Down East 2013 ©
Aroostook County’s cold-weather reputation may finally be paying off. Usually the region’s boosters have to assure visitors that northern Maine’s winters aren’t nearly as Arctic as local legend would have them believe. But frigid temperatures and snow are turning into tangible assets in a new project to create two Olympic-level biathlon and Nordic-skiing training centers in The County.
The United States has rarely been a standout in either Nordic skiing or biathlon — a combination of cross-country ski racing and target shooting — in Olympic competitions, at least partially due to a dearth of training venues. Now, underwritten with more than one million dollars from the Portland-based Libra Foundation, the nonprofit Maine Winter Sports Center has built a World Cup-caliber course in Fort Kent, complete with twenty-five to thirty kilometers of ski trails, a combination stadium and firing range, and a clubhouse.
A second competition course in Presque Isle will follow next winter, according to Brian Hamel, president of the Maine Winter Sports Center. The sports center is also building ski trails at high schools and middle schools throughout central and northern Aroostook County to reintroduce local youngsters to Nordic skiing.
Hamel says the idea began with Andy Shepard, merchandise manager at L.L. Bean in Freeport, who recognized Aroostook’s potential in 1998 when he attended a ski meet in Fort Kent with his son. Shepard approached Owen Wells of the Libra Foundation and started the snowball rolling.
Last summer Max Saenger, a former member of the Swiss National Biathlon Team, as well as a coach and ski instructor, was hired as executive director. Two coaches have been recruited from Sweden, and the first state and regional races are scheduled for this winter. “This has really captured the ear of the skiing industry,” Hamel notes. “We’ve already had inquiries from athletes who want to live and train up here in the winter.”
Ironically, cross-country skiing in the United States started in Aroostook County, Hamel says, brought in by Swedish immigrants in the nineteenth century. The County produced both the first cross-country skis and the first cross-country ski race in the United States, and Hamel is hoping to rebuild that reputation. Hamel is also director of the Loring Development Authority at the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, and he knows what it means to try to lure people and businesses to northern Maine. “For once in our lives, we’re actually touting Aroostook County’s cold and snow,” he says with a smile. “Boy, isn’t that strange!”
(Published February 2000)