The Maine Way: Aroostook County
The 2011 Biathlon World Cup comes to Aroostook County Maine starting Feb. 6.
This is a huge sport in Europe and will be televised into millions, yes millions of European homes. Bill McKibben in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Yankee Magazine covered this story (below) on Aroostook county, Maine becoming the Biathlon World Cup capital of the United States. See 2011 Biathlon World Cup event details and listen to recent NPR coverage on All Things Considered podcast Rural Maine County Hosts Biathlon World Cup.
If you’ve just finished a 20-kilometer cross-country ski race, you’re likely to be hungry. (There’s just something about the fresh air, not to mention the 20 kilometers.)
Usually at the end of a race there’s a big stack of PowerBars, which technically fit the definition of food, in that they have calories. But in Madawaska, Maine, when you cross the finish line and stagger inside the lodge, a woman hands you a bowl of chicken stew and a–what is this? “It’s a ploye,” she explains: an Acadian buckwheat pancake, apparently a staple of Madawaska cooking.
Madawaska is a long ways away. If you’re at the southern tip of Maine, you’re closer to Philadelphia. But the physical distance is only half of it. I’ve lived in New England most of my life, and I’d never even heard of a ploye, which everyone in this part of Maine apparently eats at each meal. (It looks just like that teff-flour pancake, injera, that they serve at Ethiopian restaurants. Madawaska is, in some sense, farther away from, say, cosmopolitan Boston than is Addis Ababa.) For the record, ployes are delicious.
The distance–physical and cultural–between far northern Maine and the rest of the country matters in many ways, not the least of which is that “economic development” as it’s usually understood has never really worked very well in Aroostook County. In recent years its population has declined, and the remaining industries offer no guarantees. Madawaska, for instance, is dominated by a huge paper mill, which last winter temporarily laid off more than 500 of its 700 employees in the face of slackening demand. It’s not easy to convince, say, some computer company to shut down its Phoenix plant and move the facility to the St. John River Valley; the roads aren’t very good, the labor force isn’t trained for high-tech. People earn $26,000 a year on average here–against a national average of $36,000. Almost a fifth live in poverty.
So what do you do? One possibility: pursue economic and community development through … Nordic skiing.
This series of essays–titled (a little grandly) “How New England Can Change the World”–will explore some of the ideas emerging from this region that challenge the conventional view of the future. They won’t be about how we can build more suburbs, or make ever-larger amounts of money. Instead, they’ll focus on how we can make use of what’s close at hand, in order to thrive, or at least cope gracefully, in a world that both economically and environmentally may be harder to deal with than the one we’re used to. They’ll describe how the DNA of this particular place may be useful in showing others how to make the most of what they’ve got.
Which explains why I’m devouring my ploye so happily. A few years ago there was no ski lodge in Madawaska; the local volunteers hadn’t yet gotten together to pool their money and their talent and their time to build this nifty clubhouse. In fact, there wasn’t all that much skiing left anywhere in northern Maine.