More than anywhere I know, the soul of a New England winter exists amid the frozen waterways, snow-drifted woods, and frosted peaks of western Maine. Raw, remote, and wild, this slice of the state, cornered by New Hampshire and Quebec, draws skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers, and snowmobilers, who revel in the deep cover and rarely crowded trails, surrounded by miles of natural beauty. Looking out from the summit of Sugarloaf or Saddleback Mountain on a brittle blue-sky day, with the snow all around blindingly white, I feel that the frozen confection below will crack and crumble if I expel a warm breath.
My city friends find this winter land too remote, too dark, illuminated only by the moon and stars, not streetlights and signs. And they’re apprehensive about driving the sinuous byways that meander through mountains and valleys, binding small towns with smaller ones, blinks-along-the-road with outposts. I understand, but the mountains and the heritage woven everywhere throughout this land are worth it, I reassure them.
Sugarloaf and Saddleback are the marquee attractions, islands of bright lights and human voices, hearty food and comfortable beds. But it’s the towns and villages slumbering in their shadows–Kingfield, Carrabassett, and Stratton, Rangeley and Oquossoc–that make the best partners for the winter ball, especially when dressed in white.
Pop into Kingfield Woodsman for breakfast, and you’ll be rubbing elbows with skiers en route to Sugarloaf, loggers heading into the woods, and Canadian truckers hauling their first loads of the day. Although it’s the gateway to Sugarloaf, Kingfield is a real town with a distinct Maine vibe, and just enough shops, galleries, and museums, along with restaurants and inns, to invite plunking down for a couple of days. Once a month from October to April, this usually quiet town buzzes with First Friday Art Walk, when local businesses open their doors and offer refreshments and sometimes live music and poetry readings. Most skiers zip right through the downtown with hardly a glance at the distinctive Victorian architecture or pause to hear the Carrabassett River as it drops over a dam behind Main Street, but Kingfield is Sugarloaf’s birth mother, and the relationship between town and mountain has never been cut.
In the early 1950s, local businessman Amos Winter and his “Bigelow Boys” cut the first ski trail on nearby Sugarloaf Mountain. Within a couple of years, the prophetically named Winter and some foresighted investors had established the Sugarloaf Mountain Ski Club, carving trails and naming them with logging and lumberjack terms. Their winter playground went on to become one of the largest alpine resorts in New England. That story, as well as others from Maine’s skiing heritage, is shared at the Ski Museum of Maine, which occupies a couple of rooms above Sugarloaf Ski Outlet downtown, documenting Maine’s role in the growth of the sport, from immigrant Swedes to Olympians, manufacturing to resorts.
Truth is, Kingfield was notable long before Sugarloaf, thanks to twin brothers Francis Edgar and Freelan Oscar Stanley, born here in 1849. Although best known for inventing and manufacturing the Stanley Steamer automobile at their Massachusetts plant, the brothers’ twin legacy of innovation ranged from the first airbrush to the dry-plate coating for photo negatives. They also designed and funded the Georgian-style schoolhouse that now houses the Stanley Museum in Kingfield.
Two Victorian showplaces now stand on the Stanley family’s land: One Stanley Avenue, perhaps the region’s best restaurant, and its sister B&B, Three Stanley Avenue, originally a home built by the twins’ younger brother, Bayard. Chef/owner Dan Davis has been creating memorable meals here for 40 years; entrees are described on the menu along with the year they first appeared. No fusion, no molecular gastronomy, no architectural food: just excellent continental fare with a Maine accent, combined with attentive service in an elegant setting.
Kingfield’s industrial heritage is tied primarily to the logging, milling, and lumbering trades, but increasingly, artists and crafters are settling here, transforming once-vacant buildings and storefronts into studios and galleries. Lured by the rolling woods and water landscape, those who take their cues from nature find inspiration wherever they turn.
Just south of town is Nowetah’s American Indian Museum & Gift Store. That’s a big name for a small shop in the woods of New Portland, but Nowetah Cyr has amassed artifacts that many a museum would envy. The back section of her nonwinterized structure (dress warmly) is chock-full of Native American goods, including more than 600 baskets crafted by members of Maine’s Wabanaki peoples as well as treasures from the Cherokee, Inuit, Iroquois, and Pueblo peoples, and more. Although Cyr doesn’t sell items from her museum, she does stock a shop up front.
From Kingfield, Route 27 noses through the Carrabassett Valley, twisting and turning with the tumbling of the ice-choked river. Then suddenly around a curve, you see it: Sugarloaf’s white-capped triangle. You’ll understand immediately why locals have long called this “Oh-My-Gosh Corner.” On a blue-sky day, all it takes is one run from that above-treeline summit to the funky, oh-so-1970s angular base village to feel the love–and on a powder day, that love can become a lifelong affair.
