Peace of Mind Inside a Helmet

Snowmobiling in the St. John Valley

Ripping across a frozen lake at 60 miles per hour on a gas-powered machine roughly the size of a large pony. It helped that on the lake we were riding across—Eagle Lake in Aroostook County’s St. John Valley—there was nothing to crash into for several miles in each direction, save a distant ice fishing shanty about the size of a port-a-potty. It also helped that my head was buried inside a large helmet, with a windshield and enough padding that I could hear myself think. And I didn’t have to think too hard about where I was going, either: outpacing my sled by about 100 yards was a 28-year-old hunting guide named Nate Theriault, a man whose friends used to refer to him as “Nitro.” There is some comfort in knowing that whatever one’s own tolerance for speed, someone else is still going faster.

On the other hand: when I woke up that morning at 6 a.m., the thermometer outside read negative 25 degrees Fahrenheit—a temperature that, Theriault told me, was too cold even for the local school children to ride their sleds to school, as they often do. And yet in this northern corner of Maine, the weather is deceiving: as we hammered east across Eagle Lake to the seasonal resort that is owned by Theriault’s father, the sky was bright blue and the sun was hanging directly overhead and the tundra-like pasture before us shimmered like the ocean in July.

The night before, while I stopped for gas in the town of Oakfield, I talked with a man who was gassing up his sled at the pump next to me. The man said that he went out to ride whenever possible, and that sometimes he would travel 350 miles in a single day. When I asked him what kept him on the machine for so long he said, “Peace of mind inside my helmet,” without thinking much about it. Peace of mind: I had thought that answer was a bit weird, as his machine roared off into the night.

But now, I could see what the man was getting at. The peace in my helmet had more to do with the fact that as I tried to keep up with Nitro, I mean Nate, all I was really thinking about was not flipping my sled, and when I wasn’t thinking about that, I was thinking about maybe going a little bit faster, and just a little faster. I was not thinking about bills I had to pay, or thank you cards I hadn’t written, or whether or not I was happy in some grand existential sense of the word. On a snowmobile, as the tall pines on the far shore grew inches by the second, the trick seemed to be paying just enough attention to what you’re doing that you can’t think about anything else but what’s immediately in front of you. And there is something meditative about that experience, something simple and even primitive about watching the quiet world turn liquid with speed.

When I caught up to Theriault, he was riding sort of side-saddle, in a position that made him look like an Aroostook County snow-cowboy, and playfully arcing big turns in a drift.

Theriault took off his helmet and said, “How’s it going?”

I mumbled something about getting the hang of it.

“That’s right,” Theriault said. “It’s definitely a feel thing.”

Feel? I was a bit baffled by the fact that Theriault could feel anything. Days ago, he had returned from a multi-day hunting trip in Papua New Guinea, where he’d slept out in the bush for a week, in hundred-plus-degree weather, with a group of indigenous guides. After a farewell meal of water buffalo, he’d flown back to Maine, contemplated working a few shifts at his other job (as
a deicer of planes at the Portland Jetport), and driven north three hundred miles to the small shorefront home where Theriault’s clients—hunting enthusiasts from all over the world—stay between their trips into the woods. As one of the only Cabela’s-certified guides in the state, Theriault’s job is not only to bring his clients to the game, but also, in his mind, to manage it. He doesn’t use the word kill when discussing the age- old tradition of hunting in Aroostook County; instead, he prefers the word harvest.

Theriault gave me a brief tour of his family’s camps—rustic cabins where staff bring you cocktails and steak dinners, where Ted Williams and Teddy Roosevelt stayed decades ago, where in the summer families come to fish and hunt for weeks at a time—and then we were off again, on a series of powdery backcountry trails that wove through pine forests on extinct railroad beds. By one estimate, there are over fifteen thousand miles of snowmobile trails in Maine, all of which are linked one to other via a complex trail network maintained and organized by local clubs and volunteers.

There were times when Theriault disappeared over the rise of a hill, or sank into a gully, when I had this odd realization that, had I been alone, I would have no idea where I was. St. Agatha? Fort Kent? Sinclair? On these networks of carefully maintained trails, there is some signage, but one of the dangers of riding on a snow machine is that you can go great distances, into great swaths of forestland, in a very short time.

Earlier that morning, Theriault had told me over breakfast at Doris’s Cafe in Fort Kent that I should eat as much as I could get down.

“Think of it like a car,” he explained. “You’ve always got to be topping off because you never know when you might eat again.” By then it was 9:30 a.m. and still minus- four—“getting up there,” Theriault said— and since I was happy deciphering all the French signage in the restaurant while listening to bilingual conversations about catching pickerel, I had no issue draining two glasses of chocolate breakfast milk and an omelet and a stack of pancakes that were several inches larger in diameter than my face.

Eating well in this part of Maine is an experience that goes hand in hand with this favorite winter pastime. Just as sleds here are an inherent part of life, as, perhaps, horses once were to the American west, so are big meals. The night before, Theriault and I drove about 20 miles down Eagle Lake to Sinclair, to the Long Lake Sporting Club, an establishment owned by his boyhood friend, Neal Martin. In front were parked several sleds, but inside it was more quiet than usual. Cindy Marquis, our waitress, brought us a plate of ployes—a brilliant French-Canadian appetizer that are basically buckwheat pancakes, doused in syrup and butter, and served like rolls with a meal—and then explained that it wasn’t in fact the lack of snow that was making it tough on the tourism, but rather the abundance of snow. “People are scattered,” she said in a beautiful French accent. “When there is no snow down south, yeah, that is when people come up here to ride.”

