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The 2011 Biathlon World Cup in Aroostook County | How New England Can Save the World

Aspiring athletes from around the country began to converge on the area, attracted by the offer of great coaching and training, plus small stipends to help run the other half of Shepard’s vision: the Healthy Hometowns program, designed to introduce skiing early on as a way to get kids back outdoors in the winter.

“It’s not about developing fast skiers as much as getting kids to appreciate an active outdoor lifestyle,” Shepard notes. They bought a few thousand pairs of skis, which they rented out for nominal sums, and they helped towns across the region plan ski trails and teach the basics. “We want to get them at an age before they start choosing clothes for themselves, when we can still have an effect on their self-image,” says Shepard. “Say, 8 to 13.”

The two halves of the program–elite athletics and teaching chubby kids to ski–may seem far apart, but in fact they’ve proved complementary. In March 2004, for instance, the MWSC managed to lure the Biathlon World Cup to Fort Kent for a four-day event, which was a certifiable Big Deal, given the huge dollars the sport generates in Europe. “It was like asking the Patriots to play a game in some farming town in Bavaria, just because they’d built a stadium,” says Shepard–but it worked.

Twenty thousand spectators came out to cheer–a quarter of the county’s population. More than that, 700 volunteers made the weekend run with both smoothness and charm. “The European athletes loved it, because it was kind of old-school,” Shepard recalls. “I mean, people took the Swedish team to Stockholm, Maine, for a community dinner. The old people were speaking Swedish with them. The French team could talk with the whole Acadian population. One classroom from Presque Isle adopted the Germans–they had all these posters written in German, the names of all the athletes on them. This was like the Olympics coming to Aroostook County.”

The big competition and the many junior championships and the like that followed were a shot in the arm to towns like Fort Kent, where new restaurants and shops opened. But they also helped make skiing real across the region, where all of a sudden people young and old, folks who’d been exposed to the pageantry of the World Cup, began to get excited.

Which brings me back to Madawaska, and the beautiful little ski lodge that went up in 2007. “The races in Fort Kent were a motivating factor,” says club president Doug Cyr. “If they could do it, we could do it.” There’d always been a network of trails on the edge of town, but now people started grooming them a little more carefully and thinking about how they might build a clubhouse.

Not easily: “This town has been in a serious recession for four or five years,” says Cyr. And yet small grants from the MWSC and the state and town were enough to get people going, and soon pledges had topped $120,000. Acadia Federal Credit Union, the local bank, offered a zero-interest loan against those pledges, local lumberyards sold them materials at cost, and people started showing up to do much of the work.

“I’d say only 50 percent of the volunteers were skiers,” notes John Ezzy, a retired insurance salesman who spearheaded the campaign. “Maybe fewer. Jacques doesn’t ski, does he? No? Well then, only about a quarter of the work was done by skiers.”

In fact, as we sit talking in the sunny dining room of the two-story Four Seasons Lodge, we’re surrounded by volunteers helping with the day’s big race, the Acadia FCU Marathon. Most folks have arrived on snowmobiles, and they’ll spread out around the countryside, guarding all the trail crossings to keep racers safe and hand them cups of water as they go by. (And at the bottom of the steepest hill, one will stand with a radar gun, clocking the fastest descent of the day for a special prize.) “It’s been a long time since this community has had something to grab onto,” says Cyr.

Mark Guerrette is one of those race volunteers. His mother is secretary of the ski association and his father is president of the local snowmobile club. “Our family was part of the carpenters who built this,” he says. “Now a lot of folks just come here to sit by the fire. They don’t ski–they just enjoy talking to the other people.” They don’t ski–but they know that the local high school’s Nordic team has now won five state titles, and that local girl Meagan Toussaint is doing well on the international biathlon circuit. In fact, one of her framed jerseys hangs on the wall of the lodge. “Everyone’s happy to see people from the valley getting high honors,” says Guerrette, who’s studying computer and electrical engineering hours south at UMaine Orono.

Down in the ground-floor waxing room, two young guys–Andrew Levesque and Joey Bard–are spreading gluey klister on their skis so they’ll be able to make time on today’s icy trails. “I started skiing in middle school when MWSC came here,” says Levesque. “They were renting skis for $40 a year, and there were coaches.”

“At the time, it was like: Nordic skiing, what’s that?” adds Bard. “The whole image was of going out behind the house with your grandmother.” Now the two of them live in an athletes’ dorm in Caribou, an hour away, with three other skiers. They’re training full-time for a year or two before heading off to ski in college. “It went from out the back door to turning people into athletes,” says Bard.

The two would go on to finish first and second that day, in case you’re keeping score. And to eat a good many ployes in celebration.

Next up: In our March/April issue, Bill McKibben tells how an online neighborhood network in Burlington, Vermont, is bringing people together in new and unexpected ways.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

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