The weather so far this year has made for what people here call an "open winter." The snowfall has been next to unmeasurable, and the sun has been out almost every day.Most winters in Aroostook County are the price people pay for northern Maine's beautiful summers. They are cold, windy and, usually, burdened with 160 inches or so of snow over a season. Drifts suddenly turn county roads into tunnels of white nothingness, and when the winds swirl snow off the potato fields a driver can find himself temporarily blinded in a "white-out" and in big trouble. The police chief of Fort Fairfield was hit by a car and seriously injured last winter while directing traffic during one.
Aroostook is the largest county east of the Mississippi. With an area of 6,805 square miles. It is only 1,000 square miles smaller than the state of New Jersey. With a population of just over 100,000, it is at the same time one of the most sparsely settled corners of the United States. Weekly newspapers seem to flourish in such regions, perhaps because local towns still nourish a spirit of rivalry with one another. Three of them in Aroostook County, The Aroostook Republican of Caribou, The Aroostook Star-Herald of Presque Isle and The Houlton Pioneer, are owned by the only daily paper that circulates here, The Bangor Daily News.
The Houlton Pioneer, in a front page legend under its masthead, proclaims itself "the only paper in the world interested in Houlton, Maine."
Perhaps the most interesting paper in the county is The Fort Fairfield Review, edited by 71-year-old King Harvey, who has been with the Review for 49 years.
Harvey writes a weekly column of opinion, humor and news called "Nothing of Importance" under the pseudonym Tom E. Rott. Among Harvey's several dislikes is Richard M. Nixon. He decided some years ago that Nixon was so unworthy of respect that he stripped his surname of its capital letter, and the former president appears in the Review with a small "n."
Maine will have a moose season this fall for the first time since 1935, but hunters will have to count on a bit of luck even before setting out for the woods. Only 700 moose permits will be issued, and the names of the lucky 700 hunters will be drawn in a July lottery.
The Fish and Wildlife Department puts Maine's moose population at between 16,000 and 20,000, most of them in Aroostook and other remote areas. Officials decided to allow a one moose-per-permit hunt for six days in September because, as one said, "the moose are a renewable resource." "Recently renewed moose weigh between 200 and 300 pounds, while an adult can weight 1,500 pounds or more.
Moose hunting differs from other stalking sports in one important way: the moose hunter with the voice and inclination for it can make his quarry come to him. Moose callers who have only been able to practice for the sociability of getting together with the animals for 45 years will now have a chance to test their skill truly.
The Aroostook Valley Country Club in Fort Fairfield is binational. The parking lot and pro shop are in Maine. The clubhouse and all 18 holes are in Canada.
Golfers don't need any identification to cross the border and play a round, but if they have a bad hook they'll cross and recross the border several times, and take several strokes for hitting out-of-bounds into the United States.
For years, people have unsuccessfully sought a profitable crop to rotate with potatoes on Aroostook's fields. The latest attempt was sabotaged by grackles, starlings and blackbirds, which devoured an experimental 16-acre sunflower seed crop in Presque Isle.
The seeds were being grown for livestock feed, not bird food. Experimenters intend to try again, since the sunflowers produced as planned, but new steps will be taken to fend off the birds.
Each summer, Aroostook Countians treat themselves to annual fairs -- the Fort Fairfield Potato Blossom Festival, Houlton's Potato Feast and the Northern Maine Fair in Presque Isle, to name a few -- but Maine traditionally has taken what can only be described as an ultra-conservative approach to tourism. Aroostook has been particularly unenthusiastic about selling itself as a vacationland.
An old hostility toward tourism is giving way under economic pressures, however, and some people are talking of an annual event to commemorate the first transatlantic balloon flight, which began in Presque Isle last August. The crew of Double Eagle II picked a potato field here as a launching pad because of the favorable winds and because Aroostook is as close to Europe as you can get without leaving the United States.
Now, there is some talk of a "Great Maine Balloon Race" to make Presque Isle into an East Coast capital of ballooning.
Ballooning was never a Maine sport, but the people here have long taken their games seriously. One of Aroostook's legendary heroes is John R. Braden, who was a horse. A Presque Isle movie theater is named for Braden and the story has it that after he had justified the faith Aroostook bettors placed in him over and over, his backers were so grateful they took him to dinner in the banquet room of a Presque Isle hotel.
Aroostook is at the end of every sort of communications link. Rail service has fallen into all but terminal disuse in Maine, and the high-speed Canadain trains that cross the state between Quebec and New Brunswick only make token stops here.
When airline deregulation came in, Aroostook's jet service stopped altogether. Delta Airlines cut its service, and now the only passenger flights to Presque Isle are flown by small Bar Harbour Airlines planes.
The interstate highway system stops at Houlton, 48 miles from Presque Isle, and there is apprehension in Aroostook that if trucking is deregulated, the isolated towns and cities will seem even more like the Back of Beyond.