48 HOURS-March 2013
Photographs + stories by Maine magazine staff:
Susan Grisanti + Steve Kelly
Over the years I’ve heard much folklore about the “The County”: how different it is from the southern part of the state, how the landscape totally changes as you head to the northern reaches—flatter, broader, and more open…wide open. But until now, the farthest north that I’ve been in Maine was on a summer jaunt to hike Mt. Katahdin. Today, I feel like I’m finally earning an imaginary “Winter Road Trip to Aroostook County” badge: 600-plus miles on cold, salt-dusted roads in two days with one of my more daring traveling companions, my 11-year-old son, Jack.
12:00 p.m. @ Dysart’s Truck Stop and Restaurant
We get an early start to our weekend and make our first pit stop at this Taj Mahal of truck stops in Bangor. We grab a table in the bustling dining room among regulars and passers-through. Jack orders a hearty breakfast for lunch, I have a bowl of vegetable soup and a biscuit, and we both take in the jolly camaraderie of several large groups around us.
2:15 p.m. @ Scenic View of Mt. Katahdin turnout
The scenic view turnout is closed for the winter, but we get a pretty spectacular view of Mt. Katahdin from I-95. As Jack squirms in his seat, he fantasizes aloud about an invention that would zap us at the speed of light to wherever we would like to go.
3:00 p.m. @ Houlton Big Stop Restaurant
While Jack naps, I pull in to fill our gas tank and check out the diner I’ve heard about from several friends. It’s just how you would picture an idyllic 1950s-style diner, with black-and-white checkered tile, gleaming steel stools with red padded seats fixed at a counter where welcoming waitresses are ready to serve scrumptious-looking pies. It soothes my nerves to have a full tank of gas as we leave I-95 behind and begin the last 40 or so miles north on U.S. Route 1, not knowing how populated the frozen stretch of road ahead will be.
4:00 p.m. @ University of Maine at Presque Isle
Daylight is already waning as we turn into the University and we’re awed by the views of the sun setting behind massive windmills.
4:30 p.m. @ The Hampton Inn
The fireplace is burning in the lounge and we are also greeted with the warmth of the receptive staff. They offer a number of printed materials about the area that I peruse while Jack jumps into the heated indoor pool.
5:30p.m. @ Mojo Outdoor Sports
We’re ready to hit the town but decide first to make a quick stop to check out gear. We’ve come with our downhill skis, but are contemplating renting cross-country skis or snowshoes. We add owner Mark Fullen to the growing list of wonderfully friendly and helpful ambassadors to the area.
6:15 p.m. in downtown Presque Isle
Our sights are set on the portion of Main Street that makes up the charming, historic part of downtown Presque Isle. We park at one end and meander down the road—peeking in the windows at Hand Me Down Antiques and Star City Coffee. We pass beautiful old buildings with stained-glass windows, an appliance store, and the nostalgic Braden movie theater. On the recommendation of my friend and colleague Angie Helton, who grew up in the area, we’ve made a plan to have dinner at a new restaurant.
6:45 p.m. @ The Whole Potato Cafe and Commons
The restaurant oozes with vibe—a mixture of folk and blues music drifts around the space marked by exposed brick walls and large colorful artwork. Jack and I choose a table with old wooden benches cushioned by sheepskin throws. Owner Carol Ayoob stops to chat for a few minutes and she shares her vision for the place, which is based on deep notions that she has formed over the years as an artist, educator, musician, and most recently as a graduate student. In a nutshell, her mission is to serve fresh food, locally sourced from organic growers in Aroostook County, in a community gallery and performance space. While we are chatting, a group of stylish, artsy women arrives—friends of Ayoob—to show their support for this delightful addition to downtown Presque Isle. We enjoy a tasty meal—borscht and chickpea salad for me, and a loaded baked potato for Jack.
8:15 p.m. @ Star City Coffee
We head down the street to catch a set of local musician Travis Cyr’s performance. Once again, I’m struck by the discrepancy between my expectation of a much more rural place and the reality of the vibrant culture that we’re experiencing. Here we are sitting in a funky cafe, eating out-of-this-world house-made pastries, sipping wonderful coffee and listening to fantastic local music.
7:00 a.m. @ The Hampton Inn
We have a plan to join Caston Lovely, the “Trailmaster” of the Presque Isle Snowmobile Club, on his daily grooming run—so we’re up and at ’em early enough to have breakfast at the inn beforehand.
8:00 a.m. on snowmobile trails
I grab a small jump seat in the trail-grooming rig driven by Caston Lovely, while Jack follows in the rig driven by Garrett Hemphill, a young, third-generation potato farmer. As we travel over the miles of trails, I learn about the collaborative efforts of club members who maintain the trails and landowners who provide access through their property. It’s an intricately balanced community effort to support tourism to the area. Snowmobile enthusiasts from far and wide come to Aroostook County for the trail system that Lovely calls “second to none.” His pride for the area is contagious, something that I easily catch—especially as we travel over miles of breathtaking scenery. He gives me several pointers toward his favorite places, one of which is Eureka Hall Restaurant and Tavern in nearby Stockholm.
