Going mobile in the backcountry: a snow-carpeted ride from Jackman
It’s like a boat hitting a wake. The two-seat snowmobile strikes something on the ice of Big Wood Pond and catches air. We’ve been zooming along, nearly flying, in a straight shot across frozen water in the Moose River Valley in Jackman, and then we’re launched into a spin. Ice fishing shacks at the edge of the shoreline become a blur, and I hold tight to the snowmobile’s heated grips. The machine groans as it rotates. But there’s a smoothness to the experience, too. We don’t flip. We ride it out and spin evenly until we skid to a stop. Except for the rush of adrenaline—or because of it—all is OK.
When it comes to winter sports, I’m typically into skiing, skating, snowshoeing, and other forms of self-propulsion. I’m not a danger seeker. “Letting a machine do the work will put a different spin on things,” I said just before we set out on a February weekend for this, my first snowmobile-touring trip. It sure has.
The next morning at Mama Bears Restaurant, a cafe on Jackman’s main drag that’s still hung with Christmas bulbs and sparkling snowflakes inside, we’re recounting the experience and even chuckling about it. Other customers’ conversations at the pine booths and tables around us are largely about trails and sleds, too. And then the hearty breakfasts arrive on heavy, diner-style plates: the thick toast, the wide pancakes pooled with syrup, and the eggs with everything.
On this getaway to Jackman in remote western Maine, it’s like we’ve entered an alternate snowy world.
A SNOWY OUTPOST
“People look at me like I’m crazy when I tell themwehavetogo75milestogettoaWal- Mart, McDonald’s, or even a traffic light,” says Doreen Jones of Jackman Powersports, open since the late 1980s on Main Street in Jackman. “This is the boonies, and I love it.”
She and her husband, Dave Jones, have a fleet of brand-new snowmobiles and all sorts of gear at their shop in downtown Jackman. He’s the trailmaster for the Border Riders Sportsman Club, the local snowmobile group, and says he puts in 12 weeks “of good, long days of grooming trails and running the shop” during the winter season, and then he and Doreen escape to Florida for a month. The club has a new, better grooming machine this year thanks to fundraiser raffles and state grants. Meanwhile, state laws help to keep the trails open by protecting landowners from liability, he says, “so we can go more places.”
With a population of fewer than 1,000 year-round residents, Jackman is the last town before Canada in this part of western Maine. The Northland Hotel, a barn-like two-story on Main Street with two front doors, one for “rooms” and one for “lounge,” is among the many storefronts, cabins, cafes, and roadhouse lodges that look right out of a decades-past era. Jackman is also one of the state’s hubs where roads and towns and frozen ponds connect into a network of trails that buzz with life—and engines—when the snow arrives.
We arrive during last year’s winter of wild temperature swings, when Jackman is one of the few places with enough snow on the trails to ride in early February. Big Wood Pond, bordering downtown, is frozen, and snow clouds hang over Sally Mountain. Like clockwork, Jackman has transformed into a snowmobile (sled) town.
We’ve come up into the farthest reaches of western Maine to try out the trails. And even the trip to get here builds anticipation. After leaving I-95 at Waterville to head northwest, it’s still another two-hour drive to get to Jackman. (To fuel up for what’s ahead, we stop at Ken’s Family Restaurant in Skowhegan for fried haddock sandwiches and a slice of lemon meringue pie.) Much of Maine has been lacking the white stuff all winter. But ever since leaving the midcoast this morning, snowflakes have kept falling, all the way up to Jackman. Following the Old Canada Road Scenic Byway (U.S. Route 201) up through Maine, we get terrific wintertime views of the snow and ice across the stone-tumbled beds of the Dead River and the Kennebec River.
In town, we quickly find pockets of activity. At Jackman Powersports, we arrange to pick up a borrowed sled. A sign at the Northland Hotel announces a band will be playing that night. And during a stop at Bishop’s Store, also on Main Street, customers in snowmobile gear are shopping for snacks in the aisles, while the garlicky-tomato smell of pizza comes from the oven. A clerk behind the counter tells me that for the stretch of winter weeks that sometimes lasts December to April, you can get just about everywhere you want to go, if you’ve got a sled.
THE ATTEAN WAY
That night I meet up with one of the local die-hard snowmobilers. From New Haven, Connecticut, Ben Cozzi started visiting Jackman in the 1970s. He and his wife, Betty Cozzi, moved to a house overlooking Attean Pond about five years ago, drawn by snowmobiling. We meet through the Border Riders Sportsman Club, which is a local connection for people interested in snowmobiling, dogsledding, ATV riding, hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation. The Cozzis are true enthusiasts. On a visit to their home, not long before sunset, Ben points out the sled garage and the direct access to the trails from the backyard. The fresh snow on the ground is sparkling in the dusky light, and we see deer stepping through the woods between the house and the pond. Minutes later, the headlights from six or seven sleds in a row start coming in across the lake, threading through the trees to the road.
