The 2011 Biathlon World Cup in Aroostook County | How New England Can Save the World

The 2011 Biathlon World Cup comes to Aroostook County Maine starting Feb. 6. This is a huge sport in Europe and will be televised into millions, yes millions of European homes. Bill McKibben in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Yankee Magazine covered this story (below) on Aroostook county, Maine becoming the Biathlon World Cup capital […]

By Bill McKibben

Dec 22 2009

ski racers

Maine Winter Sports Center’s 10th Mountain Ski Center in Fort Kent hosts the annual Maine State Biathlon Club Championships, open to kids and adults of all ages and abilities.

Photo Credit : courtesy of Maine Winter Sports Center

The 2011 Biathlon World Cup comes to Aroostook County Maine starting Feb. 6.

This is a huge sport in Europe and will be televised into millions, yes millions of European homes. Bill McKibben in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Yankee Magazine covered this story (below) on Aroostook county, Maine becoming the Biathlon World Cup capital of the United States. See 2011 Biathlon World Cup event details and listen to recent NPR coverage on All Things Considered podcast Rural Maine County Hosts Biathlon World Cup. How New England Can Save the World, Part I in a series Part II: Vermont NeighborsPart III: Hardwick and the New Frontier of FoodPart IIII: A Bang for Your Buck in the Berkshires

If you’ve just finished a 20-kilometer cross-country ski race, you’re likely to be hungry. (There’s just something about the fresh air, not to mention the 20 kilometers.)

Usually at the end of a race there’s a big stack of PowerBars, which technically fit the definition of food, in that they have calories. But in Madawaska, Maine, when you cross the finish line and stagger inside the lodge, a woman hands you a bowl of chicken stew and a–what is this? “It’s a ploye,” she explains: an Acadian buckwheat pancake, apparently a staple of Madawaska cooking.

Madawaska is a long ways away. If you’re at the southern tip of Maine, you’re closer to Philadelphia. But the physical distance is only half of it. I’ve lived in New England most of my life, and I’d never even heard of a ploye, which everyone in this part of Maine apparently eats at each meal. (It looks just like that teff-flour pancake, injera, that they serve at Ethiopian restaurants. Madawaska is, in some sense, farther away from, say, cosmopolitan Boston than is Addis Ababa.) For the record, ployes are delicious.

The distance–physical and cultural–between far northern Maine and the rest of the country matters in many ways, not the least of which is that “economic development” as it’s usually understood has never really worked very well in Aroostook County. In recent years its population has declined, and the remaining industries offer no guarantees. Madawaska, for instance, is dominated by a huge paper mill, which last winter temporarily laid off more than 500 of its 700 employees in the face of slackening demand. It’s not easy to convince, say, some computer company to shut down its Phoenix plant and move the facility to the St. John River Valley; the roads aren’t very good, the labor force isn’t trained for high-tech. People earn $26,000 a year on average here–against a national average of $36,000. Almost a fifth live in poverty.

So what do you do? One possibility: pursue economic and community development through … Nordic skiing.

This series of essays–titled (a little grandly) “How New England Can Change the World”–will explore some of the ideas emerging from this region that challenge the conventional view of the future. They won’t be about how we can build more suburbs, or make ever-larger amounts of money. Instead, they’ll focus on how we can make use of what’s close at hand, in order to thrive, or at least cope gracefully, in a world that both economically and environmentally may be harder to deal with than the one we’re used to. They’ll describe how the DNA of this particular place may be useful in showing others how to make the most of what they’ve got.

Which explains why I’m devouring my ploye so happily. A few years ago there was no ski lodge in Madawaska; the local volunteers hadn’t yet gotten together to pool their money and their talent and their time to build this nifty clubhouse. In fact, there wasn’t all that much skiing left anywhere in northern Maine.

