A skier attempts to land after a jump Saturday during the sixth annual Skijor Skowhegan competition at the Skowhegan State Fairgrounds. Jake Freudberg/Morning Sentinel

SKOWHEGAN — The cold wasn’t going to stop Heather Beane from watching dozens of skiers pulled by horses fly over jumps and sometimes land on their faces.

“It’s very out of the ordinary that we all brave the cold on this day,” said Beane, of Solon, “for a sport that is basically all made up.”

Beane and her two daughters, all bundled up, were at the Skowhegan State Fairgrounds to watch Beane’s boyfriend, Jeremiah, compete in the sixth annual Skijor Skowhegan competition.

They were among thousands Saturday who turned out to the fairgrounds for the race, which has grown into a unique, yearly tradition.

Skijoring consists of a time trial race in which a horse and rider pull a skier or snowboarder down a groomed track of jumps, gates and other obstacles. Imagine a wintry version of water skiing, with a horse replacing the boat and snow replacing the water.

The sport originated in Scandinavian countries, but has grown in popularity in some parts of the U.S. In Maine, there are now races in Skowhegan, Topsham and Bangor.

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It has been one of the main draws of the Somerset SnowFest since the Skowhegan-based festival began in 2019. This year, the competition was the flagship event to cap off a week full of wintery activities organized by Main Street Skowhegan and Lake George Regional Park. Several local businesses also sponsored events.

Organizers said the festival was expected to draw 3,000 to 4,000 people throughout the week, with skijoring accounting for most of that turnout. It’s an annual boost for local businesses during an otherwise slower time of the year, said Kristina Cannon, president and CEO of Main Street Skowhegan.

Molly Thornton, with horse Amber, after racing Saturday during the sixth annual Skijor Skowhegan competition at the Skowhegan State Fairgrounds. Jake Freudberg/Morning Sentinel

A few balmy days in February and an overall lack of snowfall this winter in Maine forced organizers to cancel or change some events during the week, but most of the scheduled activities went on as planned.

And skijoring may have snuck in just in time, before Mother Nature gives up entirely on this winter: Temperatures in Skowhegan may reach the mid-50s next week, according to National Weather Service forecasts.

Down on the track, Mary Haley, who started the event in 2019 and has since served as race director, said the lack of snowfall this winter did not affect racing conditions. The infield of the track was plowed, which made plenty of large piles of snow for a groomer to use to build the track and jumps.

“Actually, it’s really good,” Haley said. “We don’t need as much snow as you think.”

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A skier flies over a jump during a time trial race Saturday during the sixth annual Skijor Skowhegan competition at the Skowhegan State Fairgrounds. Jake Freudberg/Morning Sentinel

The races kicked off at 11 a.m. and continued all afternoon, with racers in various divisions competing for cash prizes. The competition began with the “pro” division, which was for more confident skiers and faster horses, according to Haley.

Though all of the approximately 45 competitors were from New England, Haley said, the spectator parking lot included license plates from as far away as Virginia, South Carolina and New Brunswick, Canada.

Despite the cold temperatures, made worse by a steady, blustery wind, Haley said it was warmer on Saturday than at last year’s event. Spectators warmed up with hot chocolate, burritos, hot blueberry crisp — and of course, a beer or two — from local vendors.

“It’s cold,” said Molly Thornton of Burnham as she brought her horse Amber off the track after racing. “But that’s fine. What else is there to do in central Maine?”

Alice Callahan, 24, of Scarborough, said it was her first year competing. Already a skier, last year she met her racing partner, Hannah Novaria, who has jockeyed horses in other skijoring competitions, and joined the team.

Spectators watch as racers fly by Saturday during the sixth annual Skijor Skowhegan competition at the Skowhegan State Fairgrounds. Jake Freudberg/Morning Sentinel

“It’s gritty,” said Callahan, who was decked out in all things American flag. “You really have got to grip to the rope … I’m in it for the wipeout and the win.”

In the grandstand, which slowly filled as the day went on, spectators cheered as competitors raced by — even more so as several failed to stick their landing and wiped out.

“The things we do to have fun in the winter,” said Beane, laughing.

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