Kelsey Hilton rides Acadia as she pulls skier Charlie Simpson around the final corner and over the last jump during a February 2019 skijoring competition at Eaton Mountain during Somerset SnowFest in Skowhegan. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

SKOWHEGAN — Somerset SnowFest is on this year, with outdoor activities scheduled throughout the week and organized so that people may participate safely despite the pandemic. The way spectators view race events, however, will be different.

“This year, more than ever, we felt that SnowFest was an absolute need in our community because we’ve all felt the impacts of the pandemic, and we just need something to look forward to,” said Kristina Cannon, executive director of Main Street Skowhegan. “It was important for us to find ways to host the festival again this year, and we’re pleased to offer more than a dozen outdoor activities for people to enjoy safely, and within COVID guidelines.”

On Sunday the festival, sponsored by Hight Family of Dealerships, Lake George Regional Park and Main Street Skowhegan, begins with an ice fishing derby at Lake George Regional Park East and a cross-country ski meetup and scavenger hunt at the Lakewood Golf Course in Madison.

Preregistration is required for all activities in order to abide by COVID-19 guidelines. The number of spectators at the downhill kayak race and box sled race is limited, and Skijor Skowhegan is closed to the general public, though a Facebook livestream is available to watch all three.

Cannon said there were several conversations about whether or not to move forward with hosting the event, given the pandemic and safety guidelines that must be met. She said the decision was made to proceed after seeing success in Skowhegan Outdoors activities which encourage the community to get outside.

Skowhegan Outdoors is a project of Main Street Skowhegan.

“We’ve been successful in hosting Skowhegan Outdoors activities, and since SnowFest activities are largely outside and focused on outdoor recreation, we figured it wasn’t much different,” Cannon said. “Truly, it’s a week of outdoor activities that are all promoted as a greater festival. Any activity that wasn’t outside we decided to forgo this year, to mitigate any risk.”

She added that the committee planning the activities met to go over rules and regulations to ensure everyone was aware of what is required and how to safely host events. If events could not follow protocol, they were removed from the schedule.

Cross-country skier Amy Rowbottom of the Crooked Face Creamery team slides through a turn during a March 2020 Somerset SnowFest race at Lake George Regional Park in Skowhegan. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file Buy this Photo

One of the measures taken was requiring all participants to preregister for all activities to manage numbers and by not allowing spectators at certain activities.

“This is unfortunate, but necessary,” Cannon said.

Skijor Skowhegan, now in its third year, has 37 teams competing for over $1,500 in prizes underwritten by Franklin Savings Bank and is presented by Baxter Brewing. Other partners for the event include Sugarloaf; Hemphill’s Horses, Feed and Saddlery; and NewGen Powerline Construction.

Skijoring was introduced to SnowFest in 2019 and is the only equestrian skijoring race in the Northeast and Maine’s first. Skijoring is a team time-trial race in which a horse and rider pull a snowboarder or alpine skier down a 1,000-foot track of gates and jumps. This year, Skijoring will be held at Skowhegan State Fairgrounds and a livestream link will be shared closer to the Feb. 27 event, which is scheduled to run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. with the livestream beginning around 11:45 a.m.

The term “skijoring” is derived from the Norwegian word for “ski driving.” It is a popular sport in Scandinavian countries, Cannon said in 2019. It is also popular in the Western United States.

In years past, competitors came from all over the state as well as neighboring states. Cannon said on Friday that though there were some out-of-state registrations, they were turned away.

“Inter-state competitions are not allowed, so no one from out of state can participate,” Cannon said. “We hope they’ll come back next year.”

“While we know SnowFest will look different this year, we hope that it gives people something to do that’s safe and outside and will serve as a fun pastime for all involved,” Cannon said. “Getting outside and enjoying some fresh air is the best we can offer everyone right now. Though the number of participants will be lower, and we can’t bring people from out of state to Skowhegan, we hope our local businesses will still see a boost from people who come to the area for the festival.”

Lake George Regional Park will host several activities on the lake and on their expanded trail network. On Feb. 27, a downhill kayak race is scheduled followed by a winter biathlon on Feb. 28, sponsored by Redington-Fairview General Hospital. The course will accommodate cross-country skiing and fat biking.

A full list of events and livestream viewing times can be found at somersetsnowfest.org.

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