In the 19th century, Maine governor (and Civil War hero) Joshua Chamberlain had arranged to import Swedish families to populate the virgin forests of Aroostook County, reasoning that they’d bring with them a work ethic and a familiarity with snowy woods. He was right. Soon there were ski trails across the Great North Woods, used for hunting, transportation, and also sport: sprints, 180-mile marathons, even ski jumps rising above the small towns. Their influence spread south and west, eventually centering on Rumford (where the NCAA championships were held last March). A string of Olympians wandered out of those western Maine forests, too, names like Chummy Broomhall and Julie Parisien.

But up in the original ski country, the sport had gone into decline. “After World War II, they started plowing the roads,” explains Andy Shepard. “Roads they once skied were now bare ground. Basketball became the social hub in the winter.” Shepard was an exec at L.L. Bean in the early 1990s, and he watched as the old industries built around hydropower began their inexorable decline: the shoe mills, the apparel factories, all the business heading off to Asia. “There was all kinds of trouble,” he says. “After the Iron Curtain fell, that’s when they closed Loring Air Force Base, which meant an exodus of maybe 25,000 people from a region that had barely had 100,000 to start. And the lumber industry was changing fast with the opening of Eastern European markets.”

As economies faltered, so did the bonds that held these rural communities together. People began moving away. And among other things, not many kids were out picking potatoes all fall any more; Aroostook County was still rugged, but its residents a little less so. “Northern Maine was at the top of the list for childhood obesity, for type 2 diabetes, for asthma, for childhood smoking,” Shepard says. “There was a real and immediate impact on the quality of kids’ lives, but also a potentially disastrous impact on the future productivity of the state. I mean, they’re going to grow up to enter the work force, and the productivity of workers with diabetes is lower, and their drain on the health system is greater. They cost more and produce less. With the relative weakness of our economy, there was less room to absorb any of that.”

But Shepard had an unlikely interest: biathlon, the combination of shooting and cross-country skiing that is one of Europe’s top TV sports, but in this country is about as marginal as, say, candlepin bowling. Still, it seemed to Shepard (whose son Walt is a world-class biathlete) that the sport might offer a way out for northern Maine. In 1997, as he and colleague Max Cobb were flying home from a U.S. Biathlon Association meeting in Park City, Utah, in preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics, they sketched out a plan to make northern Maine a center of skiing excellence–and to use that as a lever for economic and community improvement.

“It seemed to me that those Olympic aspirations could be tools in a model of sustainability for rural Maine,” Shepard explains, leaning forward, his voice rising a bit. “The same attributes that are required of an endurance athlete–goal-setting, discipline, personal accountability–are critical to success in life.” He’s a salesman: He sold Maine governor Angus King, and maybe even more important, he sold Owen Wells, president of the Libra Foundation, a major Portland-based philanthropy that was looking to play a role in the most impoverished corners of the state.

And so–with $1.5 million in hand–Wells and Shepard formed the Maine Winter Sports Center and set to work on two different projects. One was building great Nordic skiing venues in remote places. They’d first thought of using the old Air Force base itself, but a visit reminded them that the qualities that make for a good runway (dead flatness) make for lousy skiing. So instead, they built two Olympic-quality biathlon courses an hour apart, one in Fort Kent and the other in Presque Isle.

Aspiring athletes from around the country began to converge on the area, attracted by the offer of great coaching and training, plus small stipends to help run the other half of Shepard’s vision: the Healthy Hometowns program, designed to introduce skiing early on as a way to get kids back outdoors in the winter.

“It’s not about developing fast skiers as much as getting kids to appreciate an active outdoor lifestyle,” Shepard notes. They bought a few thousand pairs of skis, which they rented out for nominal sums, and they helped towns across the region plan ski trails and teach the basics. “We want to get them at an age before they start choosing clothes for themselves, when we can still have an effect on their self-image,” says Shepard. “Say, 8 to 13.”

