Maine’s largest county covers an area of nearly 7,000 square miles, greater than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. The route followed on this trip covers 800 miles, stretching up through Maine’s crown and looping back down along the Canadian border.
7:30 a.m. in Portland
Northern Maine in January is notorious for its icy roads, but Maine Honda Dealers loaned me a new CRV for the weekend. My traveling companions, Taylor and Sean, load up the trunk with ice fishing gear and we begin our ascent.
12:00 p.m. @ Maine Solar System Model, Mars Hill
After the drive north we are rewarded with breathtaking views of Mount Katahdin and vast patches of snow-blanketed woodlands. On Route 1 we find ourselves face-to-face with Saturn—not in the sky, but on the roadside. The planet with a nearly 10-foot-wide outer ring is part of one of the world’s largest scale models of the solar system, stretching 40 miles between Presque Isle and Houlton.
1:00 p.m. @ Ben’s Trading Post, Presque Isle
The business has been supplying outdoor enthusiasts in the region with hunting and fishing supplies for 60 years. A frigid, negative- 13-degree morning awaits, and I leave with a warm pair of wool pants that could last a lifetime.
2:00 p.m. @ Cafe Sorpreso, Presque Isle
This small cafe comes highly recommended by readers, and our view from a window seat gives us a chance to take in the small-town charm of Main Street. Lunch consists of a savory artichoke dip with kettle chips and panini sandwiches.
3:15 p.m. @ Nordic Heritage Sport Club, Presque Isle
The afternoon sun is blinding across the snowy hills as we pull into the lot of this impressive network of recreation trails. We take a brisk walk while we learn a bit about the history. The facility played host to a 2016 International Biathlon Union World Cup series event, in which 300 athletes from 32 countries competed.
5:30 p.m. @ Northstar Variety, New Sweden
We stock up on a few groceries for a light breakfast, but the real operation is out back. We’re led into a large room with several aerated tanks holding a variety of baitfish. We select two dozen rainbow smelt for ice fishing tomorrow.
5:45 p.m. @ All Seasons Lakeside Cottages, St. Agatha
The shoreline of Long Lake leads us to our lodging for the weekend. Large welcoming couches covered in felt blankets fill the living room. Bedrooms flank the full-size kitchen, and a staircase leads to additional rooms below. A picture window offers a stunning view of the vast, frozen lake on our doorstep. Our host, Diane Berry, purchased the camps to offer visitors a real Aroostook experience. She also explains: “These days many kids leave the area right after high school. I wanted a place for my grandchildren to return to their roots whenever they wanted to.”
7:30 p.m. @ Eureka Restaurant and Tavern, Stockholm
Rows of woven branches intertwine with strings of small, soft lights and chase the shadows from the corners of the main hall. A hodgepodge of bric-a-brac and curios adorns the walls and wooden ceiling beams. A round of beer and a generous plate of poutine kick things off. We follow up with servings of mouth-watering Korean-style chicken and meatballs and the famous tavern pizza. Eureka co-owner George Pappa tells us the building was originally a co-op of sorts and has been home to a general store, barbershop, pool hall, movie theater, ice cream parlor, “drunk tank,” and candlepin bowling alley. The bartender points down at the floor, and we realize we’re seated on one of the former bowling alley lanes.
6:00 a.m. @ Long Lake, St. Agatha
We’re up before the sun, and the camp is quiet as we don several warm layers and slip into boots. The ice is covered in 13 inches of snow, so we get to work shoveling and drilling through the 10-inch-thick ice using a hand auger. We mount our tip-up-style traps and set the bait. It’s exhilarating to see one of those red flags fly up against the pure white of the lake, then rush over to see a reel of line humming below the ice. We pull up five beautiful landlocked salmon, a prized cold-water game fish native to Maine. We set them free, knowing we won’t have time to cook them up properly.
2:00 p.m. @ Red Arrow Snowmobile Club, St. Agatha
I meet up with Andy Marquis, who operates a trail groomer and is bringing me along for the ride. This behemoth can groom and maintain over 100 miles of snowmobile trails a day. We pass several groups that kindly yield to Andy and his iron giant.
3:30 p.m. @ Lakeview Restaurant, St. Agatha
As we pull into the parking area we notice that snowmobiles outnumber cars two-to-one. The aptly named restaurant provides us with a great vista of the frozen water we were on earlier. Lunch is prime rib and whole belly fried clams. I also order a filet of salmon, to make up for the fish we set free earlier.
8:00 p.m. @ Long Lake Sporting Club, Sinclair
The light is low and the fires are burning. This legendary spot is packed, and in the din of the crowd I make out both English and Acadian French. We start with a heaping stack of perfectly cooked ployes, buckwheat pancakes served with butter, brown sugar, and maple syrup. We also have to try the ribs, for which the Sporting Club is known.
9:00 a.m. @ Dolly’s Restaurant, Frenchville
We seat ourselves at this small diner. It’s breakfast sandwiches all around, topped by liberal doses of Tabasco. Hot pours of coffee shake off the morning chill, and we’re ready to face the day.
10:00 a.m. in Saint John River Valley
We’ve hit the end of the road, the Canadian border, so we follow the Saint John River through small towns along Route 1. There are several yellow tin stars pinned onto the houses in this region. Sean, who has French Canadian blood, explains that it’s the Acadian Star. Houses with this marker are homes to people with Acadian heritage.
1:00 p.m. @ Canterbury Royale Gourmet, Fort Fairfield
A path through the snowy woods opens up to a clearing with a lamppost and red cottage. The interior is a Victorian fairytale. Candles illuminate intricately carved furniture, immaculate place settings, and crystal chandeliers. Chef Barbara Boucher brings out wine selections to pair with each of our courses. First: truffled egg, flaky croissant, duck with morel sauce, and smoked and candied bacon. Next: crab bisque, lamb chops, filet mignon, and a side of vegetables. Lastly, chefs Boucher and Renee O’Neill present a two- tiered dessert tray along with servings of eggnog ice cream. The remote and beautiful setting makes this place truly unique.
3:00 p.m. on Route 1
We head south filled with gratitude for the hospitality of the friendly people here and the familiar sense of pride found in calling ourselves Mainers. Au revoir, Aroostook County, see you soon.