Once again, kudos are due to the staff and writers of Down East, the magazine of Maine, for putting together such a rockin’ publication. There’s always something new to learn about my home state, and a thorough perusal of each issue can spark road trips, camping adventures, new dining destinations, and even space travel.
Most recently, Down East was the catapult that launched CP and I into a rather uncharacteristic direction – the world of sporting events. Neither of us are very devoted to any particular sport, and with the exception of the Olympics every two years, we spend very little time watching or following them. In the February issue of Down East I read about a sport that is unfamiliar to many Americans but immensely popular in Europe – biathlon. I had watched a bit of it during the recent Winter Olympics, and had been tickled by the seemingly absurd combination of cross-country skiing and precision shooting. The athletes exerted themselves mightily while skiing, then came to a complete stand-still or flung themselves into a prone position to shoot. Shooting of course takes concentration and a steady hand, which I imagine is difficult to attain when your heart is pounding and your breath is tearing through your lungs… Seriously, who invented this sport?!
Apparently people have been hunting from skis since the invention of skis, and there have been ski patrols and skiing regiments in various countries throughout Europe for nearly as long. The odd combination of activities isn’t so odd after all. Organized competitions have been around in Norway since the 1700s, and biathlon has been part of the Olympics in the form of military patrol races for demonstration since the early part of the 20th century. The first Biathlon World Cup was held in Saalfelden, Austria in 1958. The first official Olympic Biathlon competitions were held in 1960 in Squaw Valley, California. The sport is the most popular televised winter sporting event in Europe, and this month those 120 million viewers were watching Aroostook County, ME.
The Down East article revisited the 2004 Biathlon World Cup, which was the last time the event came to Fort Kent, ME. The people of the County, ‘as the vast rural region bordering New Brunswick and Quebec is simply known‘, welcomed the international athletes with enthusiasm – 1,000 people turned out to meet them at Presque Isle’s Northern Maine Regional Airport. The athletes were flabbergast. The biathlon course at 10th Mountain Ski Center in Fort Kent proved to be excellent, and since 2004 there have been several other major competitions held there. This winter the World Cup struck again, bringing 240 athletes from 30 countries for back-to-back events – the 7th and 8th of nine 2011 Biathlon World Cup events, held in Presque Isle at the Nordic Heritage Center (Feb 4-6) and in Fort Kent at 10th Mountain Ski Center (Feb 10-13).
Having now set the stage… I couldn’t possibly pass up the chance to see something so unique! I latched onto the idea. As soon as I finished the article I careened through the house looking for CP, and told him we were absolutely going. He mildly agreed, and admitted later that he didn’t really believe that I would actually organize the trip. Ha! Did I ever! I couldn’t get over how odd and cool the biathlon was, and how weird and coincidental it was that the World Cup was coming to Maine, the state that I incidentally live in. After a bit of a scramble to find a place to stay in the area at such a late date, I informed CP that we had tickets, a reservation, and a travel schedule. I’m probably making more out of this than is necessary, but it seemed so unreal – a biathlon! here! – and outrageous, and I was SO excited.
Fortunately the E.ON IBU World Cup Biathlon lived up to my hype! After a 3-4 hour nap, we got up at 2 a.m. on the morning of Sat, Feb 12th, and drove the 4 1/2 hours to Fort Kent, breaking our record for traveling further north than we had ever been before. The temperature flit back and forth between -5 and -16, and by the time we reached Fort Kent in the brilliant sunshine of 7 o’clock, the temp was hovering around 3 degrees. We merrily downed breakfast sandwiches at Rock’s Family Diner before thoroughly bundling up and catching a bus ride to 10th Mountain Ski Center.
I can honestly say there was excitement in the air. A family sharing our bus already had noise makers and cattle bells, and they said that the competition the day before had been great – although even more frigidly cold! We arrived about an hour before the start of the Men 12.5 km Pursuit, so we had plenty of time to explore and find the perfect vantage point. I was delighted to see that for the most part the athletes would be within sight, disappearing into the back woods of the course for only a few minutes. The shooting range, start line, finish line, and surrounding course could be seen in one sweeping view. There was music playing, and announcers talking about the various feats of the athletes in the last few days.
Then with quite a bit of fanfare and some classical music, the competition began. Not knowing much about the athletes, I didn’t have anyone specific to cheer for, so like many of the spectators, I cheered for everyone. I took a bazillion photographs, running back and forth to better vantage points and generally feeling very excited and happy to be there. It was really quite something – 60 men zipping around on skis, pausing to shoot, and then buzzing off again to blaze through the next circuit of the course or bust through a penalty lap as quick as they could. Lots and lots of activity, and as the leaders started to really race for the finish the excitement became a joyous cacophony of cheering and cow bells and noise makers and shouts of encouragement from fans speaking many different languages. Quite thrilling.
Then there was a bit of downtime between the competitions, time to warm up in the spectators tent and buy souvenirs. CP and I took a moment to agree that coming to watch the biathlon had been the BEST idea EVER. The Women 10 km Pursuit began around noon and it was equally fantastic, although my feet had finally started to get legitimately cold. Within two hours it was all over, and we were bumping down the mountain on the bus, headed for beers and grub in Fort Kent. We were revved up, brimming over with glee. Watching the biathlon was so FUN! The rest of the trip was fun too – meeting locals at Bee Jays Tavern, checking out the ice castle, walking around Fort Kent as it snowed…and finally winding up in the next town over, crashed in a bed at a Christian Life Retreat Center, falling asleep at 8 o’clock in the evening after a long and brilliantly great day.
I couldn’t ask for a better adventure. Driving home the long way the next day, all the way around on Rt. 1, we couldn’t stop talking about the biathlon. What an experience. Thanks again, Down East, for bringing it to my attention. I can’t wait to see what you inspire me to do next! 🙂