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Great weekend sledding

By Andrew Pollack on 02/14/2010 at 09:46 PM EST

I'm from "away" -- a term which in Maine speak means that I wasn't born here, and while I've been here for nearly 20 years I am very easily spotted as a non-native to pretty much anyone with long time family roots in the area. Being from away, there are things I just hadn't had a chance to do that most Mainer's take for granted. This weekend, I got the chance to scratch a few of those off the list. These included going 'upta camp', being significantly north of Bangor, and spending a fair bit of time on a sled (Maine speak for Snowmobile).

I'm going to tell this story twice. First, for my friends in Maine -- then again for the rest of everyone else.

To my Maine friends: Went to Peter's camp up in the county and played on the sleds. Trail conditions were pretty good.

For everyone else:

My brother-in-law Peter invited me up to his camp on mud pond outside Houlton, Maine for the weekend. In Maine, a "camp" translates to a weekend or seasonal house, usually a cabin and in most cases connotes a much more rustic set up than would be a "house". In this case, Pet's camp is fairly typical of them. It's built well and insulated, with heat by wood stove and light by full compliment of plumbed gas lamps. The point to going to camp in the winter is to partake in winter sports - usually either ice fishing or snow mobile riding. We were there to do the latter.

The only time I'd ever ridden a snowmobile before had been for about 20 minutes on a reasonably sized machine several years ago. This was different. Peter had one for me to use (actually it's Lauren's but she wasn't there) which was a Ski-Doo 500 Legend (photo here) -- way more machine than the one I'd tried before. I'm told it has a top speed of something like 95 miles per hour -- I never broke 60 and that was brief.

Snowmobiles are taken seriously in Maine. Nearly every town has a club that maintains dozens of local trails, and most of those connect to larger and very carefully maintained statewide trails that are part of Maine's "I.T.S." (Interconencted Trail System). The trail we spent the most time on was ITS 85, which was about the width of a single automobile lane and very clearly marked. The local clubs spend a lot of time during the off season maintaining bridges, keeping trails clear, and marking hazards and directions. The result is truly spectacular. It is literally a full highway system complete with rest stops (many snowmobile clubs maintain clubhouses along the main trails where you can stop in for a warm drink, new friends, and a local map). Like any motorsport, there are important rules of the road, and once you know them, it's generally a safe and fun way to spend some time.

I was struck by how careful everyone we met on the trail was to follow rules and stay courteous and safe. There were three in our Group, with Peter leading as the one who knew what he was doing. As wide and nice as the trails are, meeting other riders coming toward you on the trail can be tricky. It requires everyone to be careful, slow down a bit, and stay where you're supposed to be. When our group would pass another coming the other way on the trail, each rider would hold up a finger count indicating how many riders in that group were still behind them. The last person in a group would hold up a closed fist. This was universal. I didn't see a single case where this wasn't done by both parties as they passed.

The only downside for me on the whole trip, was that I came down with some kind of stomach bug and had to cut my riding shorter than I'd have liked. Unfortunately, it was either that or have to buy Peter a very expensive replacement helmet as there are some things you just cannot clean -- that last mile was a bit rough. Still and all, it was a great time and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

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