Tomorrow, that will be us. Ben asks what gear I brought to wear for the outing, and I point to my down jacket and insulated ski pants. He shakes his head no; that won’t do. Then he and Betty show us to a closet with several extra snowmobile suits—insulated overalls with matching jackets—and extra hats and gloves that they’d be happy to lend. The suit that fits me best is a Yamaha suit from the 1980s—black with gray piping and collar tabs with extra-long, pointed tips. I’ll be ready now, I think, and retro-cool.
The next morning, at Sky Lodge Cabins, I hear engines humming and see sleds zoom past on the former airfield that’s between the house where I’m staying and the original Sky Lodge itself. The two-story main lodge is part of a 200-acre property just outside of downtown Jackman and was built of logs in 1929 by a wealthy New York businessman as a private hunting and fishing retreat. Guests used to fly into the airfield on small private planes.
The lodge has been restored and is fascinating to see—manager Michelle Morrison gives us a tour of the elegant, log-built, recently restored manse the next day—but right now, we’re expected at Jackman Powersports. We have an early date with Ben Cozzi and his friend Larry O’Neill, who each pull up in their own sleds. O’Neill also hails from Connecticut and traveled more than a dozen miles by snowmobile this morning from his place on Long Pond to get to the shop.
From the Powersports parking lot, we can head right out onto Maine’s Interconnected Trail System (ITS)—some 14,000 miles of mapped and numbered snow trails—weather permitting. Today, with temperatures below 30, conditions are perfect. Within minutes, we’re out of town and well onto the trails. It’s another web of highways, alive with sled traffic in winter. Some of the routes are also ATV trails in warmer months, and local clubs like the Border Riders keep sections groomed and maintain clubhouses and organize events.
I’m riding on a borrowed, very comfortable, and new Ski-Doo Expedition two-seater. Photographer Peter Frank Edwards is along to share the driving. Our helmets have two-way radio headsets, and the handlebar grips are heated. I let him drive first, so all I need to do is watch, hold on, and stay warm. No problem. I’m well equipped in the vintage ski suit, and I’m wearing my trusty deerskin mittens with a layer of wool inside—my favorite hand- warming system for freezing expeditions.
At a trailhead kiosk, Cozzi and O’Neill talk about trail options and we look at a poster- sized map. We could go south to Lake Parlin (25 miles) or to The Forks (45 miles). Heading over to Rockwood on Moosehead Lake would be 42 miles and another 20 to 40 miles if we go all the way to Greenville and Kokadjo. In the end, we decide that since we’ve gotten an early start,itisagooddaytogoallthewaytothe Historic Pittston Farm, built a century ago for loggers at the Great Northern Paper Company. “We better get going to get there early,” Cozzi says. The farmhouse is open as a lodge and restaurant, and it’s a popular stop for the snowmobile crowd, especially on weekends.
JACKMAN, PITTSTON, PARLIN
It’s a beautiful ride. A gently blowing snowfall continues all day, light as bubbles. We pass miles of woods drifted in snow; the terrain rises and falls; and in the openings, we get views of the mountains around Moosehead Lake. After a turn, we spot a moose in a clearing and stop to watch it. The tall, gangly moose has stopped and is watching us, too. We pass small groups of other riders, including one guy who has Viking-style horns on his helmet. But often it’s just us along ITS #88 and the Pittston Farm Trail. The barns and white farmhouse with a green metal roof are a happy sight when we arrive. And it’s good to step away from the vibration of the sled for a break. Outside, I see a herd of deer silently making their way through the meadow and farm fields. Inside the restaurant at Historic Pittston Farm, we peel off our jackets and set our helmets aside, and we order a heaping platter of gooey nachos.
Yes, it’s time for some comfort food again. Hot drinks and hearty food are the punctuation and the draw throughout the day in this snowmobile scene. On the return ride to Jackman, we stop for hot cocoa at the Border Riders Sportsman Club’s clubhouse. Later in the weekend, we have another meal at Mama Bears Restaurant. It’s dinner this time: baked stuffed clams in the shell, duck tenders with a raspberry sauce, and French onion soup— all oven-hot and homemade. We also stop at Lake Parlin Lodge and Cabins to see the local memorabilia of camp and outdoor life, including vintage sleds displayed above the bar, as well as to try another crock of French onion soup and a tall wedge of iceberg lettuce topped with bacon and chunky blue cheese dressing. (As at Mama Bears, this soup has a good cheese melt and rich flavors.)
Before we leave Jackman, our new friends tell us that March often offers the best snowmobile conditions. But I can’t imagine having a much better day on the trails. In all, we traveled 110 miles that Saturday from Jackman, filling most of the daylight hours on the sled.
My first snowmobile ride is all at once quieter, colder, more comfortable, and faster than I expected. I sense a little healthy fear at times, too, on the narrowest, twisting trails through the woods, and on the revved-up, wide-open stretches—especially during one unforgettable ice spin.