All photos/art by Skye Chalmers
The invitation was irresistible: join Ski Maine executive director Greg Sweetser as part of a team of eight with the goal of hitting all of the Pine Tree State’s 17 ski mountains in a single long weekend last January. I agreed as soon as I was asked.
We’d travel more than 1,000 miles, with time for only one or two trails per mountain. Each run would be like taking a single bite of the most delicious chocolate bar — tastebuds all fired up — then having someone snatch it away.
Spruce Mountain, Jay
With a few inches of freshly fallen powder, Spruce Mountain in Jay, Maine, was on the right side of the snow line. Rick Couture, president of Spruce Mountain Ski Club, greeted us as he handed out leather work gloves, a must-have accessory, considering that the only way up was by rope tow. Spruce seemed like a bastion of a bygone era: Instead of high-speed quad chairlifts or a slick gondola, it operates three rope tows; lift tickets are under $20, and the most popular lunch sandwich, a grilled cheese, costs $1. (To put that in perspective, a chocolate bar at most ski areas costs at least $2.) Run partly by volunteers and owned by three local towns, Spruce was the first of many community ski areas in Maine that we’d visit over the next three days. It’s the kind of area that grows lifelong skiers and riders and lovers of winter. sprucemountain.org
Lost Valley, Auburn
This tiny mountain was once home to champion skier Julie Parisien, inducted into the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame in 2006; during her career she won three World Cup victories and competed in three Olympic Winter Games. It’s truly the American Ski Dream, and just one reason why these small mountains are special. You can grow up at a mountain with 243 vertical feet of skiing and go on to win World Cup races. Lost Valley’s lifts turn from morning to night on most days, which makes for a lively mountain, perfect for kids who can get runs in after school. lostvalleyski.com
Shawnee Peak, Bridgton
We arrived at Shawnee Peak in the late afternoon, and already the sky was dark, but the lights on the trails were bright. I rode the lift with team member Bruce Mason. Along the way, shadows from the trail below shouted to him and to his wife, Joanne, who rode the chair behind us. They both work as EMTs and ski patrol and knew many fellow patrollers at Shawnee.
I know many people who arrange their lives around skiing. Most of them work as landscapers or builders — jobs that let them make money during the off-season and ski and play all winter long. The Masons were the first couple I met who were completely dialed in on their ski life. They manage a cemetery. Not much happens at a cemetery when the graves are covered with snow and the ground is frozen solid, so Joanne and Bruce have plenty of time to ski. And they love every minute of it. While Bruce was quiet and introspective as he skied down a trail, Joanne hooted and hollered, especially as we took our one and only run over the silky-smooth snow at Shawnee. With the most night skiing in northern New England, Shawnee shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. shawneepeak.com
Mt. Abram, Greenwood
It was nighttime, and the bar/restaurant inside Mt. Abram’s lodge was busy. It was a tough call. Either boot up now and climb Mt. Abram, or do it after a leisurely dinner. We decided to eat first, ski later. Since the lifts weren’t running, we climbed to the second knoll in the moonlight. And one after another, we clicked in and headed downhill under a shimmering sky to a hollering and cheering crowd below. Although we wouldn’t be there for it, as the lifts started to turn the next morning Mt. Abram would be transformed from a low-key bar scene into a winter wonderland for families dressed in ski and snowboard gear the next morning. mtabram.com
Sunday River, Newry
Management cranked the lifts early for us. We skied the most perfectly groomed and untouched corduroy as the sun rose, casting our morning in orange glow. Sunday River was ours for those two runs. sundayriver.com
Black Mountain of Maine, Rumford
The morning developed into a sunny, bluebird-sky day, and the reflection from the snow was nearly blinding. Everything at Black seemed to be sparkling. The downhill trails were quiet, but at the base of the mountain, where cross-country routes intersect, a crowd of parents were ringing cow bells as their Nordic-ski-racing kids shot by wearing shiny Lycra outfits. The lodge may be new, but the T-bar atmosphere is timeless. skiblackmountain.org
Titcomb Mountain, West Farmington
Even before my first run, the sound, smell, and feel of Titcomb, another community ski area, evoked memories of the mountain where I spent all my childhood winter weekends. Inside the lodge, excited kids squealed as they layered on clothing and booted up next to a huge stone fireplace, while logs crackled and scented the air with a fragrance that could be bottled and sold as “ski-lodge memories.” Outside, a dad was pulling his child, swaddled in fleece, on a wooden sled, with the family’s black Labrador puppy tagging along.
