MOUNT DESERT — Craig Roebuck likes to go on winter adventures. A few adventures that he had planned over the last year were canceled or postponed because of COVID-19, so he recently completed one closer to home.
In February, during a particularly precipitation-free stretch of six days, Roebuck cross–country skied the length of the Sunrise Trail from Ellsworth to Ayers. According to the Down East Sunrise Trail website, the trail is 87 miles and is the longest off-road trail on the East Coast Greenway (a 3,000-mile route stretching from Calais to Key West).
For the trip, Roebuck hauled his camping gear and provisions behind him in a retrofitted sled.
“I have done ski treks that were this long, but not camping and bringing my own gear,” said Roebuck, a resident of Otter Creek, whose history includes going through Arctic survival training and working in Antarctica and Greenland.
“Part of the great thing of this local adventure, and how I sold it to my wife, is if I run into any problems, you can pick me up virtually at any road crossing. Or, if I run into trouble, I can bail out in Cherryfield or Machias or Franklin or any of these small towns that were on the way. So, it was accessible if there were problems; safe enough. Yet it was far enough away to really enjoy the Maine woods.”
Other than having to maneuver a few road crossings and places without snow along the trail, Roebuck had a pretty smooth ski.
“The trail was not fully covered; there were bare patches, which caused only a minor inconvenience for me,” he said. Each time he hit one of those patches, the skis had to come off. “I had to pick up the sled and carry it… I started out with probably 90 pounds and I think I finished at like 70 pounds. I learned as I went what I needed and what I didn’t need.”
With that kind of weight behind him, Roebuck averaged 14 miles of skiing each day.
“I was moving an average of seven hours a day between when I left and when I stopped for the day, with, of course, rest breaks,” he said, explaining getting ready for the day and retiring for the night were the busy times of the day. “You get up. It might take three hours, because things go slowly in the cold. Between getting out of bed and breaking camp and making food and getting lunch ready and packing everything up.”
Roebuck chose days that were clear of rain or snow, but February was one of the coldest months this winter. It wasn’t unusual to wake up with the temperature outside his tent at just above zero degrees.
“I kept a really close eye on the weather and when I saw this weather window present itself, I knew I had to go that day,” he said. “Because finding five or six days of good weather in winter here in Maine can be a challenge. The way I looked at it was the deep cold is much easier to deal with than precipitation. So, I didn’t have any problem going out when it was single digits.
“I actually got a sunburn. I got a pretty serious sunburn on my nose because I wasn’t keeping up with the suntan lotion the first couple days. It was just brilliant blue sky and sun those first three days, just beautiful weather.”
The great weather brought out other winter recreators, some of whom stopped to talk with Roebuck. While the Sunrise Trail is popular among cyclists in the summer, the snow in the winter draws out more snowmobilers than skiers, he found. One person he met said they had biked the entire trail, but Roebuck was unable to find anyone else who had traversed the entire trail on skis, even when he reached out to the Sunrise Trail Coalition.
Roebuck, who is now retired, has been cross–country skiing since he was in high school. Although he likes to backpack, canoe and packraft in the summer, he prefers to be where the weather is just a little cooler.
“I’ve paddled and hiked extensively through Alaska and the Northwest Territories,” said Roebuck. “When I started backpacking, I realized I hate sweating.”
Perspiring is something you don’t want to do a lot of when on a winter adventure, he points out. Keeping an adequate water supply is key.
“I had to have a lot of water,” said Roebuck. “I would carry about 3 liters of hot liquid with me during the day to go through…
“Winter camping is really pretty easy. There’s just a couple basic precautions you have to take. One of those precautions is water. Especially between exhaling when you’re skiing — you’re blowing off a lot more water — and if you’re sweating, which you really want to avoid when you’re winter camping.”
Setting up camp while there’s still enough sunlight is another important factor in winter camping. During Roebuck’s trip, the sun set around 5 p.m. each night, so he made sure to stop before that to settle in for the night.
One of the most scenic views he had during the trip was the night he stayed near Schoodic Bog, under Schoodic Mountain.
“It was open because it was a bog so there weren’t a lot of trees,” he said. “The stargazing was just phenomenal on a clear, cold night. You could see the stars and the mountain was right there.”
Along the trail, Roebuck also saw deer, lots of snowshoe hare tracks, old telegraph poles and train ramps that were left after the railroad tracks stopped being used in the mid-80s.
“I did see a bobcat, which was exciting,” he said, adding that he spotted several eagles. “I was kind of surprised because I thought I was far enough inland that I wouldn’t see that many eagles, but I saw maybe four or five pairs.”
With his camera, Roebuck captured what he could along the way, but skiing the trail was his focus.
“In some places it literally went through some people’s backyards,” he said. “It was a nice slice of Downeast Maine that you got to see.”
Even though he had plans to venture back to the Northwest Territories and Canada this year, Roebuck is waiting out the pandemic. Until then, he’ll be keeping in shape by playing in the national park.
“I love living on MDI, being surrounded by the park,” said Roebuck, who moved here in 1999. “The ability to hike and bike and paddle in a national park in your backyard is just wonderful.”