TOWNSHIP 4, RANGE 7 — As the group of four snowmobilers shut off their engines deep in the woods of northern Maine, national news from five months earlier caught up with them fast. At a crossroads of two major trails, they learned from the local snowmobile club president that they were just outside the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

In fact, Alex Antoninich of Putnam, Rhode Island, and his three friends had just driven through the national monument without knowing it – even though they’re regulars in this part of Maine.

“We ride up here every weekend,” said Norman Ricci of Providence, Rhode Island. “Or we try to. We find there’s consistent snow up here. It would have been terrible if (Roxanne Quimby) had blocked off everything.”

The Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument – 87,500 acres that make up one of the newest wilderness parks in the National Park Service system – was designated by President Obama last summer. The decision ended years of speculation over whether the land here purchased by Quimby would be turned into a national park – and the snowmobile trails closed.

When Lucas St. Clair, Quimby’s son, took over Elliotsville Plantation Inc., Quimby’s land-management organization, he opened up 40,000 acres to snowmobiling in 2013. Three years later, St. Clair transferred the 87,500 acres to the federal government with the snowmobile trails written into the land deeds.

Yet snowmobilers traveling to this region of Maine from as far away as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio don’t know they’re traveling through a national monument wilderness park.

St. Clair said signs will be added to the national monument with help from Elliotsville Plantation, which created a $20 million endowment to assist in maintaining the monument.

But on Jan. 28, snowmobilers riding Maine’s major snowmobile artery – the Interconnected Trail System 85 (or ITS 85) – did not know it ran in and out of the monument, and connected to the loop trail in the monument that features spectacular views of Mt. Katahdin.

The Katahdin View Loop is maintained by the Bowlin, Matagamon, Shin Pond Snowmobile Club, which grooms 125 miles of trails in the region. It’s a short loop with rolling, wide trails and far-reaching views.

As Dexter Kancer and Eric Miller, both of Grantham, New Hampshire, turned their sleds along the loop trail to look to the west toward Katahdin, they were amazed to hear they were in a national monument.

The two riders came to ride in the region specifically for the mountain views and weren’t disappointed. Yet they didn’t know they were in a federal park.

“It’s my first time up this way. The whole ride up there were more views, the best we’ve seen,” Kancer said. “I’m really impressed. It’s cool to know the trails run through the monument. It’s nice they were kept open.”

Further along ITS 114, which runs just outside the monument, small groups zip over the 160-foot snowmobile bridge that spans the Seboeis River. Soon after they’re surrounded by trees and back inside the monument boundary. But it’s impossible to tell.

“People have no idea where the monument is. How would they without any signs?” said Les Hill, president of the Bowlin, Matagamon, Shin Pond Snowmobile Club.

Other than blue paint blazes on trees in the woods and small yellow signs tacked to trees, there’s no indication riders are back inside the National Park Service unit. At 30 or 40 mph, they’re moving too fast to see these small clues.

At the crossroads where ITS 114 connects with ITS 85, one of the major arteries in the state’s trail system, riders are either just leaving or entering the national monument.

Local rider Carlene Duffy, who stopped here with her group, said she knew roughly where the national monument was in this wild, big-woods region – but she didn’t know trails ran through it. “It’s good sleds can go through,” said Duffy of Patten. “It’s a beautiful piece of land. I hope we all can enjoy it.”

The major trails here are critical to the state’s vast snowmobile trail network. Cutting through the monument in three places, ITS 85 runs across a major part of Maine – from Augusta north to Greenville, then east to Millinocket and on up to Fort Kent.

Had Quimby closed the monument land to snowmobiles as she originally planned after first buying the land, this trail would have been cut off. “You can’t get there from here,” Hill said. “It would have been devastating if we couldn’t go through the monument.”

Formed 30 years ago, the Bowlin, Matagamon, Shin Pond Snowmobile Club maintains 125 miles of trails in the region north of Millinocket, and now also in the monument. Having well-maintained trails are vital to the business snowmobiling brings to the region. Hill said the club plans to keep the trails in good shape to keep drawing riders from across the eastern United States.

“Look at those snowmobiles lined up out there, costing $8,000 to $12,000,” Hill said with a look to dozens of sleds at Shin Pond Village. “And look at all those trailers. They’re coming from Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania. Last week, there were riders from Michigan and Ohio. They’re not buying this equipment unless they’re planning to ride. Some are riding three to four days from place to place.”

As snowmobilers Chris and Robin Cucinotta of North Berwick fueled up at Shin Pond Village, they also were learning for the first time of the trails cutting through the monument. The Cucinottas, who bought a second home nearby specifically to ride in the region, were relieved.

“No kidding?” Chris Cucinotta said. “I assumed there were not going to be trails through (the national monument). We were concerned we wouldn’t be able to go snowmobiling on many of the same trails.”

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or:

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Twitter: FlemingPph