Riding up the T-bar, I scoped out Dare Devil’s Plunge to Dire Straights, a series of tight and twisty old-fashioned trails that follow the natural contour of the mountain. I skied through the mellow hero bumps — the kind that are so perfect you feel like the best skier in the world for that moment — then stopped halfway down and basked in the quiet that surrounded me. I felt utterly content with this sweet trail and its perfect snow. That run soon became my official favorite trail for this Ski Maine odyssey. Ten minutes later, and after a lunch of homemade turkey and dumpling soup made by faithful volunteers, Titcomb became my official favorite mountain for the Ski Maine odyssey.
Like many other community ski areas in Maine, this might not be your vacation destination if you’re “from away,” but if you’re a local and grow up skiing here, you’re very, very lucky. Thank goodness places like this still thrive. Progress is good, but mountains like Titcomb have a soul: They’re living memorials to a bygone era of skiing. titcombmountain.com
My first visit to the area occurred sans snow two years ago, when I attended a late-summer meeting here. At a cocktail reception to welcome our groups of ski writers, most of whom I knew already, I noticed an unfamiliar man, probably in his seventies, sporting a flannel shirt and a green foam baseball hat with plastic mesh. It said “Saddleback Is Back,” and I assumed that he’d just finished a day of off-season mountain maintenance work and had stopped by to add some local flavor to our party.
In fact, he was Bill Berry, a retired geology professor from the nearby University of Maine at Farmington. In 2003, with his family, he purchased Saddleback for more than $8 million. Since then, the new owners have built a new post-and-beam lodge, increased snowmaking and grooming, and have developed an approved 10-year plan for additional improvements. But here’s the part that counts: The Berrys bought Saddleback so that they could provide affordable skiing to Mainers, because they love the mountain, and because they wanted to see it flourish to its potential. They’re developing Saddleback’s amenities and skiing quality to compete with the large resorts while retaining its small-mountain friendliness.
On my first trip here with snow, I rode the chairlift with my teammate Craig, a ripping telemark skier. As he pointed to some of his favorite runs, my ski legs started twitching and my mind started planning a return trip to Saddleback. Craig’s fondness for Saddleback meant one thing: This is a mountain for diehard skiers. But Saddleback also has a great blend of beginner and intermediate trails, too, something for everyone — a mellower version of a “big mountain,” with 64 trails and 2,000 vertical feet of skiing. saddlebackmaine.com
Sugarloaf, Carrabassett Valley
Sugarloaf looks as though it could roar. The 4,237-foot summit is Maine’s highest skiable peak, and the only lift-serviced skiing above the treeline in the East. This white-peaked mountain, immortalized on the ski area’s ubiquitous blue-and-white triangle stickers, offers views of Mount Washington and the other Presidentials, Mount Katahdin, and into Canada. The lift ride on the high-capacity SuperQuad covers 1,750 feet, which means one thing: The trail down is long. It was the end of the day, and the snow was firm under the cold sky. sugarloaf.com
Baker Mountain Ski Area, Moscow
Sugarloaf and Baker are studies in contrast. Sugarloaf has 134 trails and 16 lifts; Baker has 5 trails and one lift. Sugarloaf covers 95 percent of its trails with snowmaking; Baker relies on the natural stuff. But that is so okay. Bob Henderson, a retired schoolteacher who now helps run Baker Mountain, puffed on his corncob pipe as he passionately explained that Baker’s sole purpose is to give local kids a place to enjoy being active outdoors. Founded in 1937 and run by its passholders, Baker hasn’t changed much since then — except for replacing the original two rope tows with one T-bar — but that, too, is so okay. skimaine.com/areas/bakermountain
Eaton Mountain, Skowhegan
Most of the activity at Eaton centered around the tubing park. The lodge evoked an ’80s-style basement-game-room feel, filled with mismatched couches and video machines. skimaine.com/areas/eatonmountain
Hermon Mountain, Hermon
Unlike some big mountains where guests can pay for priority parking, Hermon bestows that privilege on Grammie Viles, who flips burgers while her husband works in the rental shop. Ten minutes from Bangor with 100 percent snowmaking, Hermon Mountain has been reinvesting capital into the mountain yearly. It operates like a well-oiled machine and serves as an updated model for future community ski areas that cater to local families as their customer base. skihermonmountain.com
