Another world

Far north in Maine, 'The County' offers trails, water…food
By TIM JONES
For the Monitor
October 19, 2007

Our friends who live in Portland, Maine, gave us a funny look when my sweetheart Marilyn and I told them we were on our way to Aroostook County for three days of outdoor adventuring. Their only comment was a puzzled: "why?"Well, after a wonderful day of biking on miles and miles of recreation trail through unbelievably scenic surrounding, and another day of paddling a kayak down the lovely Aroostook River, a couple of meals as good as any we could have had in the famed restaurants of Boston, and so much more stuff that we want to do but don't have time for, my only comment is "Why not?!"

Known simply as "The County," Aroostook (visitaroostook.com) is located in the upper right-hand corner not only of the state of Maine but also of the entire U. S. of A. Next stop, Canada. It's the largest county in land area east of the Mississippi, covering 6,829 square miles. Fewer than 75,000 people live there. That leaves a lot of empty space to play outdoors.

Winter is the big tourist season in Aroostook Country. Snowmobilers come from all over, drawn by deep snow and immaculately groomed trails. Those trails don't disappear when the snow melts. About 80 miles of them are the old rail beds of the Bangor and Aroostook and Aroostook Valley Railway lines, with easy gradients and hard gravel surfaces, perfect for riding a fat-tire bike.

We based in Caribou (caribourec.org; 207-493-4224 for a brochure about the trail system), which has lots of inexpensive motels and a couple of great restaurants. (Try the Osso Bucco at Napoli's and the Scallops Frangelico at the Greenhouse at the Caribou Inn.)

Our ride started in Caribou and headed toward Washburn for a few miles before turning sharp right and heading toward New Sweden, which has some of the best biking views ever.

These trails apparently get lots of traffic from motorized ATVs on the weekends, but the few four-wheelers we saw were no problem at all. There are no sharp corners, so everyone can see what's coming and everyone shares the road.

Sections are re-graded every three or four years, so some are rougher than others. Marilyn and I were riding our fat-tire tandem. On most of the trail we flew along comfortably; other places a suspension to cushion some of the bumps would have made the ride more comfortable.

In some places we rode through virtual tunnels of spruce trees; other places we could see for miles across rolling country; and still other places crossed wetlands with active beaver workings on both sides of the trail. All of it was beautiful, especially with the last of autumn's colors still flaming.

In the town of New Sweden we stopped to refuel at a great little store a half-mile off the end of the trail, then pedaled a short road section (not a single car passed us!) to pick up another fork of the trail that brought us back toward Caribou to the car. In all we covered about 25 miles - less than a third of what's available.

The County also has some gorgeous road-biking loops with little traffic, and countless miles of logging roads that could be ridden on a mountain bike or cross bike. We also heard rumors of wonderful single-track mountain biking at the Maine Winter Sports Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle but didn't have time on this trip to check it out.

Next time. In a place like The County, life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

River road

The original "road" for settling The County was the wide and gentle Aroostook River. I managed to convince Leo Freeman, owner of Perception of Aroostook (mysite.verizon.net/vzer3a5b/id15.html; 207-764-5506) to leave his shop and come paddling with me.

Remember the old saying "Some days are better than others." Well, this day was the best imaginable. The river was up from recent rains and the flowing flatwater and gentle rapids were in perfect shape for an easy day of paddling. The air was cool and crisp as we started but the bright sun kept us toasty. We put in between Washburn and Ashland for an easy 15 miles back to Presque Isle in lovely little Perception Carolina 14.5 touring kayaks. With the current pushing us along nicely, the breeze at our backs and cloudless blue skies above, and wonderfully responsive boats to paddle, the day simply flew by.

We'd hoped to get glimpses of moose, deer and bald eagles on our passage through the farm-and-woodlot valley. All are common along the river. But not this day. Instead we had to settle for a half-dozen majestic great blue herons, a couple of flocks of black ducks, a few dozen mergansers and one big gaggle of Canada geese, honking wildly as they took off and passed directly overhead.

Freeman can arrange a special treat for his paddling clients - lunch at the Rum Rapids Inn (rumrapidsinn.com), a beautiful B&B and restaurant on the banks of the river in Crouseville about 5 miles above the takeout in Presque Isle. We arrived shortly after noon and famished, so the stop was more than welcome.

If you happen to get to The County next year, save a day or two for paddling. You might get one as perfect as ours.

Winter ahead

Winter lives around The County. It comes early and stays late. On the river, you can see the signs of yearly spring floods as all that wonderful snow melts.

They've got 11 cross-country ski venues with groomed trails (some with night skiing), miles of tote roads for backcountry skiing and snowshoeing, a nifty little ski hill called Big Rock (bigrockmaine.com) in Mars Hill, ice fishing, ponds to skate on.

We're already watching the web for news of the first big snows, and have already made plans for a winter adventure. . . . Maybe we'll see you there.

(Tim Jones writes about outdoor sports and travel. He can be reached at timjones@easternslopes.com.)

AroostookRailTrail 1, 2: 80 miles to explore.

Kathy Mazzuchelli, who manages the recreation facilites for the town of Caribou, Maine, admires her handiwork. The old rail beds of the Bangor and Aroostook and Aroostook Valley Railways have been converted to multi-use recreation paths that are perfect for leisurely mountain biking.

Aroostook River 1,2.: Recipe for a perfect day: Blue skies above, a lively kayak, the last of fall foliage and a beautiful river flowing gently through gorgeous country. It just doesn't get any better. Leo Freeman of Perception of Aroostook Kayaks leads the way down the river that flows past his shop.