Warming winters threaten traditional Maine outdoor activities

Maine without ice fishing, snowmobiling, cross country skiing and dog sledding hardly seems like the state we know it – but it may be a reality that outdoor enthusiasts are facing warmer winters.

With conditions compromised, outdoor enthusiasts are trying to make the most of their favorite winter sports, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for some activities to persist.

According to the 2020 Maine’s Climate Future report released by the University of Maine, winter is the state’s fastest warming season, which means more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow. Statewide average annual snowfall is estimated to have declined by about 17 percent over the past century.

Clouds are reflected in the water as the sun helps slowly melt the surface of Brewer Lake in April 2018. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Snowmobiling last winter was perhaps more popular than ever, as everyone looked to get out by booking rides and buying machines, said Al Swett, vice president of the Maine Snowmobile Association. But the limited snow conditions made the sport more difficult and the big events of some snowmobile clubs were reduced.

“We [had] a few good storms and then it warms up to 45 degrees and all the hard work the bellhop operators do the night before and the nights after is deteriorating very quickly, ”Swett said. “Packed snowmobile trails soften quickly. “

Ice fishing has also suffered in recent years. Several events, such as the Sebago Lake Ice Fishing Derby in 2016 and the Moosehead Lake Togue Derby in 2021, have been canceled or rearranged because the lakes did not freeze.

An ice fishing cabin sits on land beside Eagle Lake in Acadia National Park on Sunday, February 26, 2012, while a sign warns visitors of potentially dangerous ice conditions. Credit: Kevin Miller / BDN

The mushers have also felt the impact of the warmer weather. Jill Carter, president of the Maine Highlands Sled Dog Club, said that while events like the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race in Fort Kent are still being run reliably, many smaller events have been canceled in recent times. years due to melting, refreezing or not. enough snow.

If winter conditions continue to heat up, the impact could go beyond a lack of winter fun. Outdoor recreation is essential to Maine’s winter tourism economy, which accounts for 25 percent of the state’s annual revenue, according to the Maine Tourism Association.

“People will go where the snow is and where the trails are, there’s no question,” said Tony Cameron, CEO of the Maine Tourism Association. “It has huge ramifications like any other industry sector. There is a huge spillover effect on local economies and the state economy.”

For winter sports in particular, smaller towns could have the most to lose. A 2020 study by the Maine Snowmobile Association and the University of Maine showed the snowmobile’s contribution to Maine’s economy to be over $ 606 million.

“These small towns rely on snowmobilers,” Swett said. “With the hot weather, these small businesses don’t survive, they don’t survive. They rely on us to be there for a cup of tea or coffee or to refuel in a remote location.

Many Mainers also make a living from the outdoors. Polly Mahoney and Kevin Slater have owned Mahoosuc Guide Service in Newry, which has organized dog sledding, for 31 years.

Due to the pandemic demand for outdoor recreation, business has always been good for them. However, they are worried about the years to come.

Last year, they lost two weeks of guiding activity in the winter because temperatures warmed up faster than usual, Slater said. It also rained on Christmas Day, forcing the company to reschedule bookings during one of the busiest times of the year due to the lack of snow, said Mahoney.

However, outdoor recreation clubs and businesses do their best to make the most of the warmer winters. Swett said the volunteer snowmobile club groomers, through years of experience, have been able to figure out how to make even limited snow conditions. But he knows that fewer groomers will be willing to take the risk of damaging their equipment if the winters get worse.

Cyndy Bell, public relations manager for Sebago Lake Rotary, said the group made the decision to expand their annual ice fishing tournament to surrounding lakes to avoid the event being canceled.

An ice fishing cabin sits on land beside Eagle Lake in Acadia National Park on Sunday, February 26, 2012, while a sign warns visitors of potentially dangerous ice conditions. Credit: Kevin Miller / BDN

This strategy has not always been foolproof, however. The derby was still canceled in 2016 due to icy conditions.

“We’re not worried about that yet, but obviously it’s still in the back of our minds,” Bell said. “We hope there will always be enough frost to ensure that a sufficient number of these lakes and ponds will keep the event viable.”

Carter said she had seen some clubs shifting to dry land dog racing as the snow cleared.

“The problem with dry land is you have to have really good conditions for that too,” Carter said. “You can’t have snow accumulated and then melt and then it’s all mud. “

Winter recreation enthusiasts continue to find ways to make their favorite activities possible during warm winters, but they are well aware of the reality.

“If we don’t have snow we are in trouble,” Swett said. “That’s the end result at the end of the day. We rely on Mother Nature.


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