10:30 a.m. @ The Nordic Heritage Center
I have wanted to visit Maine Winter Sports Center’s Nordic venues ever since it hosted the 2011 Biathlon World Cup. Today I’m here to give the course a whirl of my own. I decide to rent gear from the Welcome Center, and Chad has me outfitted in minutes. There’s a $10 fee to rent the gear, but the world-class trail system is open to the public at no cost—as are many programs that are offered to both youth and adults. There are only a few things that I can do outside in cold weather without feeling pretty miserable, and Nordic skiing is something that always makes me feel great. Today, on these gorgeous trails, I am downright euphoric.
12:30 p.m. @ Irish Setter Pub
Since Jack sat out the cross-country skiing, he’s pumped to go downhill skiing. First we decide to grab a quick bite at this popular pub. Everything is yummy and we’re off to the mountain totally refueled.
1:30 p.m. @ Bigrock Mountain
It’s not hard to spot the mountain in the distance, outlined by the Mars Hill Wind Farm that runs along the ridgeline. When we arrive, we find the mountain busy—full of young families, groups of teenagers, and several teams taking part in a high school race. And yet, with all the hustle and bustle happening, we easily find parking, buy our $15 lift tickets, and make our way to the top of the mountain without any hassle. We fit in as many runs as we can, trying out tracks from both chairlifts and ending with two passes through Jack’s favorite: the terrain park.
4:30 p.m. @ Presque Isle High School
Jack and I want to check out the reigning state champs, the Presque Isle Wildcats Girls Varsity Basketball team, which we watch handily beat Washington Academy. We then make it through the first half of the boys’ game before we head back to the inn to get cleaned up for dinner.
7:30 p.m. @ Cafe Sorpreso
We end our long day with an exquisite meal that includes a delectable seafood chowder and a mind-blowing peanut butter cheesecake.
9:00 a.m. @ Aroostook State Park
Before we face the long ride home we decide to take a hike, and choose the North Peak trail, a pretty rigorous one-mile uphill climb that takes us to the northern summit of Quaggy Jo, elevation 1,107 feet. Once at the top we are rewarded with stunning panoramic views.
11:00 a.m. @ Al’s Diner We end our trip at this area landmark surrounded by the lovely folks who have made this weekend as special as the natural beauty of their land. We’re nestled in the middle of a few tables of families having brunch after church. Their warm words towards each other, and to us, ring in my ears long after we drive away in the thin, sharp Aroostook County light.
Steve Kelly, Associate Publisher
When I asked friends what I should do in Fort Kent, most replied with a puzzled look and “Why?” For most people what goes on at the northern terminus of Route 1 is a big unknown. My wife, my son, and I are eager to ﬁnd out.
2:00 p.m. on I-95 North
Our route is a simple one: nearly six hours of driving on only three roads. Go north on I-95, west on Route 212, then north on Route 11; don’t stop until you get to the end of the road. We’re off to a later start than we wanted, but there’s no need to rush. Point the car north, sit back, chat, and watch the day turn to night. A friend recommended a stop at Miguel’s Mexican Restaurant in Bangor, on the north side of the city. We wish we’d managed it. While my wife was reading the menu and describing what sounds like solid Mexican food, we got chatting and missed the exit. We’ll stop by next time we come through. There’s still a lot of road to go, so we press on toward Orono.
4:30 p.m. @ Dr. Records
As we roll into town, I recall an article about vinyl in this magazine (“Vinyl State,” May 2011) and, following its advice, park on Mill Street. I’m in no need of an audio transfusion, but I’m thrilled to browse the stacks while my wife walks our three-year-old greyhound, Happy. Oskar sticks with me, although record shops don’t top his list. Owner and University of Maine grad Don Menninghaus is behind the counter. I quickly browse the stacks and pluck out four gems: Dick Dale’s Checkered Flag (in mono!), R.E.M.’s Reckoning, The Sunshine Company’s Happy Is, and The Lemon Pipers’s Green Tambourine.
5:00 p.m. @ Pat’s Pizza
The Orono Pat’s was the chain’s ﬁrst (opened in 1931) and it’s hopping. I’m glad to see they offer a gluten-free option and order a feta, tomato, and spinach pie. Oskar orders the meat lover’s, and Jocelyn picks the Deja Vu with pesto, tomato, chicken, basil, and mixed cheeses. We split a Caesar and devour our perfect pizzas. There’s no time to linger; it’s dark and we’re not even halfway there.
7:30 p.m. @ on Route 11
Roughly 40 miles north from where we turned off of I-95, we need another break. We adopted our greyhound in November of this year, via Maine Greyhound Placement Services in Augusta, and this is her longest car ride since that 50-minute drive back to our house. As I’m fueling up, I notice a road sign: 49 miles to Fort Kent. We see plenty of wildlife on Route 11. A coyote runs alongside our car. Later we spot a pair of moose, and later still, a doe and her fawns pause on our left as we drift by and I think about my coworker whose baby is due any day.