Facing Sugarloaf from the north is another of the state’s 4,000-footers, Bigelow Mountain, hiding sprawling Flagstaff Lake from view. Before he betrayed the colonists, Benedict Arnold led his troops through this swath of Maine wilderness on his ill-fated 1775 march to Quebec. Hoping to spy Quebec City, one of his men, Major Timothy Bigelow, climbed the mountain that now bears his name. Once slated for development, Bigelow is now part of a wilderness preserve. Winter hikers brave the Appalachian Trail, which crosses its summit ridgeline, but there’s a far less challenging way to explore this swath of wilderness, and that’s on snowshoes or cross-country skis along the Maine Hut Trail, an easygoing route that snakes through the woods south of the ridge. The side trail to Poplar Stream Falls, two horsetails measuring 51 feet and 24 feet, respectively, is worth the effort–and a hot, homemade meal at the nearby Poplar Stream Falls Hut makes a great reward.
Route 27 veers north to the town border in Stratton, a frontier village in the town of Eustis. It nips Flagstaff Lake, slices through Cathedral Pines–a majestic stand of old-growth red pines–and then parallels the North Branch of the Dead River, finally wriggling through Chain of Ponds, a spectacular chunk of water-laced wilderness, and the Boundary Mountains.
Artist Marguerite Robichaux has lived and painted here since the 1980s. “I paint everywhere I go, but much of my work is right out of these woods and mountains–I never tire of it,” she says. Her paintings capture not only the majesty of this landscape, but also the vastness of the wilderness. I know that if I ski or snowshoe down a snow-covered forest road, the only sounds I’ll hear, other than the occasional drone of a snowmobile, are the snap of an icy branch breaking, the hollow thump of snow falling from a tree limb, the creak of an ice-covered pond, and the flutter of recalcitrant leaves still clinging to branches.
Heading southwest along Route 16, a lonely 17-mile stretch of road–where you’re far more likely to see moose, deer, or snowmobiles than other cars–tethers Stratton to Rangeley, an outpost of civilization surrounded by woods, overlorded by mountains, and edged by water most of the way.
“It’s a wilderness experience–that’s what’s up here,” says Steve Philbrick, owner of Bald Mountain Camps Resort, open year-round on Mooselookmeguntic Lake, in the village of Oquossoc. “I’ve been all over the state of Maine, I’ve been on every big lake, but because of the mountains, lakes, and wilderness, there’s nothing else like this anywhere else in the state. There are places I can send you to where you’ll never hear a snowmobile, where if another human has visited in the last week or so, it’s because I’ve sent him there. I can tell you where to go to look for moose antlers, or where, if you tiptoe through, you’ll see deer.”
But it’s not all woods and water up here. Rangeley’s downtown is peppered with shops carrying a mind-boggling assortment of moosey merchandise, plus a movie theater, a bowling alley, and a handful of inns and restaurants. I’d be remiss if I didn’t dish on my favorite lunch spot, Thai Blossom Express, owned by Sam Sriweawnetr, a genuine hero. As a chef for U.S. embassy staffers in Iran in 1979, he hid five Americans in a house in Tehran until Canadian officials could arrive to smuggle them to freedom; he himself then spent more than a year in hiding, eventually escaping to the United States. He opened an acclaimed restaurant in Boston, then came to Maine.
Small-town kindness and camaraderie are pervasive here. It’s exemplified by the free loaner skates available at Ecopelagicon for use on adjacent Haley Pond, and by the winter sporting events and wingdings brightening the seasonal calendar. “In little towns like Rangeley, the community’s soul is in the school, and Class D high-school basketball games are more heated than any Class A game,” says Rob Welch, owner of the Pleasant Street Inn. One of his favorite events is the annual New England Pond Hockey Festival (set for February 3-5 this season; details at newenglandpondhockey.com). “We have opening ceremonies, and retired Boston Bruins have even played in it,” Welch explains. Another is “Diva Night,” a midwinter cabin-fever reliever of a talent show (January 27-28 this season, at Moose Alley, a downtown bowling and entertainment center; there’s a regular summer show, also). “When ‘Patsy Cline’ shows up in a red dress and sings,” he says, “mouths hit the floor–you’re ready to say, ‘Oh my God, it is Patsy Cline.'”
Rangeley’s heritage is peppered with sports and rusticators, anglers and hunters: names such as Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby, the state’s first licensed Maine Guide; taxidermist and fly-tier Herb Welch; and Carrie Stevens, who earned national renown for her fishing prowess and original fly patterns. Even in winter, there’s no escaping it. The trails etching Saddleback’s face are named for famous fishing flies, such as “Grey Ghost,” “Green Weaver,” and “Blue Devil.”
Once touted as the “Vail of the East,” Saddleback Maine languished during an extended battle over development. For 20 years, this spectacular chunk of real estate, just east of Rangeley, went virtually untouched. Now it’s slowly modernizing, replacing T-bars with chairlifts, updating base facilities, and selectively cutting massive glades, while preserving its sinewy trails, edge-of-the-wilderness experience, and head-swiveling views over the frozen expanse of the Rangeley Lakes to New Hampshire’s distant Presidential Range. Those vistas slay me every time I come here, especially on one of those days after a storm, when the sun’s brilliance makes me squint; when evergreen branches are laden with snow and the runty summit trees are rimed with ice.
When shadows fall long, most folks retire to the warmth of woodstove or fireplace, content to swap tales, swig beer, and watch the rosy shades of dusk surrender to the inky nightfall. But if it’s clear, I prefer to bundle up, head into the hushed darkness, and gaze beyond the starlight canopy into the soul of a New England winter’s night.