The Winning Hand

A Moosehead Lake poker run is the way life should be in winter.

By Craig Leisher
Illustration by Patrick Corrigan

[M]y family and I spent last year living off the grid in a cabin about five miles outside of Monson. We loved all the seasons, but winter was our favorite. And one of the highlights of winter was the local snowmobile poker run.

I had no idea what a poker run was, but I showed up on my snowmobile at Monson’s Lakeshore House restaurant, just off Highway 15 near Moosehead Lake, on the appointed day in February.

Nancy, the treasurer of Monson’s Narrow Gauge Riders Snowmobile Club, took my five-dollar entry fee and explained how the run works. “You head out across the lake, go towards Homer Hill, follow the signs to the B trail, turn onto the trail through the woods near your place, and come back across the lake. When you see a bucket, stop to pick up five poker chips. When you get back here, you give me the poker chips and draw five cards from the box for your poker hand. The top three hands win cash prizes.”

I had no idea where Homer Hill was or what was the B trail, but I did understand “follow the signs” and collecting poker chips.

I followed the arrows stapled on sticks to a trail through the woods lined with spruce, fir, and the occasional stark-white birch. It was a perfect winter day with blue sky and new snow.

I always have a pang of guilt when riding a noisy two-stroke snowmobile that shatters the quiet of the woods. But, oh, is it fun! Coming out of the woods and onto a straight section, I throttled for a three count that hurled the sled to over sixty miles per hour and the trees blurred along the side. It was like the throttle on the snowmobile was connected to an adrenaline pump.

Seeing a bucket tacked to a tree along the route, I picked up a poker chip and put it into a zipper pocket. Each chip is a different color, so finding all five buckets matters.

Halfway through the run, the trail narrowed into a lane lined with firs that smelled like fresh-cut Christmas trees and ended on a road near our cabin. I knew every bump and twist on that cabin road because I’d ridden it so many times. I slid from side to side on the seat at the sharp turns as the throttle went from scary fast to instant slow, again and again. It was a definite life-is-good moment.

Turning back towards the lake, I wove between rocks poking through the snow as I neared Lake Hebron. On the lake, I stopped to turn the handgrip warmers to high and braced my feet on the back of the sled for the launch across the lake. As the sled’s tracks bit into the snow and ice, the acceleration was unbelievable. It was like a catapult launch. Soon I was doing eighty miles per hour and every bump in the ice became magnified into a helmet-rattling ride.

In a few minutes, I was back at the Lakeshore House, and Nancy was saying, “That was a fast ride.” I grinned and handed in my chips and drew my hand: Aces over threes. Two pair and I was in third place with the cash prize of twenty dollars, and there was still an hour left before the run ended.

Convinced my sons would love a tamer version of the same ride, I returned to the cabin and convinced two of the three boys to tag along. Switching to our tamer and bigger snowmobile, we rode to the starting point and paid another entry fee.

Halfway through the run, we caught up with a family of four pulling a tag sled behind their snowmobile and also doing the poker run. We passed them as they stopped to sort out a glove issue, and they passed us when we stopped to do the same thing a few miles later on. We saw several other local families, too, including Jeffrey and his wife and daughter and Rebekah and her daughter, Bella. There were so many grins on kids’ faces.

My boys took a chip from each of the five buckets so they could have a poker hand at the end. Once we were back on Lake Hebron for the last leg of the run, I let the boys take turns driving the snowmobile. With miles of snow and ice in every direction, it was impossible for them to hit anything, and with dad’s hands holding the cord to the kill switch, we raced across the ice and back to the warmth of the Lakeshore House.

The boys turned in their poker chips and each drew five cards. We had no idea there was a kid’s category and so were surprised to learn the boys had won first and second prize with their poker hands. For the boys, winning was almost as good as the hot chocolate with whipped cream on top.

My own hand of two pair was still in third place, but three people had yet to finish the race. After taking off helmets, gloves, and balaclavas, the last three snowmobilers each drew five cards. The first two had poor hands, but the third person had three of a kind. The winning hand of the day bumped me to fourth place and out of the money! The winner of the poker run graciously donated his forty-dollar prize to the Narrow Gauge Riders Snowmobile Club and all the people in the restaurant clapped and cheered.

Even though I lost, my family discovered that Maine in winter is a magical place. The stillness of the falling snow, the bite of cold air, the starlight, the smell of wood smoke, and winter events like snowmobile poker runs make it the real winning hand.

Craig Leisher is a senior social scientist at the Nature Conservancy and has a blog about Maine on the New York Times.