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Warm weather is disrupting northern Maine's winter events

Snowcross racers race around the track at Aroostook Centre Mall as part of the SnowBowl in Presque Isle.
Kaitlyn Budion
Maine Public
Snowcross racers race around the track at Aroostook Centre Mall as part of the SnowBowl in Presque Isle.

Warm winter temperatures and a lack of snow are causing problems for organizers behind some of Maine’s public winter events — even in Aroostook County, where snow is usually reliable this time of year. Some events had to adjust, but have forged ahead, while others, including the Can-Am dog sled races, have been cancelled. And some organizers are wondering if this year's weather is an aberration, or a sign of things to come.

It's Saturday morning here at the second annual SnowBowl, Caribou's festival of snowmobile racing events that stretches over five days. Around a hundred people have come to the far parking lot of the Aroostook Centre Mall to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather and line up to watch snowcross racers zip around the course. Just a few days ago the entire affair was in danger of being cancelled.

"And Wednesday afternoon, Mother Nature says, 'Hey, it should be 50 in February and rain,' and we just kind of watched everything melt away," says Troy Haney, one of the owners of Spud Speedway in Caribou, which organizes, and usually hosts the SnowBowl.

He says because there was so little snow, he had some trucked in. And while it held up okay in the ensuing rain, the rest of the grounds were turned to mud, which made it unsuitable for the anticipated foot traffic.

Some of the races were cancelled, but others, including these snowcross events were quickly moved to the mall. Haney says its not clear how much all of this will cost.

"We don't even know what the number looks like yet, to be honest," he said. "But we, you know, that wasn't our main concern. We needed to make sure we pulled this off for all of the people that believed in us and sponsored and bought a vending spot, and we needed to deliver."

Other events haven't been able to adapt to the snowless conditions.

For the first time in its thirty-one-year history, the annual Can-Am Crown races in Fort Kent were forced to cancel because of a lack of snow.

"It's just a stretch a dirt for miles, just dirt and mud, and we did the right move, we had to cancel," said Can-Am media advisor Andrew Birden.

He says while the mushers, spectators and area businesses have all been very understanding, it's still a major disappointment for the region.

"Everybody just looks forward to this to this weekend," Birden said. "And when it when it fell through, and we knew that it had, we had to make that decision. It was a sad moment I think, that was felt by so many people."

The economic impact will also be felt. Birden says the event draws thousands of people to Fort Kent each year and generates an estimated $1 million of business to area restaurants, hotels and gas stations.

The federal Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates that in 2022, snow-related recreation such as skiing and snowmobiling racing generated more than $68 million for the Maine economy.

Organizers of upcoming events have been watching the cancellations closely. Carl Theriault is with the Fort Kent Outdoor Center, which will host the U.S. Biathlon Championships later this month with the help of snow making equipment.

"The manmade snow will definitely be prioritized for the competition trails," Theriault said.

He says competitors from across the country, and some from Europe, will compete in the races that combine Nordic skiing and rifle marksmanship.

"The competition will bring a lot of revenue into the Outdoor Center," Theriault said. "So it's something we're trying to preserve, because it makes a big difference from our financial perspective."

But snowmaking isn't a solution for everyone. And moving events earlier into February would be no easy task. The Can-Am Crown's Andrew Birden says he wouldn't want the event to be scheduled on the same weekend as a race in another state. And the outdoor center wouldn't want to hold the biathlon championships at the same time as the Can-Am.

"When I look at our calendar of what we do, you know, starting in things Thanksgiving and going to, you know, mid-March, every weekend has got something going on for athletes and organizations and all that," Theriault said. "So to kind of squish that even more, it's going to make it very, it's going to make it tough."

So what are winter event planners in northern Maine to do? If nothing else the weather issue is prompting some, including Carl Theriault to ponder the future.

"We all have to ask ourselves is this you know, climate change? Is this an aberration? You know, one year El Nino that's going to come through and next year is going to be totally different back to norma? I think it's a mixture of both, that's my opinion," he said.

But for now the only option is to keep a close eye the forecasts, plan for the worst, and hope for the best.

Kaitlyn Budion is Maine Public’s Bangor correspondent, joining the reporting team after several years working in print journalism.