RANGELEY — Despite Mother Nature's toughest winter challenge, 157 snowmobilers and a Western Maine community kept a promise to raise money for a little girl and others with cystic fibrosis.
Ayisha LeMont, 5, came from Lewiston with her mother, Michelle, and her grandparents, Teri and Chris Bureau, on Friday night to stay ahead of the blizzard that threatened to shut down most of the state. On Saturday morning, the little girl happily greeted snowmobilers arriving at the Oquossoc Marina, a few miles north of downtown Rangeley.
"I'm an ambassador!” she announced. “I’m going to ride on a snowmobile."
Dressed in her winter snow gear, the little girl chatted with well-wishers and volunteers who registered for the 32-mile sled ride. After the start of the event, she and her family rode to Bald Mountain Camps, where dozens of people gathered for a group picture halfway through the run that raised more than $6,500.
The event began with two goals, according to coordinator Jim Milligan. He said that when he learned about the health challenges facing the little girl from Lewiston, he had to help. Ayisha was born prematurely and with the deadly disease that fills her lungs with fluid. Although expensive medication and hours of daily care help control her symptoms, she could require a lung transplant as symptoms worsen.
Milligan's goal, he said, was to raise money to help fund research that could allow her to have a better and longer life.
Lisa O'Connor, who works for the Northern New England Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, came to Rangeley to meet with Milligan and business owners and volunteers to plan the fundraiser, he said.
Milligan, who has served on the Maine Cystic Fibrosis Foundation board of directors, said Larry Koob, owner of Oquossoc Marine, offered an idea that would generate a great winter turnout. The Guinness Book of World Records' longest snowmobile run was set in 2004, he said. That benchmark was set by 820 snowmobilers in a 29-mile parade around Roseau, Minn. The group embraced the idea of a snowmobile run that would break the record. They blanketed the region with fliers and donation sites, and the community responded. Donations were still arriving Saturday morning.
"We are at $6,000 now, and will keep collecting over the weekend," said Judy Morton, executive director the Chamber of Commerce. "Of course, we will not have 600 riders at $10 apiece, but people want to support this cause."
Those involved in the fundraiser were excited when they heard midweek that the region would be getting some snow, Milligan said. Warmer weather had left the snowpack less than favorable for an enjoyable ride. The past month has been nonstop organizing, Milligan said.
"We've really made this happen is a short period of time, because that's the kind of generous people we have up here" he said. "And I’ll bet Maine can beat Minnesota's record."
Milligan and his volunteers planned the 32-mile course and hoped the first annual challenge would raise enough to cover expenses and donate several thousand dollars to the foundation.
To challenge Minnesota's world record, Milligan said they had scheduled a helicopter to fly over the crowd to conduct an official count and to take photos. Volunteer organizer Steve Philbrick, owner of Bald Mountain Camps, arranged with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to allow participants from other states and Canada to join the event.
Blizzard forecasts squelched the record-breaker goal, but the small town north of Rangeley bustled with traffic early Saturday morning. The hard part, Milligan said, was predicting the number of people who might decide to attend.
"The weather forecast may have deterred some people, and we want everyone to be safe," he said.
At 1 p.m., riders motored across town to the starting point. Local resident Jack McNulty waved the dozens of snowmobilers gathered at the edge of Rangeley Lake onto the trail to Bald Mountain Camps.
As the last of the group joined the mile-long convoy and the hum of the engines slowly faded into the forest, one snowmobiler sat alone, mournfully gazing at his sled. Stu Arnold had come to the event on his brand-new machine and had been second in line behind Larry Koob. For no discernible reason, he said, his engine had sputtered to a stop and refused to restart. A neighbor appeared to give him a lift home, but he vented his disappointment with the stubborn vehicle.
"Just call me Broke Down Stu," he said. “I really wanted to go on this ride, but I guess I'll have to wait 'til next year."