For dinner that night, Theriault mandated that I eat the lobster. They were massive and delicious but, as a midcoast man, a good lobster was not what impressed me. Rather, it was the French fries that blew my mind. Listen to me on this: if you haven’t ever had a French fry made from locally picked Aroostook County potatoes, then you might not know what one is.

These French fries—“real Acadian,” Martin tells me—are, in my opinion, the most untapped resource of the Maine economy. They are cut from potatoes that are grown “locally”—with a sarcastic grin, Martin said, “Local just means just over there,” gesturing to the nearby potato fields. Then Martin took me inside his kitchen and showed me the simple device with which he cuts the cantaloupe-sized spuds before frying them into carrot-sized fries. Soon, the world will understand the glory that is a hand-cut Aroostook County French fry. They make all other French fries taste toxic, and appear meek and stunted in comparison.

At the bar, Neal poured me one of his Apple Pie shots. “These aren’t made in Maine,” Neal explained. “They’re made right here!” Every one of the staff joined us but for Martin’s high-school sweetheart and wife, Denise. Smiling quietly, Denise told me, “I’m expecting.” Meanwhile, their first child was fast asleep in the home Martins keep above the restaurant. Part of bartender Kim Dionne’s job is to keep one eye on the tap, and one eye on the video monitor in the young girl’s crib.

Dionne, like all the staff at the club, is an avid rider. “Long as the lake’s frozen,” she said, “I’ll take my sled to work.” Recently, on a night when she found herself lost in a snowstorm and unable to find the next guide post on the lake, “an old timer came out, must have heard my engine, started shining a flashlight, led me back home.”

through Fort Kent to catch the end of the Can-Am Crown 250 dogsled races, which took place on snowmobile trails groomed by local volunteers. We checked in at the maintenance facilities for the local snowmobile club, where Morris Paradis and Nelson Dubey were tuning up a groomer. Theriault, who used to groom on a volunteer basis and logged in some 500 hours behind the wheel before he got too busy with his guiding business, chatted with Dubey about the current grooming machines. The old Pisten Bully? Too heavy. Like a bulldozer, Dubey said. Where is it now? Theriault asked. “Hopefully in the bottom of the lake,” Dubey said.

“Back in the old days, we started with Ski- Doos, with little scrapers on them,” Dubey, a retired truck driver who does all the repairs on the groomers himself, told me. To keep warm, he had to dress for the cold; new machines have heated cabins. “They’re like Cadillacs, really,” Dubey said.

Dubey, by no means a new potato, recently rode 800 miles in four days. The hardest stretch, he said, was the 205 miles to Millinocket, through the Forks and Medway. “And Kokadjo, that was real rough,” he said, referring to the small town on the shores of Moosehead Lake, some 300 miles south.

While we waited for the temperature to rise, we popped in to the Yamaha dealer in Fort Kent to check out a $35,000 sled with aftermarket nitro turbo burners on it called the Viper. We also talked to Allen Chamberland, a member of the board of directors who deals with laws and rules of trails.

Smaller clubs, during years of equipment failure or trail damage, help each other out. “When it’s forty below and you see a pack of sleds go by, you know they’re from out of state. We can afford to be selective.” One of the innovations that Chamberland is most proud of is the new smartphone app that reads QR codes so that riders can access and join the local snowmobiling clubs when they’re out riding. The codes are posted on signs at major road crossings.

By 1 p.m. we were in St. Agatha, stopping for lunch at the Lakeview Restaurant. The parking lot was full of sleds, and, rolling
up into the cordoned sleds-only lot, it was hard not to feel like you belonged to some kind of old-time gang. The men wore black snow suits, the women wore makeup, their hair dyed black with blonde highlights, sleek snowsuits matching their husbands’ machines.

In the spirit of topping off, Theriault and I consumed hot chocolate with thick whipped cream and French onion soup and poutine and several rounds of appetizers, all washed down with beer. While we ate, Theriault was honest about the downsides of sledding. It’s expensive—it requires at least a $10,000 initial investment; rising costs of fuel are hard on the rider. A lot of young people get overzealous in the backcountry. There seems to be declining enthusiasm about volunteering to groom trails. There’s also the risk factor: if a sled breaks down, you might have to haul it 50 miles through the backcountry.

Judy Tardiff, who worked at the bar, slid a Bud Light across the counter to an empty stool. Moments later, a man came in.

“That for me?” he said.

She nodded. “I saw your sled outside.”

We rode back that night, through lonely trails made cave-like beneath the violet arching shadows of snow-heavy pines and birch saplings. Occasionally the trail opened up into a field: a featureless, eerie world made lunar by the dusk light. Rolling and weaving at half speed, I had to alternate tucking each glove into my coat. Without the light of day, the cold was settling in over the lake, and I got the creepy feeling that as glorious a day as it was on these trails, a breakdown, a sled malfunction, could turn the beautiful forest sinister. As we rode across the lake, the light faded over the valley. In roughly eight hours, I had done nothing more than sled, eat, then sled again, and then eat some more. I had seen over 100 miles of countryside, passing no more than two or three groups of other riders, most of whom floated by with nothing more than a silent wave.

I recalled a conversation I had with a man from Massachusetts who, although he has been to Wyoming and Yellow- stone to ride, insisted that up here is still the best sledding in the world. On his biggest day, he and his son rode 450 miles—a method which he referred to as “gas and go.”

“We ate breakfast in Millinocket, Houlton for lunch, St. Agatha for dinner,” he said. On trips like that, he told me, it always took a few days to unwind, but then, for the next week, it was just him, the forest, and the world inside his helmet.

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