February 23rd, 2021
Four Places to Ski or Shoe at Night
With winters in Aroostook County lasting from November to April, the best way to endure long nights is to get outside for an endorphin rush, fresh air, and stargazing. Fortunately four community-based, Aroostook County venues offer nighttime cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Three of these family-friendly spots boast day lodges with fireplaces. All offer bathrooms, and are all groomed for classical and skate-style skiing. Up here, getting social in the winter means organized potlucks, snowshoe poker runs, and full-moon events. Perhaps unique to the Aroostook small-town way of life, all are volunteer-managed, and supported by donors, memberships, events, and trail fees. Pack your puffy jacket, headlamp, and toe warmers for an invigorating small-town experience under the stars.
Crisp, dry air seeps around the edges of my buff, the only sound, the click of bindings. Though the sky is peppered with millions of stars, we don’t linger at Red Barn trailhead. The amber glow from a nearby residence warms the landscape as temps hover in the low teens. We warm up by climbing the Volunteer Way trail before descending to the less populated outer settlements in search of even darker skies. Snowshoe hares slip past on the periphery. After an effortless four kilometers of sheltering forests, we make a hard right breaking out into the bright full moonlight of Spike’s Field. We douse our headlamps and race around the loop. Besides the Dippers and Orion, we pick out the constellation Cassiopeia, along with countless sapphires and diamonds in pollution-free skies. After three dizzying laps, we continue on the main trail, reabsorbed by ebony statues of spruce and fir. Perhaps the new moon will allow glimpses of emerald aurora.
Fort Kent Outdoor Center
Fort Kent Outdoor Center, managed by Pineland Farms, was launched 20 years ago as a biathlon venue connecting pre-existing high school competition trails to community trails. Goodwill agreements with several landowners have allowed continued public access to 25 kilometers of groomed ski trails, and 10k of interwoven snowshoe trails. The steep, technical high school ski trails beginning at the community downhill ski area, Lonesome Pine, are best enjoyed during daylight hours, but it’s hard to beat seeing the moonrise at 10th Mountain Lodge, or the pastoral view from Grand Outlook.
Beginners and classic purists will appreciate the gentler Violette Settlement trails accessible three miles west of town on Violette settlement Road or at Red Barn Parking area on Village Road, a portion of which was described in the journal entry above.
Nordic Heritage Sport Club
Nordic Heritage Sport Club, also managed by Pineland, was constructed a couple years later as a cross-country ski and biathlon venue. It’s also adjacent to a small, community downhill area, Quoggy Jo. Unlike Fort Kent, all of these trails are on the club’s land. Trails are open from dusk to dawn year-round with 2.5 kilometers of ski trails lit from 4 – 8 p.m. The lodge is accessible via the basement 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Located at the top of a hardwood covered flatiron-shaped parcel five miles from city lights, this could be your best bet to catch the Aurora Borealis in winter. Family-oriented stargazing events have been added to the club’s repertoire. Two lean-to shelters with outdoor cook stoves invite folks to trek over the hill to the “Fort Fairfield” side bearing thermoses of hot chocolate and fixings for s’mores. For an easy snowshoe hike, park at the entrance on Route 167, where the birch-lined path parallels the access road. Be advised, it’s the only place on the property where you can bring your pooch.
Northern Skiers Club
If it’s flat or beginner terrain you seek, head to Caribou. Northern Skiers Club offers six km ski trails, of which three km trails are lit for night skiing and approximately 3.5 – 4km trails are for snowshoeing. The best part? The trails are free. The sledding hill is also popular with families; just bring your own sled. Both the trails and building were built by the club and donated to Caribou High School. Trail lights are on until 8 p.m. when the building closes.
Four Seasons Trails Association
Four Season’s Trail Association in Madawaska is supported entirely by user and community donations. It offers 14 km of skate and classic skiing, 3km of classic-only tracks, 12 km of snowshoe paths, a kids’ terrain park, and sledding hill. All trails start from the lodge on Spring Street. Just this fall, 1.4 km of the main trail was lit for night skiing. Club President, Colin Jandreau, is enthusiastic about the addition. “Many of the lights are situated where the snowshoe trail crosses the ski trail to provide good visibility in higher traffic areas,” he said. “The button to turn on the lights is located on the timing hut in the stadium right in front of the lodge. Lights will remain on for 45 minutes, and can be reset for another 45 minutes. Most of our users will complete a loop in that amount of time. We recommend that people bring a headlamp anyway.”
There’s no reason to hibernate every night in winter. Grab your constellation app, charge your cell phone battery, and visit Aroostook County this winter – where you’ll revel in the cold, fresh air and our unparalleled night skies. As always it’s a good idea to check for updates on hours of operation, events in progress, and trail conditions.
— Text: Sherry Dubis. Sherry is a native Mainer, teacher, and outdoor enthusiast. She is the token female and pacer in the unsanctioned County Boneheads Ski Team.