RANGELEY — The gnomes of western Maine are simple creatures that don’t require much: A simple, sturdy A-frame home and a tree to call their own near their gnome friends.
Really, we all could take a page from the gnome’s book.
And to those who think these hard-working woodland folk dress in green-and-black checkered wool shirts and logging boots, consider the gnomes of Rangeley. These tiny tinkers are not only fashionable, they’re bold and daring in their attire, braving the cold Maine woods in purple sleeveless dresses, salmon-colored ball gowns and knickers.
Some even wear feather boas in place of scarves.
At the Rangeley Lakes Trail Center the 15 resident gnomes prove why these eccentric tree dwellers intrigue locals.
“The children’s comments are great. Some come in and ask, ‘How do they cook? It doesn’t look like there is a kitchen in there,'” said trail center director Beth Flynn. “As they get older they lose that magic piece. But even the adults like finding the gnomes.”
The gnomes reside in simple, diminutive wood huts affixed to trees throughout the trail center’s forestland. Camouflaged as their homes are in the woods, skiers and snowshoers must bushwhack off trail to find the gnome huts.
In the summer hikers and mountain bikers can search for them.
“We were going to cut paths to them and Marty (Velishka) said, ‘No, that’s the point. People must find them,’ ” Flynn said.
One of the nice things about gnomes you realize immediately during this hunt: They come in many different shapes and colors, not unlike us, really. Then there is their wild fashion sense that is varied and fun.
One Rangeley gnome looks like a green dragon, another looks like a cross between a mud wrestler and a fancy Vegas show girl. All of them appear friendly and alert.
And no matter what time of day you look in on them, they never seem to be napping. But maybe gnomes sleep with their eyes open.
The Rangeley Lakes Cross Country Ski Club runs the trail center on Saddleback Mountain, where the 19-year-old club offers 40 kilometers of Nordic trails, 15 kilometers of snowshoe trails, and a cafe and rental shop in their large yurt.
The volunteer-run organization also became the annual host for the Maine State Championship Snowshoe Race three years ago. This year’s qualifier for the national event in Wisconsin will be held at the trail center Feb. 8.
And yet, off in the wilds of the western mountains as they are, the ski club needed to find a unique way to lure Maine outdoor fans to their rolling, scenic stretch of mountainside.
Flynn knew the town’s school art teacher was industrious and creative, and had produced award-winning high school artists. So Flynn and Rangeley art teacher Sonja Johnson teamed up, asked Johnson’s students to create gnomes, and then invited the gnomes to live at the trail center.
“The kids were pretty excited to create something that would be viewed many times over,” said Johnson, who teaches grades 6 to 12. “A number of them have gone up to the trails to find the character they created. They enjoy knowing they’re viewed by other people. Any time we can teach a curriculum in a way that we give back to the community, we do.”
Other regulars at the trail center got behind the idea, including Velishka, who happens to be a retired home builder.
“These are homes, just small ones,” Velishka said. “The branches on the roofs are great. I love those reaching branches.”
So the Center opened its doors to the gnomes, and Velishka built homes with small doors the gnomes could open to the public. Air tight and small enough to affix to a tree, the hidden gnome homes are only slighter larger than the center’s more than 60 bird houses.
But unlike the resident birds who summer there, the gnomes don’t migrate before winter. They are year-round Rangeley residents.
“We have a short winter season, 90 days. We really wanted to get kids up here,” Flynn said. “When you’re out on the trails, you don’t hear anything. It feels remote. We are remote.”