The northern frontier: Fort Kent, Maine (Part 1)

At first glance, Fort Kent seems like it should be a ski town, small hill with above the outpost on the U.S.-Canadian border, population 4,200. Crossing the bridge over the Saint John River from Clair, New Brunswick, you promptly spot the hill. Most often the first to receive snow in the east, Fort Kent is also the last to lose it come springtime. While snow and solitude have long been plentiful here, only recently has Fort Kent attracted cross country skiers. Yet, it still remains a backwoods destination–crowded more by moose than by people.

Bienvenue a Fort Kent

Fort Kent

In 1829, when the British won control of Canada, they chased the French Acadians from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, banishing many to Louisiana. (Cajun is an offshoot of Acadian.) Others fled up the St. John River. Held back by waterfalls and deep waters, the British only pursued them so far. Above the falls, the Acadians found refuge, Fort Kent being among the settlements.

Acadian culture is still quite visible. When you walk into the local grocery store, you will hear both French and English spoken, sometimes interchangeably within one conversation. Local menus sprout with ployes, or buckwheat pancakes, and poutine, mashed potatoes topped with thick cheese curds and gravy.

While skiing is not traditionally Acadian, northern Maine is steeped in cross country by way of its small Swedish heritage. Recognizing the emptiness of the state’s northern reaches, Governor Chamberlain in 1870 asked 21 families to settle the area. They founded New Sweden and

Stockholm, both just 20 minutes south of Fort Kent. In the vast virgin forests, where winter lasts seven months, they found their skis useful. To pass the time, they established ski clubs and marathon races.

As the automobile ushered in a new American way of life, so too did it replace the need for skiing as transportation in northern Maine. Eventually, marathon races fell by the wayside, and ski clubs died out. Untouched skis and poles cut from local wood leaned against outhouses and gathered dust forgotten in garages. Winter became something to survive, rather than to enjoy.

Maine Winter Sports Center

Maine Winter Sports Center

To reawaken the state’s northern skiing tradition, the Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC) established in 1999 sought to provide local youth with more outdoor opportunities and add tourism to the lumber-dependent economy. In 2000, it built its first venue–the first of six across the state–in Fort Kent by cutting wide trails through the quiet woods and constructing a biathlon shooting range. A year later, the center erected a 5,500-square-foot three-level day lodge.

In recognition of the army’s contribution to fostering skiing in the United States, the venue was soon renamed the 10th Mountain Ski Center. Gradually, MWSC handed over control of the venue and its operation to the local ski club, which now has 140 members.

Besides building venues, MWSC is also a primary supporter of elite athletes. Over the past six years, it helped developing cross country racers like Zach Simons and Kate Whitcomb reach top national levels. Northern Maine is also the home of the U.S. Biathlon Development Team. Seven MWSC-affiliated biathletes qualified for the ten-member 2006 Olympic Team. In exchange for coaching, financial support and housing on the top floor of Fort Kent’s day lodge, these athletes contribute to the local ski community by leading youth and adult programs, maintaining venues and speaking at schools.

Through Cedars, Spruce and Birch

At the 10th Mountain Ski Center, which is a five-minute drive from Main Street, the 25-kilometer trail system comprises three parts. West of the day lodge, touring trails flecked with moose tracks meander through spruce stands and beside wetlands. A short loop is available for skiers with pets. The quiet Violette Settlement trail is best enjoyed with a headlamp or by the light of a full moon. More than 100 miles from the nearest city, Fort Kent enjoys some of the clearest starry nights.

Before MWSC came to the area, the only ski trails in town were located on the steep slope beside Lonesome Pine, the alpine hill. Over many years, dedicated local high school Nordic coaches cut these routes accessed from east of the alpine hill or via the competition trails. Narrow, twisty, with abrupt climbs and falls, the loops are still fun for those with the agility to stay on their skis.