A little love letter to Fort Kent

Fort Kent – you must really want to go there…

In our case, my wife had two Democratic Party meetings in Fort Kent last Friday evening and again on Saturday afternoon, plus the Can Am Crown sled dog races were Saturday and skijoring races Sunday, plus a Sunday dinner invitation from friends in Allagash – about 40 miles west of Ft. Kent.

So we had plenty of incentive to drive some 300 miles from our Midcoast home up through the raw backbone of the center of the state to a town that’s a snowball’s toss away from Clair, New Brunswick.

Secretly, there was another attraction to the area. The Crown of Maine has broken its all-time snowfall record already this year, with some 200 inches (16  feet) calibrated so far. And it’s just the beginning of March, which tends to be pretty snowy in these parts. This is, for Fort Kent and Allagash, a winter for the ages.

Fort Kent street, near downtown.

My wife’s first meeting was at the University of Main Fort Kent, which is saddled with the oft-lampooned domain name of umfk.edu. It doesn’t easily roll off the tongue or steer clear of various off-color alterations. But it’s a prosperous-looking and well-planned campus, home to some 1500 students, with some emphasis on Franco-American cultural studies. After the meeting, we were off to a local pub for some supper. Jammed to the gills and noisy, but congenial and as cheerful as you could want with the kind of winter they were having. A note to anyone interested in moving to Fort Kent to open a pub: Do it. The town – a college town at that – is woefully short of eateries and drinkeries.

Off to the dogs…

On Saturday morning, mushers and their sled dogs competed in the three different events – 30 miles, 100 miles and 250 miles, all with staggered starts to keep competing teams from bashing into each other. The 250 mile race – an overnighter with mandatory layovers – is a qualifier for Alaska’s Iditarod. You can read more about it here, or just Google it. It’s quite a spectacle. Some pix here, from the very start of the races, on Rte. 1 downtown Fort Kent —

(all photos in this post courtesy of Carla White)

But I was affected by more than just the intrigue of the sled dog races. Soon enough, after chatting with various people around town, I discovered that “Canadian Nice” suffuses the people in the Crown of Maine, as well Canadians just to the north. It’s hard not to feel a warm glow from their friendliness and good cheer. Fort Kent has to be one of the happiest towns in the whole state, and I was glad to join it for a couple of days and get the vibe.

Route 11 – are you kidding me?

But there’s a bit of horror lurking beneath the surface of a trip to Fort Kent. It’s called Route 11, 106 miles of shock absorber hell from Sherman on I-95 all the way north. There are frost heaves all over the state this time of year, but the absolute mother lode of stomach-churning frost heaves is Route 11, at least the first 40 miles of it or so. I swear, at times we were airborne, hoping for a safe landing. We must have succeeded, because we’re both safely home now, and the photos above are proof that we traveled this “road” twice. I expect political pressure needs to be brought against the D.O.T to make it a safe road again, but until that happens, beware. Or take I-95 to Houlton and then Rte 1 north through Presque Isle. It’s a little longer, but a small price to pay for keeping your stomach out of your throat.

Sunday dinner in Allagash

At the confluence of the Allagash River and the St. John River is the peaceful little village of Allagash, about as far as you can go in Maine from down here and still be on pavement. We had a terrific spaghetti dinner with friends – one of whom had read my novel Place and wanted to chat about it – a glass of wine, apple pie, great conversation. The subject came up of the complete lack of trailers or single wides or double-wides in this part of the world. My wife and I had noticed that as well.

Simple: Their flat roofs can’t handle the snow load. Our host had been in the area for some 64 years and claimed he’d never seen so much snow. And the weather record books back him up. No trailers.

Great experience, wonderful people, two sunny days that weren’t frigid, and the thrill ride of Route 11. Full weekend.

Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.