Because of an ice storm that preceded Christmas, when my husband had two days off of work, our original plans for getting out and doing something nice were drastically altered. Even though the roads had been sanded and salted, the previous day’s sunshine and then single-digit night temperatures assured the streets would not be safe for leisurely car rides due to a half-inch coating of ice. Once again, the sun was shining, and the weather wasn’t too terrible – it was in the 20s which was sweater weather; we didn’t even need our down coats (this may sound cold if you are from the West Coast but believe me, you build up to the cold weather and sunny, windless 20 degrees practically feels like a Spring day during a Maine winter. Which leads me to mention another amazing thing about Maine: there is this sort of bravado culture amongst young people in winter, and it is not uncommon to see teenagers and twenty-somethings wearing SHORTS outside in the winter – – we saw someone last week doing this when it was 9 degrees F! – – just because they can.)
We live very close to the NH border, and the White Mountain National Forest abuts our property (most people do not realize that the White Mountains stretches beyond New Hampshire into Maine). As such, wilderness is literally in our backyard. In winter, there are many snowmobile trails within walking distance, but because we are in a somewhat out-of-the-way location, they are rarely used.
We do not snowmobile. Snowmobiles are quite expensive (about $10K – $12K new), and they are also pricey to rent ($165 for a couple of hours), so we haven’t even tried it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from snowmobile trails!
A snowmobile trail is an official winter-only backcountry “road” that is maintained by snowmobile clubs or the State of Maine. By “maintained” I mean that they have trail markers, plus signage telling riders how many miles it is to gas, food, lodging, or various locations along the way. They are a narrow pathway (about 6′ – 8′ wide in our area) cleared of trees and obstacles. These trails are found throughout the northeast and there are continuous trails that stretch hundreds of miles, all the way into Canada. After a heavy snowfall, volunteers use expensive “snow groomers” to compact the snow and ensure that the trails are safe, removing debris such as fallen branches, and covering or moving protruding rocks if necessary.
They also place “caution” signs so snowmobilers will be made aware of stream crossings if there are no bridges (doable only if the water has frozen and is thick enough to hold the weight of the snowmobiles and riders). But in my area, because these trails are so underused, they are perfect for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, since one rarely encounters snowmobilers. (Skiing or snowshoeing would be downright dangerous on a heavily used snowmobile trail: it would be like walking on a freeway between speeding cars). They are rare in my area, but occasionally a Maine State Game Warden (that’s a back-country law enforcement officr) will patrol by snowmobile on the lookout for drunk snowmobile drivers (as well as snowmobile accidents and wildlife poachers).
The pre-Christmas ice storm spelled disaster for the snowmobilers. The trails had just been groomed before the storm, and now they were too icy to use safely. But for snowshoeing, these trails were a delight. The snow was compacted so one didn’t sink down very far while walking, and the crampons of our Microspikes (sharp pointy metal blades that attach to the bottom of one’s shoe) gripped the ice tightly to make walking easy. We decided to take a hike in our own backyard wilderness along these trails. On Christmas Eve we went 3.5 miles; and on Christmas Day we ventured 4.7 miles. I wore a long-sleeved hiking shirt with a light fleece jacket, leggings, hiking boots, crampons, a wool hat, sunglasses, and I carried trekking poles. My husband (poor guy!) also carried a daypack in the event of an emergency: water, flashlight/headlamp, topo GPS, toilet paper, Purell, a face mask, cellphone, chewing gum, first aid kit, fire starter kit, knife, hand-warmers and foil emergency blanket, multi-tool knife, ham radio and extra crampons and gloves. We take winter preparedness seriously, even for short distances (we were only gone for two hours)!
We had a wonderful time. There was no one else out and about (this being Christmas, after all) and the woods were quiet, cold and beautiful. The ice that coated the tree branches glistened in the sun, looking like a million sparkling diamonds. We came home to hardy, homemade soup and freshly baked whole wheat rolls hot out of the oven, and later, a wonderful, hot bath. We still can’t believe how blessed we are that we are surrounded by so much beauty. There is so much to do literally outside our front door, without having to drive anywhere.
Even though I am still very overweight, in terms of stamina and strength I am in the best physical shape that I’ve been in since my youth. Here in the Maine woods, life is good!