More than a decade ago, Maine’s governor, Angus King commissioned an economic study which determined that New England’s largest state was actually two distinct, economic regions: the affluent southeastern coast, and the struggling, northern forests. Through the years, Aroostook County had been dealt a hat trick of economic setbacks: first, the emergence of Idaho as the nation’s premier source of potatoes, second, Quebec’s ability to process timber products more economically than Maine, and more recently, the Defense Department’s decision to close Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, eliminating thousands of civilian jobs.
What Aroostook County continued to have in abundance, however, was long, cold winters, an abundance of snow, and residents who valued hard work. Andy Shepard, formerly a winter sports manager for L.L. Bean, and Max Cobb, the driving force behind the U.S. Biathlon team, recognized the potential of northern Maine and approached the Libra Foundation of Portland with a plan to “reestablish Nordic skiing as a lifestyle to stimulate the local economy and inspire the youth of northern Maine.”
Eleven years later, during the first two weeks of February, Presque Isle and Fort Kent will host the International Biathlon Union’s World Cups #7 and #8, welcoming athletes, coaches, journalists and fans from 30 nations to “The Crown of Maine.” Presque Isle, with a population of just under 10,000, and Fort Kent with 2,000 residents, are bracing for as many as 35,000 spectators during the 10 days of biathlon competitions and related festivities. The sport has become hugely popular throughout Europe and the events in northern Maine will be televised live to an estimated 120 million viewers across the pond. For several days in early February, devoted biathlon fans from northern Norway to the heel of the Italian boot will be glued to their televisions as their favorite athletes ski and shoot in the wilds of northern Maine. That constitutes far more fans, by the way, than a typical Monday Night Football audience here in the States!
Adding to the excitement for American spectators will be the participation of a promising U.S. Team. Last season, Tim Burke of Paul Smiths, NY led the World Cup standings prior to the Olympic break, the first time any American biathlete had achieved that distinction. Both Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid and Laura Spector of Lenox, MA have earned top 30 finishes in prior World Cup events this season. Other U.S. Team members, who have lived and trained in northern Maine may enjoy a “home court advantage” which could translate into impressive results.
Creating competition facilities in northern Maine capable of hosting world caliber events was a team effort requiring a diverse set of skills. A Nordic race venue in Fort Kent made sense because there was a well established, community ski club, desirable terrain not far from town, and a cadre of volunteers with experience hosting major, winter events. Although the base lodge of the Lone Pine Alpine ski hill was a logical focal point for all ski club activities, the only suitable location for a biathlon shooting range was in a natural bowl beyond the top of the ski lift, thus requiring a new start/finish area, warming lodge and racing trail network at the top of the hill. With funding from the Libra Foundation, the community of Fort Kent pitched in and within months was ready to host biathlon events. Their first Biathlon World Cup event in 2004 received rave reviews from international athletes, IBU officials and the hundreds of spectators who attended.
A different challenge faced what would become the Nordic Heritage Center on the Presque Isle/Fort Fairfield town line. Much of northern Aroostook County consists of gently rolling potato fields. A successful competition venue must be relatively close to the population concentration; in northern Maine that means Presque Isle and Caribou. Only one significant, undeveloped ridge in the area fit the requirements, but it was carved into nearly a dozen, private parcels. The Nordic Heritage Center would never have been possible without the determination and negotiating skill Brian Hamel, a Presque Isle community activist who saw the potential of the project and secured the rights to all the necessary land.
A decade ago, Andy Shepard, Max Cobb and others envisioned the reestablishment of Nordic skiing in northern Maine as a boost to the regional economy and an inspiration to the local youth. During the ten days of the IBU World Cup biathlon events in early February, an estimated 15 million dollars will circulate through the communities of Aroostook County, with the continued commitment and support of the Libra Foundation. In addition, several American athletes who make their home in The County, including a few who were born there, now represent the Maine Winter Sports Center and the USA in competitions across the country and throughout the world. In just over a decade, Max and Andy’s vision for reestablishing skiing in northern Maine has become reality.
Author credit: John Morton is the founder of Morton Trails (www.mortontrails.com), a trail design consulting firm which has been collaborating on recreational and competitive trails throughout the country for the past 20 years. Morton designed the World Cup racing trails in Presque Isle and Fort Kent as well as more than half a dozen other community trails in Aroostook County,ME.