The two halves of the program–elite athletics and teaching chubby kids to ski–may seem far apart, but in fact they’ve proved complementary. In March 2004, for instance, the MWSC managed to lure the Biathlon World Cup to Fort Kent for a four-day event, which was a certifiable Big Deal, given the huge dollars the sport generates in Europe. “It was like asking the Patriots to play a game in some farming town in Bavaria, just because they’d built a stadium,” says Shepard–but it worked.

Twenty thousand spectators came out to cheer–a quarter of the county’s population. More than that, 700 volunteers made the weekend run with both smoothness and charm. “The European athletes loved it, because it was kind of old-school,” Shepard recalls. “I mean, people took the Swedish team to Stockholm, Maine, for a community dinner. The old people were speaking Swedish with them. The French team could talk with the whole Acadian population. One classroom from Presque Isle adopted the Germans–they had all these posters written in German, the names of all the athletes on them. This was like the Olympics coming to Aroostook County.”

The big competition and the many junior championships and the like that followed were a shot in the arm to towns like Fort Kent, where new restaurants and shops opened. But they also helped make skiing real across the region, where all of a sudden people young and old, folks who’d been exposed to the pageantry of the World Cup, began to get excited.

Which brings me back to Madawaska, and the beautiful little ski lodge that went up in 2007. “The races in Fort Kent were a motivating factor,” says club president Doug Cyr. “If they could do it, we could do it.” There’d always been a network of trails on the edge of town, but now people started grooming them a little more carefully and thinking about how they might build a clubhouse.

Not easily: “This town has been in a serious recession for four or five years,” says Cyr. And yet small grants from the MWSC and the state and town were enough to get people going, and soon pledges had topped $120,000. Acadia Federal Credit Union, the local bank, offered a zero-interest loan against those pledges, local lumberyards sold them materials at cost, and people started showing up to do much of the work.

“I’d say only 50 percent of the volunteers were skiers,” notes John Ezzy, a retired insurance salesman who spearheaded the campaign. “Maybe fewer. Jacques doesn’t ski, does he? No? Well then, only about a quarter of the work was done by skiers.”

In fact, as we sit talking in the sunny dining room of the two-story Four Seasons Lodge, we’re surrounded by volunteers helping with the day’s big race, the Acadia FCU Marathon. Most folks have arrived on snowmobiles, and they’ll spread out around the countryside, guarding all the trail crossings to keep racers safe and hand them cups of water as they go by. (And at the bottom of the steepest hill, one will stand with a radar gun, clocking the fastest descent of the day for a special prize.) “It’s been a long time since this community has had something to grab onto,” says Cyr.

Mark Guerrette is one of those race volunteers. His mother is secretary of the ski association and his father is president of the local snowmobile club. “Our family was part of the carpenters who built this,” he says. “Now a lot of folks just come here to sit by the fire. They don’t ski–they just enjoy talking to the other people.” They don’t ski–but they know that the local high school’s Nordic team has now won five state titles, and that local girl Meagan Toussaint is doing well on the international biathlon circuit. In fact, one of her framed jerseys hangs on the wall of the lodge. “Everyone’s happy to see people from the valley getting high honors,” says Guerrette, who’s studying computer and electrical engineering hours south at UMaine Orono.

Down in the ground-floor waxing room, two young guys–Andrew Levesque and Joey Bard–are spreading gluey klister on their skis so they’ll be able to make time on today’s icy trails. “I started skiing in middle school when MWSC came here,” says Levesque. “They were renting skis for $40 a year, and there were coaches.”

“At the time, it was like: Nordic skiing, what’s that?” adds Bard. “The whole image was of going out behind the house with your grandmother.” Now the two of them live in an athletes’ dorm in Caribou, an hour away, with three other skiers. They’re training full-time for a year or two before heading off to ski in college. “It went from out the back door to turning people into athletes,” says Bard.

The two would go on to finish first and second that day, in case you’re keeping score. And to eat a good many ployes in celebration.

Next up: In our March/April issue, Bill McKibben tells how an online neighborhood network in Burlington, Vermont, is bringing people together in new and unexpected ways.