JAY – As another Maine community ski area shakes out the doormat and prepares to spin its chair lifts up in Greenville, the folks at Squaw Mountain could take a page from Spruce Mountain’s storybook.
After two years of sitting idle, the Greenville ski area is preparing to open thanks to a crew of volunteers and donors, just as soon as some natural snow arrives. Meanwhile in Jay, the local band of “White Knights” is rallying around its tiny mountain this week to make snow free of charge in order to provide youth a place to play.
Events like the dance that will be held in two weeks help pay for the cost of the fuel to make snow. Four to five volunteers make it happen.
“We do it for the kids,” said mountain manager Rene Cloutier, one of two locals who split the one full-time job at Spruce Mountain.
Run primarily on the backs of volunteers, Spruce has kept its doors open for more than 50 years despite hard and lean times. Certainly, volunteer-run ski areas are not unusual in Maine, but they’re not plentiful either, especially in these difficult times.
Yet Spruce Mountain in Jay has endured with a shoestring budget, a scaled-down snack bar, a robust army of volunteers, and an unusual communal passion for the mountain’s buttery-good grilled cheese sandwich … and we can see why.
“When a call comes in, within 20 minutes there are guys here trying to figure out how to fix whatever broke,” said local parent and volunteer Nelson DiPompo. “We do well under pressure.”
On a Sunday made quiet by one very big football game and a lack of natural snow, just six youths showed to take some runs. That’s all Cloutier needed.
As he barrelled through the lodge doors he found only Jan Kirkland and her daughter, Ashley. And without a second lost, Cloutier asked if the lone parent could run the concession stand.
“What do I do?” Kirkland asked.
“Just do candy and soda. I wouldn’t bother with the hot dog machine. You can fire up the grill if you want,” Cloutier suggested.
And with that, Spruce Mountain was open for business on a Sunday in the middle of winter. Lift tickets: Just $10.
Make no mistake, there are few amenities here. The three rope-tow hill has just three slopes plus a patch of glades that, all told, make up eight trails.
In the lodge there are bathrooms, benches, shelves for gear, picnic tables and a concession selection of fewer than 10 items, all priced between $1 to $3.
The people in this old, defunct mill town keep it simple and find great value in that. Certainly, the superstar status of Spruce’s grilled cheese serves as testament to that.
Nothing at the snack bar sells better than this sweet, white-cheese goodness, which we think deserves the cult following it’s got.
“There’s a certain way to make them. They teach you when you volunteer,” Kirkland explained as she flipped two on the grill.
With six board members, 10 volunteers who run the snack bar, about half as many snowmakers, the mountain’s chores all get done — though sometimes Spruce skiers wonder how.
The cost to operate the ski area runs anywhere from $40,000 to $50,000 a year, depending on natural snow. And between lift tickets and fundraisers, the locals manage to stay out of the red, said board president Rick Couture, a volunteer for 28 years.
The crowd at the mountain is not what it was 30 years ago when a few hundred would show, Cloutier said. But he for one still thinks the work is worth it.
“On a good day, we get 30 to 40. What with the economy, people don’t ski as much. And it’s almost like kids don’t go outside anymore. But for the kids that do, this gives them a place to go,” Cloutier said.
Jillian Buote, 13, learned to snowboard at Spruce Mountain, and might not have learned if it weren’t for the mountain just minutes from her home. Were it not for Spruce, Buote might not know the joy of riding her board down toward the Androscoggin River, where on a sunny day bald eagles soar above the mountain.
“I fell on my face a lot when I started out. But now I’m comfortable. I can hit jumps here,” Buote said proudly.
In this place where the painted signs are as old as the lift shacks and the rope tow engines are older than anyone, the key to staying open is a constant turnover in the volunteers.
Somehow at Spruce that tradition has never wavered.
“It depends a lot on the volunteers. It’s more work than I thought when I started three years ago. In the fall they always need more, to cut the brush, get the mountain ready. But some volunteers stay long after their kids are grown,” DiPompo said.
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: