaways

  • At 6,828 square miles, Aroostook County is larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined – times two.
  • The County is bordered on three sides – east, west and north – by Canada.
  • Much of Aroostook County’s rural terrain is owned by large land-owning companies who are gracious enough to allow trails to cross their property.

Editor’s Note: Every Snow Goer issue includes in-depth sled reports and comparisons, aftermarket gear and accessories reviews, riding destination articles, do-it-yourself repair information, snowmobile technology and more. Subscribe to Snow Goer now to receive print and/or digital issues.

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