Land Rovers and their owners once again descended in the vicinity of Waterville, Maine for the annual Maine Winter Romp, hosted by Bruce Fowler of nearby Benton. For many, Winter Romp is a “don’t miss” event that signifies the beginning of the East Coast US Land Rover rally calendar. Rover fans who have been cooped up all winter long, hiding from the snow and cold, can come out and get a break from their cabin fever. For those of us from warmer climes, it gives us a new low point from which to regard the remainder of the season’s cold temps. Those 20°F days in late February and March will seem like nothing after four or five days of standing outside in temperatures much closer to, or often well below, zero.
2016 also marks the 20th anniversary of Winter Romp. The event, launched by a small group of friends back in 1996, has continued to grow over the years. In the weeks preceding this year’s event, as helpful minions spent their weekends clearing the trails, the local hotel bookings started filling up, and it became clear that this would be a record-breaking turnout. I don't have an official tally but there were close to 150 vehicles attending. The popularity of the event is likely due to a number of factors. For one, there is no registration fee or club membership required to attend, as the event is strictly non-commercial. Waterville is a college town with a number of quality dining and pub choices where Rompers can have a good time and spend lots of cash, in an area where there isn’t much tourism during the cold winter months. The business owners are usually more than willing to accommodate the needs of the Rompers and this makes the event even better with folks more likely to return in the future. Of course there is also the off-roading, and the participants themselves who really make the event what it is.
When you arrive at Winter Romp, you stay at the Waterville Grand Hotel which is a former Holiday Inn now under private ownership. Winter Romp attendees receive a special negotiated rate unavailable anywhere else in the area. In the morning, everyone eats breakfast at Big G’s Diner, noted for its comically enormous portions and friendly service staff. You order a sandwich along with your breakfast, and take it out on the trail for consumption later. The sandwiches are large enough that most people can get three or four meals out of one.
After Big G’s, Rompers split into small, manageable groups and head back to Bruce’s house for a trail briefing, or directly to the trails. The off road portions of the event are on a trail network that has been built by various Romp participants over the years. The names of trails are often related to a long-since-gone landmark, such as the Pail Trail, and the Couch Trail, or often something more foreboding and descriptive, such as “The Pit of Despair” or “Screaming Eagle.”
Unlike 2015's fiasco of impassable, four-foot deep snow drifts in the woods, this year the conditions were quite favorable, with a shallow average depth of just around a foot or less. The cold and wet air allowed the snow to pack firmly and provide decent traction. But the relatively cold daytime temps, never venturing much above zero, combined with the warmer temps of previous weeks, resulted in a lot of sections of water covered by a thin layer of ice. After taking a bath in the cold water, the vehicles’ tires and brakes were rapidly freezing, often immobilizing a tire or in some case the entire vehicle, with even some breakage resulting from this effect.
Other trail carnage included the usual host of bent steering rods as well as multiple differential covers getting punctured by large rocks hiding under the shallow snow and ice. Despite these troubles, the trail network was largely accessible even to stock vehicles and with a little skill and some tire chains one could traverse most of the property without too many problems. One exception to this was the large swamp at the base of the popular “Power Line” hill climb. At any given time one could look down the trail and see a line of vehicles buried to their axles in the bottomless, chunky ice-mud morass of the not-quite frozen swamp.
As for your author, my vehicle, a 1984 Land Rover 90, spent the majority of Saturday under a large tarp along with a propane-fired salamander heater trying to thaw it out from the block of ice formed during Friday’s off road adventures. Sunday was better, and we got to explore much more of the trail network, and spend some time with good friends that we only see this one time each year.
2016 is also a year of reflection for some as we remember two good friends and regular Romp-goers who recently passed away, Bill Caloccia and Jimmy Salmon, both of Massachusetts. Saturday night even saw a small trailside fireworks display in honor of the departed.
Sunday evening, we drove my vehicle up onto its trailer and made a hasty retreat in order to dodge some nasty weather forecast for our hometown of Washington DC. Winter Romp must have decided to follow us South, as we had snow the whole way down and rain freezing instantly onto the windscreen in Maryland.
A toast then, to Mr. Fowler and to all those working behind the scenes over the last 20 years to put the event together. It takes a huge amount of effort to do, and a ton of coordination to bring it off successfully. It really is one of the best offerings on the East Coast, as evidenced by the attendance levels, and I always encourage others to try it out. I have a saying- “There are two types of people in the world. Those who haven’t been to Winter Romp, and those who want to go every year." Which type do you want to be?
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