Farm manager Hillary Knight stands in front of the cross-country skiing center and nearly snowless, flooded fields at Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Shawn Norton remembers when winter in Maine meant riding his snowmobile or ice fishing on China Lake nearly every day from January through March.

Growing up in central Maine, he’d be on his sled with the first major snowfall, sometimes in late November, and out on the lake as soon as the ice was safe, often in early December.

But warmer, wetter winters have disrupted outdoor activities and businesses that depend on snow, ice and consistently cold temperatures, including Jack Traps Ice Fishing Outfitters, the Monmouth company that Norton has managed since 2012 and purchased in 2019.

“I spent the winter on a snowmobile when I was a kid,” said Norton, 36. “Now, you’re lucky to get three or four weeks.”

Safe ice – at least 4 inches – has formed so late in recent years, and been so short-lived, that wholesale orders for his company’s fishing traps are down this year because retailers still had inventory leftover from last year, he said. Sales online and at his Monmouth shop have dried up since the Christmas rush.

“Once Christmas is over, if you don’t get the weather, nobody’s coming in,” Norton said. “Last winter we went most of January without safe ice. If it wasn’t for one really cold week we had at the end of January, we wouldn’t have had a season at all.”


Now, Norton has his hopes pinned on weather forecasts predicting another deep freeze later this month, but he worries about the long-term impacts of warming temperatures on Maine’s iconic winter recreational and commercial activities, and the wider economy they help support.

Indeed, it’s getting harder for many winter operations to be profitable, including snowplowing services, logging companies and farms that maintain cross-country skiing trails. And that also means lost revenue for gas stations, convenience stores, hotels, short-term rentals, restaurants and other businesses that benefit from cold-weather activities.

“There are a lot of businesses in Maine that rely on people getting outdoors in the winter,” Norton said. “Ice fishing is a big deal for general stores around the state. The places selling gas, food and drinks. It brings people to parts of the state they wouldn’t see otherwise.”


Weather in Maine is getting warmer overall. Temperatures have risen about 3.5 degrees since the start of the 20th century, said Derek Schroeter, meteorologist and climate program manager at the National Weather Service in Gray.

Moreover, Schroeter said, winter temperatures have increased twice as fast as summer temperatures.


“In the language of global warming and climate change, it’s easier to make cold things less cold,” he said. “In winter in Maine, we’re having fewer cold days and more warm nights.”

In 1980, Maine averaged 40 days per year in the winter when the low temperature was zero or below, he said. By 2020, Maine averaged 20 days per year in the winter when the low temperature was zero or below.

Winter weather also brings longer stretches of warm temperatures and shifts to cold temperatures that seem more intense, he said. Another snow-to-rain event is expected across much of Maine Saturday, followed by an Arctic air mass that is forecasted to bring colder temperatures Wednesday through Jan. 25.

And while snowfall totals vary year to year, showing little or no trend, the annual snow depth, or buildup, has decreased 20%, or 2.3 inches, since 1895, Schroeter said.

“We’re seeing milder winters overall,” he said.

A snowmobile used to groom cross-country skiing trails sits in mud at Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer



While lake ice is thickening in northern Maine, it’s still unsafe in central and southern areas of the state, said Mark Latti, spokesman for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Big lakes like Sebago and Moosehead still have open water, he said, as do the Kennebec River and Merrymeeting Bay, so smelting camps are unable to put out shacks they rent to smelt fishermen.

“That was the same for much of last year,” Latti said.

Snowmobile sales and rental companies are dealing with nonexistent or spotty snow and ice and trail washouts caused by the Dec. 18 storm that resulted in widespread flooding and damage across Maine.

“We’ve had later starts the past three years,” said Justin Evans, manager of Mountain View Adventures, a snowmobile rental outfit in Rangeley. “But it’s kind of different here than in southern Maine. We stay cold enough to make the most of the season through February and March.”

Maine’s expanding mud season forced Gavin McLain, co-owner of CTL Land Management in Washington, to move his company’s logging operation inland from the Midcoast to northern Oxford County last year.


But even there, he said, extreme weather patterns, warmer temperatures and more rain have created a perpetual mud season that makes it more difficult to harvest trees year round despite modern heavy equipment. The Dec. 18 storm washed out a bridge on Route 16 and added a 40-mile detour that greatly increased the cost of each load of wood.

“We’ve been struggling with wet conditions for over a year now,” McLain said. “The machinery will go and get the job done no matter what. But it’s important to maintain water quality of nearby streams, so it forces us to stop. That has a tremendous ripple effect for the families of our employees and the logging industry.”

When logging stops, McLain looks for other land-clearing contracts. Some of his loggers find work elsewhere. Each time logging resumes, he hopes they return, especially in an economy with high demand for skilled and dependable workers. He worries that some day they won’t.

“It’s reducing logging capacity in Maine and we’re watching our bottom line disappear,” McLain said.

Ben Pasquale, of Pasquale’s Property Service in South Portland, says less snow and more rain in recent years have made it challenging to provide plowing services.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


With fewer measurable snowstorms, some plowing companies have changed their billing strategy, charging for a minimum number of storms or a flat rate for the season. It’s the only way they can stay in business and still cover operating costs, including fuel, insurance, payroll and maintenance of trucks that cost $75,000 to $100,000.


“It’s slowly gotten worse over the last five years,” said Ben Pasquale, who has operated Pasquale’s Property Service in South Portland for 25 years.

“We used to say, have your plows ready for Nov. 15 and put them away April 15,” he said. “But we just had our first snowstorm this week, and it’s almost gone with yesterday’s rain, and there’s more rain coming later this week.”

On the upside, Pasquale said, warmer weather has allowed him to extend his company’s landscaping business from March through December, when it used to run from May through November.

“I can keep my guys longer, pay them through the end of the year and bring them back in March,” he said. “You have to be flexible and go where the work is, but I may not continue snowplowing if it doesn’t make sense anymore.”


Last Sunday’s storm dropped 14 inches of snow across 15 miles of cross-country skiing trails at Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook. It’s one of several farms in Maine that augment winter income by maintaining cross-country skiing trails and equipment that visitors can use for a fee.


“It was beautiful,” said Hillary Knight, farm manager. “We groomed about half the trails and left the other half for backcountry skiing and snowshoeing.”

The farm welcomed 30 skiers Monday and 20 skiers Tuesday, when the weather started to turn. By Wednesday morning the snow was gone.

“I woke up to see it raining and it’s still raining,” Knight said Wednesday afternoon, when it was about 50 degrees, intermittently sunny and sprinkling.

Since 2020, Smiling Hill has struggled to maintain its skiing operation, with snowstorms too often followed by rain, Knight said. It’s an important resource that attracts visitors to the dairy farm’s store in the offseason and helps pay the bills through the winter.

“We get excited when snow is in the forecast, do a little snow dance and hope customers come with it,” she said.

Knight remembers better years when the trails opened right after Thanksgiving and stayed open through mid-March.

“We got glorious amounts of snow in 2015 and 2016,” she said. “This is probably the new normal, but I hope it’s just a weather pattern that breaks.”

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