Hanging off New England like a hitchhiker’s thumb, Maine is one of the most intriguing places a traveler can visit within the 2-plus billion acres of the United States. Sporting 3,478 miles of coastline, much more than California’s 840, Maine’s roundabout Atlantic seashore appeals to those who take their beaches cold, pensive and rocky instead of warm, sociable and sandy. In stark contrast to its rugged coast, however, the state’s friendly locals go out of their way to be welcoming, and they speak in a charming dialect that blends Boston with French Canada.
With a prior summertime visit under my belt, I vowed to come back the next winter to check out the snowmobiling, assuming it was even better than the ATV riding. With a phenomenal ride that took us directly atop the U.S.-Canadian border, over massive “ponds” covered in snow-less ice, and breaking trail during a forceful late-season blizzard, returning to Maine was an excellent decision, and was the best riding I encountered last season.
Snowmobiling in Maine: Introduction to Boondocking
In the interest of full disclosure, I hadn’t officially been boondocking before this trip — riding off trail in a remote area. Sure, my family and I loved to ride off the trails on our own property in the Upper Midwest, but that was the extent of it. Piloting a sled through waist-deep snow in the northern Appalachian Mountains would be an entirely new experience, and I was a bit skittish in anticipation.
I had plenty of time to stew about it on my three-hour drive from Portland, named Bon Appétit magazine’s “Foodiest Small Town in America” for its plethora of seaside fish and lobster shacks in the Old Port district. The shellfish was wonderful, but my mind was on the weather, wondering if the late-winter warm spell would restrict our riding.
My destination was Jackman, located in the northwest part of the state. With fewer than 5,000 residents, Jackman is a small whistle-stop catering to passersby with bustling little cafes, a few hotels, one main thoroughfare, a big lumber mill and a dealership — Jackman Power Sports — that hooked me up with a sled. I would be riding a Ski-Doo Skandic WT, which would be the beefiest rig I’ve ridden since my dad’s old SnoJet.
The father-and-son duo of Stephen and Tennie Coleman of Coleman’s Flying & Guide Service would be my escorts on the first day, and they assured us the lack of snow wouldn’t be a concern where we were heading — like Dr. Emmett Brown from “Back to the Future” saying, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” That’s how it felt, at least.
My Skandic felt like a diesel truck — heavy, ponderous, but powerful. It seemed like such an unlikely choice, but people were impressed with my sled wherever we went, and I was told these are the snowmobiles of choice around here.
Snowmobiling in Maine: Canada, Almost
Leaving town on our sleds, we crossed Wood Pond, which is a huge lake right next to Jackman. Because of the relative lack of snow last winter, our carbides clacked and ground their way over a vast sheet of translucent ice with very little traction for steering. I didn’t want to go much faster than 25 mph.
It took a while, but we made it to the other side, climbed the bank and joined the wide, rolling trail system, and found some serious snow. The heavily wooded forests are dense, packed to the gills with overlapping pine trees in all directions. Unlike the southern Appalachians, or the Midwest, the big woods of northern Maine are thick, and almost exclusively populated by pines. Hills are generally rolling, with a few sharp peaks rising thousands of feet into the sky. This is definitely mountain country, with its own, pine-scented flair.
We explored a few smaller lakes off the beaten path, and then left trail again — it was time for some boondocking. Maintaining speed and momentum, leaning heavily to steer the sled in powder and generally trying to follow my skilled leaders, it was tremendously fun.
Getting stuck meant stepping off the running boards and sinking through the snow up to my crotch. Nothing says newbie like asking, “Can anybody give me a hand?” Apparently a low-snow winter in northern Maine kicks the butt of a good-snow winter in the Upper Midwest, at least in hills. Patiently, the Colemans pushed, pulled, dug and quickly extricated my sled, and our journey continued.
The Big Bertha Skandic proved its merits up here in the woods, as a gentle stab of throttle unleashed the right amount of torque to gradually and precisely keep moving through the deep stuff.
Snaking through the trees, we took a right turn on what looked like a brushed-out trail. Instead, it was the U.S.-Canadian border winding left, right, up and down through the forest and across the nearby mountains. You could see it miles away on distant hills.
Aside from being geographically remarkable, the border is a paradise for riders much like the big high-lines I was used to riding years ago back home.
One cannot legally cross into Canada this way, of course, but snowmobilers are welcome to ride the border to their heart’s content. I enjoyed the tour, got stuck a few more times and checked out an isolated waterfall before we swiftly rode back to Jackman by the glow of our headlights.
Snowmobiling in Maine: Here Comes the Snow
After a hearty dinner with Stephen, a warming drink and some good post-ride conversation, I headed off to bed ahead of my second day’s ride. The forecast called for snow, but I was skeptical as it was still unseasonably warm. Temperature and moisture played well together that night, and Jackman was absolutely dumped on while I slept — nearly a foot by daybreak, and it wasn’t slowing down after breakfast.
Luck was with us, as Mother Nature provided one last day of spectacular snow for the deprived riders of the Northeast. The scene was comprised of big, gigantic snowflakes, busy plows clearing out the local businesses, pedestrians in clunky boots and three excited riders suiting up to ride in late February.
My guides were the endlessly friendly Kevin Cavanaugh of Maxx’s ATV Rentals and his friend Ray Perry, a retired police officer who recently moved to the area. Kevin took me ATV riding the previous summer and knows the trails well. Both were amped on my behalf, knowing we’d be the first people on the trails because it was a weekday.
Surely enough, the trail was a blank, white canvas with no riders in sight. The white pines sagged under a heavy load of accumulating snow. We’d be sticking to the trail system this time around, covering some of the trails I rode on quads.
Maine has very scenic, well-made trails, and a lot of them in all directions. It was hard to judge the quality of signage — there was just too much snow to see anything aside from the red taillight moving ahead. We motored west of town toward an overlook, but the view of town also wasn’t much in the storm. With so much snow, our experience wasn’t significantly different than the previous day’s off-trail antics.
After breaking some more trails, we made our way east of town and stopped at the posh (for snowmobilers) clubhouse of the Jackman Border Riders. Members can stop in for a hot meal, cold drinks and watch the boob tube on a big flat screen, should they choose. I’ve never seen such an impressive rider’s clubhouse, and it was a nice stop at the confluence of several routes. Every rider we talked with was equally excited about all the snow.
Snowmobiling in Maine: Treacherous Travels
By the end of our trek, most of Jackman had been plowed out, cleaned up and traffic (mostly fully loaded logging trucks) was moving smoothly along U.S. Highway 201, but snow was still coming down with haste.
Thankfully my rental had four-wheel drive, but the return trip back to Portland was a white-knuckle affair. Heading south, winter disappeared before my eyes, with snow turning to rain, white piles replaced with brown, bare ground whipped by a robust wind.
With its rushing rivers, idealistic New England towns, tall church steeples and creatively named waterways, rural Maine is bursting with character and charm. I was flying back home through Portland, which is one of America’s most beautiful small cities. Strolling along the jam-packed waterfront was a great bookend for a spectacular riding vacation in a curious corner of the country.