The hidden backcountry: exploring Maine by track and tread

A lot gets written about outdoor opportunities here. The hunting. The fishing. The camping, hiking and boating.

Come winter, though, the fervor slows a little. The rush of activity wanes, lakes and streams get more lonely, and mountain peaks become barren, visited by nary but the most sturdy souls.

It’s no wonder, really—when winter starts swinging here in Maine, it can get cold. COLD cold. Mainers are notoriously hardy when it comes to that sort of thing, but there’s also the fact that it’s just downright difficult to get around.

What many people don’t realize, however, is that when the snow falls, and the last leaves of the season drift away, Maine’s backcountry turns into a whole new land to explore—and to see some of it, you’re going to need machines.

“The biggest thing, for me, is the scenery,” said Mike Reynolds, president of Penobscot Valley 4 Wheel Drive (PV4WD), a not-for-profit group of Jeep owners located all over the state. “You can see wildlife and scenery that you wouldn’t normally see if you weren’t out there. When the foliage changes and falls away, it’s a whole new experience. Some of the mountains, like Chick Hill [in Clifton]... one side is normally pretty well forested. When you’re coming back down, without all those leaves there, there’s incredible views you don’t normally get.”

Gary Marquis, the superintendent at Caribou Parks and Recreation, concurs. He’s also a member of the Caribou Snowmobile Club’s board of directors, as well as its trail master.

“You’re going through wooded trails [on a snowmobile], you’re going through swampy areas you can't get through in the summertime,” he said. “There are areas throughout our system, throughout the valley, where the views are spectacular. You just don’t see them in a car, because there's no trail to that lookout spot.”

He describes one particular spot on Long Lake, near Madawaska, that’s stunning and remote—and he says you can’t see it anywhere except astride a snowmobile. In fact, there’s plenty of terrain to explore once the temperatures drop and the lakes freeze over. Take, for example, Aroostook County’s plentiful potato fields. In the warmer months they’re a source of economic pride. In the winter, however, they afford a winter opportunity to traverse terrain you might never have thought possible.

“You get a whole different view of [something] that you normally just drive alongside,” said Marquis. “All of a sudden you’re on the snowmobile trails, you’re travelling across someone’s crop ground and it’s something you don’t get to do when the potatoes are in the ground or the corn or wheat is there. Snowmobiling allows to you to see so many different things.”

In Caribou, the city maintains the snowmobile trails with assistance from the Caribou Snowmobile Club. The trails cover about 100 one-way miles (with 86 road crossings) and snake into towns such as Woodland, New Sweden, and Stockholm. The system also incorporates two portions of the International Trail System (ITS), ITS 83 and ITS 90, which the city and the Snowmobile Club maintain. “It’s a lot of work,” said Marquis, taking care to repeat himself a second time, more emphatically.

“Thousands of people use our trails each year,” he said, noting that most of the maintenance labor is volunteer-based. “Our mission is to ensure all snowmobilers, whether they come from in-town or out of state, have the best snowmobile experience they can get. We maintain a very aggressive grooming schedule. We’re out almost every single night. It’s easier to maintain a smooth trail than a rough trail with holes in it.”

All these snowmobile and four-wheel-drive trails, however, are found predominantly on private land. These opportunities for backcountry exploration wouldn’t be possible without the assistance and support of private landowners.

“We get permission to use the trails we use,” said Edwards. “Sometimes it’s tricky—we’re crossing a lot of different properties. Not every landowner gives permission. But we have a good reputation, we offer to do cleanups and other work and that usually helps.”

“The number one reason that we have the trail systems that we do is because of the landowners,” said Marquis, noting that he manages about 145 landowner relationships in the Caribou area. “If it wasn’t for the landowners, we wouldn't have a system. Nobody would have a system. You have to have permission to recreate on their land. Its hugely important. We have a great relationship with our landowners.”

The options available for a newcomer looking to get into a four-wheeling or snowmobiling hobby can be staggering.

“You need to [start by] figuring out what kind of riding you want to do,” said Marquis.

Today, snowmobiles have become more specialized, with more varieties to choose from. Some are designed for hard-pack trails and handle like sports cars, while others have longer tracks that are better on soft trails.

“What people have come to expect are what used to be ‘big options’ years ago,” said Lou Fraser, a manager at motorsports dealer Friend & Friend in Orono. “Electric start, reverse, hand warmers, thumb warmers, heated seats. It’s not what it used to be.”

A stock snowmobile will likely satisfy most riders, but Fraser said the sky’s the limit in terms of upgrades to suit your style. Studding the track will improve its traction, for instance, while installing carbide runners will improve handling while sacrificing steerability.

From his perspective, Edwards concurs: a stock Jeep will cut it on most of Maine’s backcountry trails, but if you want to go big, you can go really big.

“[Our members] have stock jeeps right up to highly modified rigs with full cages in case of rollovers,” he said. “It depends on how far you want to go. If you want the ability to do more difficult trails, you can add lift kits, larger tires, and skid kits to protect the bottom of the vehicle. You can go pretty extreme with heavy-duty steering, bigger brakes. You can get out of hand with mods if you want to.”

As with most hobbies, exploring Maine’s backcountry in the winter from the driver’s seat of a Jeep or astride a snowmobile starts with one thing—the desire to do it. An adventurous spirit doesn’t hurt.

“Its an easy hobby to get into,” said Edwards. “It starts with wanting to get out there, wanting to enjoy the outdoors. Not everyone is willing or able to get out there and hike and explore. Having a vehicle like a Jeep gives you an opportunity to get out and see some of things you wouldn't normally be able to see. It's a break—you can get away for a nice night in the woods, or go hit the logging roads and do some exploring.”

“We all know that in northern Maine, winters last long,” said Marquis. “We have to do something. We’re so fortunate in Aroostook County that we can be on a trail in minutes. The ability to just leave and be on a groomed trail, and in 30-45 minutes you’re 50 miles from your house sitting at a restaurant or overlooking a view of a lake or a field, and you’re in a whole different part of the county... that’s what’s awesome.”

*This article originally appeared in BDN Outdoors Winter 2016.*