9:30 p.m. @ Northern Door Inn
There are next to no cars on the road as we roll into town. After settling into our spacious, pet-friendly double room at the Northern Door Inn, I take Hap out for her nightly walk and look across the St. John River toward Canada. The night is still, with the exception of distant snowmobiles making their way toward town.
8:00 a.m. @ Rock’s Family Diner
It’s a fairly quiet, gray morning. We cross the Inn’s parking lot to Rock’s Family Diner, “Serving the Valley Since 1945.” Rock’s serves Fort Kent three squares a day, and they do it well. At a table nearby, a band of woodsmen discusses their day, oscillating between French and English—another reminder of our stone’s-throw proximity to Canada. My veggie omelet, home fries, and bacon are exactly what I need. Oskar and Jocelyn both get egg sandwiches, and we’re ready to hit the slopes.
9:00 a.m. @ Lonesome Pine Trails
We use our WinterKids pass, which includes all kinds of discounts at mountains in Maine. At Lonesome Pine Trails, Oskar rides at no charge when we buy an adult all-day lift ticket. The trails are nicely groomed and some have an eight-to-ten-inch layer of untouched powder on the far edges. I have my ﬁrst T-bar and rope-tow experiences as a snowboarder; it’s a bit taxing on one leg, but I adjust. We cruise the terrain park, and take some nice long deep carves in the soft snow. We are told the mountain is where a number of the local kids gather to socialize, and it certainly seems that way. It’s time for a lunch break and since the mountain is a ﬁve-minute walk to town, we head back.
1:30 p.m. @ China Garden
China Garden is located on West Main Street, Fort Kent’s main drag. It offers a nice lunch buffet with both classic Chinese options and American fare. At the buffet, Jocelyn and I go for the classic noodles, rice, and egg rolls, while Oskar mixes in some of the traditional American fare.
2:30 p.m. in downtown Fort Kent
After lunch we meander around town. Shoes to Boot has a great stock of all things for your feet as well as women’s clothes. Miller’s is a classic department store that has plenty of Carhartts and other essentials. We pass by the Custom Cake Cafe, which offers a casual lunch, soups, and yes, cake.
3:00 p.m. @ The Fort Kent Blockhouse
The Fort Kent Blockhouse is a monument to the Aroostook War of 1838–39. Although it’s closed when we stop by (open Memorial Day through Labor Day) we pause and reflect on this 19th century military structure. Also referred to as the “Pork and Beans War,” it was a nonviolent border confrontation settled by then-Secretary of State Daniel Webster. By four, we’re feeling a day on the slopes catch up with us and head back to the Northern Door for some downtime before dinner.
5:30 p.m. in downtown Fort Kent
On the recommendation of Maine food writer Joe Riccio, we head 30 minutes south to the Long Lake Sporting Club, hitting traffic along the way. Fort Kent is a Catholic town and when four o’clock mass gets out, it makes an impact. Two huge parking lots empty out and a trafﬁc ofﬁcer guides parishioners across the street from the St. Louis Parish with its strikingly beautiful ﬁligree steeple.
6:15 p.m. @ Long Lake Sporting Club
Outside the Sporting Club dozens of snowmobiles and ice shacks dot the lake. Inside the shelves are lined with helmets and the walls with antlers. We are guided to the lounge for appetizers and drinks and order our meal. The lounge is packed and conversations in both French and English ﬁll the room. We’re guided to our table and Jocelyn and I are instructed to sit side-by-side. A stack of hot ployes (the classic Acadian buckwheat pancakes) are brought to the table with maple syrup. Oskar is thrilled and so am I. Next we’re delivered plates of pressure-fried chicken sized for a Viking feast, and feast we do. On full stomachs we head back to town, passing a couple of large, illuminated crosses bearing witness to the stillness of the St. John River.
9:00 a.m. @ 10th Mountain Ski Club Our trip would not be complete without hitting the trails at the 10th Mountain Ski Club, a world-class biathlon destination with over 25 kilometers of trails. And the trails are superb. Later on in the day is the Deprey Classic, the kickoff of the 2013 Aroostook Cup—a popular series of races in the area.
10:30 a.m. @ Swamp Buck
Restaurant and Lodge The rustic decor of the Swamp Buck grabs you when you walk in: pine covers the walls and ceiling and the light fixtures are made from antlers. We all go in for eggs, home fries, and bacon. The menu looks great for dinner, something we’ll look forward to next time.
11:00 a.m. on the road home
On our way out of town we pass by the University of Maine at Fort Kent campus, the one-screen Century Theatre, and the Bouchard Family Farm (makers of ployes—we grabbed a bag earlier). We miss Sunday mass trafﬁc but notice that all the restaurants are now busy. Our drive back home is gorgeous with sweeping views of open country. I’m looking forward to heading back to Fort Kent and turning over a few more stones.