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Maine youths lured back outside with feet on skis

- Associated Press - Sunday, February 13, 2011

STOCKHOLM, Maine | Suzy Anderson recalls the days when everyone skied in Aroostook County. She and her friends skied to school. They wore their ski boots in class and skied after school. They competed in winter carnivals and raced one another on weekends.

Then Ms. Anderson left northern Maine to go to college. When she returned in 1974, the skis had disappeared. They had been replaced by gas-powered snowmobiles.

"None of the kids were skiing. There was no skiing whatsoever. It was because of the snowmobiles," Ms. Anderson said. "Skiing was essentially over."

These days, youths are back on skis, thanks to a $25 million effort over the past 12 years to restore the cross-country skiing tradition in Maine's northernmost county, a rural expanse of rolling hills, wilderness and potato farms that is bigger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. Unlike downhill skiing, cross-country skiing involves zooming across the countryside on longer, skinnier skis, providing an exceptional aerobic workout.

The Maine Winter Sports Center, backed by a charitable trust in Portland, has provided rental skis, equipment and expertise to communities, and has built a pair of world-class biathlon venues dedicated to the Olympic sport that combines cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship.

A pair of World Cup biathlon events, one in Presque Isle and another in Fort Kent, highlight the center's success and inspire local youths, who are excited about getting outdoors and engaged in a healthy activity in the state with New England's highest obesity rates.

Many dream of competing beyond Aroostook County.

"I pretty much can't live without skiing," said Ashley Richards, a sophomore skier at Caribou High School, which last year won the state cross-country championship before skiing off from a state-of-the-art ski building and onto a 4.3-mile system of trails, all created in the past 10 years.

Maine's skiing tradition began in the untamed woods of northern Maine after the Civil War, when Maine looked to Sweden to find hardy souls to settle Aroostook County. In 1870, the first Swedes arrived, settling the town of New Sweden. Several towns, including Stockholm, followed.

The roads they built became impassable in winter in a region that averages 115 inches of snow. So the Swedes skied for transportation, for hunting and for fun, just like they did back home.

"Everybody skied at the time because the roads were closed. It was the only way to get around," said Ralph Ostland, 87, of New Sweden, who recalls skiing's heyday in the 1930s, when the New Sweden Athletic Club was formed. At that time, the hardiest skiers participated in a legendary 180-mile race from Bangor to Caribou.

The winter sports tradition was held in the sparsely populated region for a century, even after mechanized equipment opened up the snow-covered roads about the time of World War II.

Its fall coincided with the arrival of snowmobiles, followed by other modern conveniences that lured youths indoors: television, video games and computers.

Over time, snowmobiling evolved into a massive economic engine in Maine, which has 14,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails that draw visitors from all over New England.

But until the arrival of the Libra Foundation, the charitable trust set up by Elizabeth Noyce, ex-wife of an Intel Corp. founder, there were few groomed skiing trails.

Funded by Libra Foundation, the Maine Winter Sports Center fulfilled the vision of Andy Shepard and Max Cobb, with a mission statement of "creating a model for the sustainability of rural communities through a skiing lifestyle."

Ms. Anderson, co-owner of a general store in Stockholm, credits the Maine Winter Sports Center and Libra Foundation for rescuing Aroostook after the closing of Loring Air Force Base in 1994.

The Maine Winter Sports Center built a biathlon lodge and stadium called the 10th Mountain Center in Fort Kent in 1999, and provided snow-grooming equipment to ski clubs and expertise in laying out trails. It began a rental program to give parents a low-cost alternative to buying skis for their children. Soon there was a second skiing venue, the Nordic Heritage Center, in Presque Isle.

"You get kids going early and it just becomes part of how they move," said Michael Smith, director of healthy hometowns for the Maine Winter Sports Center.

On a recent 15-degree day, more than a dozen miles from Mr. Smith's office, third- and fourth-graders at the New Sweden Consolidated School grabbed skis from a rack and headed outside for physical education class. First- and second-graders, part of an after-school program, joined them on skis.

The youngsters raced along a groomed trail that looped behind the playground, all smiles even when they took an occasional spill. Hooting, hollering and horseplay are typical, and sometimes they engage in a game similar to tag. Teachers make sure they're having fun.

Laurie Spooner, the school's principal, said there's no data to quantify the healthful benefits of the skiing program, but there's anecdotal evidence to suggest it's good for children and educators alike. "We don't have as many disciplinary issues on the days the kids ski," she said.

"They seem to have more energy, more focus as far as learning, if they have the opportunity to be active," said Ernie Easter, who coaches the middle school ski team.

The school provides cross-country skis for use at school for third- through sixth-graders and offers rental skis, at $55 for the season, for other children. Everyone has access, regardless of ability to pay.

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