At first glance, Fort Kent seems like it should be a ski town. A small hill with a rickety T-bar towers 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 à 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
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.
Between Lonesome Pine and the touring trails, the challenging five-kilometer loop competition trails designed by John Morton hosted the 2004 Biathlon World Cup. For those who forget their headlamps, three kilometers are lit. Beginning immediately outside the day lodge, it passes the biathlon range before climbing and dipping through thick cedar, spruce and birch trees. Alternately, if the T-bar is running, hop it to the hill top for a small charge and ski ten feet to find yourself in the competition trail's middle. If the T-bar is closed, and you are in good shape, traverse the slopes to the top. On the competition trail, Mike's Mountain is the highest point; the climb to the top leaves legs heavy with fatigue, but invigorated by the twisty slalom-like course that follows.
On the touring and competition trails, impeccable grooming leaves a wide skating lane and crisp classic tracks, set fresh after new snow and for weekend visitors by Mike Paradis and his 14-foot-wide Bombardier. Early season snow and the Lonesome Pine trails are groomed by snowmobile.
Adjacent to the trail sits a heated building with 26 wax rooms. One waxing room, often with an iron and basic service tools, is open to the public when the area has no events.
While all facilities and trails are provided at no charge, a small donation is appreciated. The day lodge adds amenities that shoot the ski area past the usual day-use venue. After skiing, hit the showers and sauna in the basement, or stretch out with a good book beside the second level stone fireplace. Enjoy your own lunch at one of the hand-carved tables. Keep your food and drinks cold during the day in the refrigerator, and warm them up in the microwave or on the stove—all located in the communal kitchen. Look out the large bay windows at passing skiers, shooting biathletes or swaying birch trees. Chat with the resident athletes.
Longer Days; Unlimited Trails
In springtime, Fort Kent is at its best. The freeze-and-thaw cycle forms a thick, weight-bearing crust atop the snow usually by late March. Days become longer and warmer. Because the approximately 130" of annual snowfall often lasts through the middle of April, you can add a week to your winter.
With hundreds of acres of potatoes, buckwheat and oats, the fields just south of Fort Kent are prime for spring crust cruising. Drive to one of the fields, snap on a pair of skate skis, and the choice is yours. Left, right, climb or tuck. Just remember: crust is best enjoyed in the morning. Too late, and you will fall through; too early, and the crust might be too icy.
One of the best fields near Fort Kent sits off the Violette Settlement trail, below the Red Barn, a landmark shown on the trail map. Park in the lot by the day lodge, ski to the field, hit the crust for an hour or two and ski back for lunch and a sauna. In the afternoon, enjoy the groomed trails at the ski center or carve turns in the slush on the alpine hill.
Admittedly, Fort Kent is remote and rustic. There are no five-star resorts, no award-winning restaurants, no chic boutiques along Main Street. For skiers who truly want to get north of it all to enjoy the solitary feeling of skiing, Fort Kent is an unspoiled, unpretentious choice.
For more skinny…
How to get there:
By any means, Fort Kent is a long way from anywhere. Its remoteness makes it a unique place. Getting to Fort Kent is challenging, but a fascinating experience of its own. Fly into Quebec City, the nearest city, and enjoy the culture of the French Canadian capital. Drive three hours east along the Saint Lawrence River to Fort Kent. If you prefer to stay in the US, fly into Bangor and drive north four hours. Plan on flying in early for stunning views of Mount Katahdin along the way.
Where to stay:
The Northern Door Inn (866/834-3133; www.northerndoorinn.com) has comfortable motel-style rooms, offers a simple breakfast and is centrally located in town. Located in Clair, directly across from Fort Kent, the Maple Leaf (506/992-2120) has hotel rooms and an in-house restaurant. The Overlook Motel (207/444-4535; www.overlookmotel.com) has modern rooms as well as lakeside cabins in Eagle Lake, a 20-minute drive from Fort Kent. For other cabins, try Pond Brook Cabins (207/444-6108;
www.pondbrookcabins.com), also in Eagle Lake.
10th Mountain Ski Club
Maine Winter Sports Center
The Ski Shop in Van Buren
Aroostook County Tourism
Fort Kent Chamber of Commerce
Nearby tracks to try:
Madawaska (30 minutes east on US Route 1) 5 km of trails
Stockholm (30 minutes south on Route 161) 4 km of trails
Madawaska Lake (25 minutes south on Route 161) 10 km of trails
Westmanland (35 minutes south on Route 161 and West Road) 35 km of trails