Mt. Jefferson Ski Area, Lee
My fondness for small, family-owned local ski areas was just one reason I was looking forward to our visit to Mount Jefferson. The other reason was my fondness for homemade doughnuts. Mrs. Susan Delano, widow of one of the original six founders and turning 81 this year, makes them — nine dozen each day in four different flavors. skimaine.com/areas/mtjefferson
Big Rock Ski Area, Mars Hill
In 2000, the Maine Winter Sports Center bought this area with grants from the Portland-based Libra Foundation, which promotes winter sports in northern Maine. Since then, the mountain, founded in the 1960s, has focused on giving Aroostook County residents an affordable option to enjoy skiing. bigrockmaine.com
Quoggy Jo Ski Center, Presque Isle
By the time we arrived at Quoggy Jo, we were 30 minutes off schedule, but we were greeted with warmth and smiles. The small lodge had been taken over by a group of hip-looking kids, who upon our arrival braved the cold to crank the lifts and tour us around the mountain. After a couple of runs, we defrosted in the lodge and made dinner plans.
I’m not usually a meat-and-potatoes gal, so it might have been the cold, or it might have been my location that made me crave beef and comfort food big-time. We were in Aroostook County, the largest-area county east of the Mississippi. An expanse of remote land, its soil produces one of Maine’s most important crops: spuds. And in my opinion, the baked potato I had for dinner that evening, chased by a darned good steak, was the best I’ve ever eaten in my entire life.
After dinner, we headed back to the lodge. I hitched a ride with Joanne and Bruce, who happened to have an outside temperature gage in their truck. Joanne and I shrieked as the degrees dipped until we hit 28 below. It was a very cold night. I woke up from my food coma the moment I stepped outside the restaurant. skimaine.com/areas/quoggyjo
Lonesome Pine Trails, Fort Kent
Lonesome Pines is the closest ski mountain to the Canadian border in northern Maine. Like most of Aroostook County, it benefits from a winter-friendly climate, although with the recent addition of snowmaking covering 60 percent of the terrain, it’s not relying solely on Mother Nature. The day we visited the mountain, management had decided that it was too cold to open to the public, but they ran a lift so that we could get in our requisite run. Despite the frigid temperature, this was, once again, another mountain with a warm heart, whose mission is to serve the community at the lowest cost possible.
We stocked up on provisions before embarking for our last mountain, nearly six hours away, then climbed into the cars and settled in for a day on the road. I’d arrive at my final destination, my own bed, at 11 p.m. that night. Riding in a car for more than 12 hours in one day is miserable. But in the end, it’s completely survivable. Since my back was in tweak mode for the next nine weeks — either from sitting in one position for too long or from sleeping on the floor one night — I was reminded of this whirlwind tour not only by my nostalgic memories but also by the twinge whenever I stood up straight. skimaine.com/areas/lonesomepine
Camden Snow Bowl, Camden
A little road-weary, I cheered when I saw the Snow Bowl sign. Camden is a year-round community recreation center. During the winter, it offers tubing, ice-skating, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, in addition to alpine skiing, snowboarding, and a world-famous toboggan run. But the best thing about Camden is the view from the summit: The ocean is so close you could probably throw a snowball into it. After our final run, we celebrated achieving our goal with a champagne toast — to ourselves and to the 17 mountains we’d just skied. camdensnowbowl.com
End of the Trail
Before this odyssey, I thought that after 17 mountains in three and a half days, it would be difficult to keep track of which was which — but each one turned out to have distinctly memorable attributes. I was especially happy to experience so many thriving community ski areas. They reminded me of my childhood, and I doubt that I’d love skiing as much as I do today if I hadn’t grown up with that sort of ski experience. Community ski areas are the backbone of this sport. They’re where skiers and riders are made.