Christmas week, I saw a couple of anglers trolling the open water on Minnehonk Lake behind my house. I was astonished. Normally, the lake would be covered with ice fishermen by January, but there was not a single ice shack on the lake this winter and very few ice anglers. Normally, smelt dealers would be very busy beginning in December and right through to the end of March. The ice fishermen would buy their smelts from my neighbor and have lunch at the local café or country store. Not this year.
My wife Linda and I were at a lodge in Rangeley early in February, for our weekly travel column. We were the only guests, although they’d had a couple from out of state early in the week. They went home three days early because there was nothing to do. The failure of Saddleback to open for skiing certainly hurt, but so too did the lack of ice and snow. This lodge includes a restaurant where, in a normal winter, customers would snowmobile across Rangeley Lake and up to the lodge for dinner. Not this winter, when the lack of snow, and dangerous ice conditions, closed that trail to the lodge.
Last week I spoke at a press conference hosted by the Natural Resource Council of Maine, to thank Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins for their support of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan — which will cut climate-changing carbon pollution from dirty power plants, clean up our air, and help ensure our children inherit a safe and healthy planet — and to urge Congress to act on this.
To prepare for the conference, I talked to two leaders of the tourism and outdoor industry in western and northern Maine: Mike Boutin of Northwoods Outfitters in Greenville and Russell Walters of Northern Outdoors in the Forks.
When I asked how the mild winter had impacted their businesses, both immediately uttered the same word: devastating.
Northwoods Outfitters sells and rents outdoor equipment and offers guided trips of all kinds. Mike said his snowmobile rentals were down 70 percent and his ice anglers down 50 percent. From retail sales to the rentals of cross-country skis, his business got clobbered.
We talked for about an hour, and in that time not a single car went by his downtown Greenville business. Roads are already muddy and closing early up there, which will also hurt, and he canceled trips for many customers over the last two months, giving them full refunds. He said it’s been a devastating winter for everyone in Greenville, including the lodges.
Northern Outdoors offers rental camps and rooms in the lodge, guided trips including rafting, and has a wonderful restaurant and brewery. Russell said his number of winter customers decreased by 35 percent, his second worst winter ever. Business at the restaurant and brewery, which Russ said is a “huge part of their winter business,” was down 70 percent.
The winter of 2012, another unusual one, was the worst ever at Northern Outdoors, and the fact that he’s suffered two bad winters out of the last five has led Russ to plan a reduction in advertising and staff for next winter. He’ll try to make up some of that lost business in the fall.
I read a news story by Deirdre Fleming in late February in which Anne Darling, manager of the Baxter Park Inn in Millinocket, said the winter was “horrible. Most of our employees who we had to lay off had to go on unemployment.”
I probably don’t have to tell you that jobs in the Millinocket area are scarce. Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, told Fleming, “It’s pretty grim right now. It’s really a mess. It’s a shame.”
Even our Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife suffered, with snowmobile registrations down significantly from last winter.
Another business in the Forks, Back Country Expeditions, is going out of business. I fear many businesses will follow, unable to make up for this terrible winter. All over western, northern, and eastern Maine, those who depend on ice, snow, and outdoor winter activities, were — well — devastated this winter.
On May 1, Down East Books will publish a book I wrote about Maine sporting camps. It’s a sad story, really. We’ve gone from over 300 sporting camps to about three dozen of the traditional camps, with a lodge serving food and cabins for sleeping. Many went out of business when the traditional outdoor activities — especially deer hunting and fishing — deteriorated. And those that survived often did so by staying open in the winter and catering to cross-country skiers and snowmobilers. I haven’t dared to ask some of them how they did this winter. You can guess.
Don Kleiner of the Maine Professional Guides Association told legislators last week that 14 of the 16 sporting camps in Washington County are for sale.
Dreadful news, for sure. And a dreadful, devastating winter.