Since the mid-1980s, more than 200 ski areas in the United States have gone out of business. Similar attrition has occurred in other countries.

The root causes of the decline in the number of small ski areas are many. But there are solutions to the problem. Here in Maine we have the perfect laboratory to test models that can help sustain the industry – and promote growth of the sport.

Small areas, like the ones that are now flourishing and expanding in Maine, can provide examples that other states ought to consider.

As America’s preeminent ski historian and former editor of Ski magazine, John Fry, said about small ski areas in a recent issue of Skiing History magazine, “Their existence is crucial, history shows, for breeding new skiers and snowboarders. This loss of this pipeline to the future would be troubling for the sport.”

This all came into focus for me recently as I was skiing the revitalized and expanded Camden Snow Bowl (thanks to a public/private partnership) with an old friend. As he marveled at the recent improvements to the area, he remarked, “Sugarloaf must be very concerned.”

He said this because he was under the ill-founded impression that Maine’s premier resort might look on this much smaller, local area as a competitor.

“Hardly,” I said. “Sugarloaf appreciates the role that feeder areas like the Snow Bowl play in introducing new skiers and boarders to the sport. They recognize that their future depends on local areas that are the gateway to devotees who will one day spread their wings on the larger mountains.”

Consider: This winter at Camden’s relatively small town-owned ski area, some 420 fourth-graders from 14 schools in Knox, Lincoln and Waldo counties will visit the facility three times. Thanks to the Ragged Mountain Ski Club, they’ll receive free equipment, lessons and lift tickets.

Countless kids, this and every winter, get their first taste of skiing and snowboarding thanks to this program which, in other forms, is available to youngsters at community hills throughout the state.

At Camden Snow Bowl, older students in Appleton, Hope, Lincolnville, St. George and other communities arrive for after-school skiing and lessons under the lights at substantially reduced rates.

Added to that are Camden’s Stump Jumpers Ski or Snowboard program for kids 3 to 6; Mighty Mites, ages 5 to 6; and KATS, ages 7 to 14, and you can see what one area is doing to help grow the sport. On top of that is a complete menu of Youth Race Development Programs starting at age 6.

This focus on introducing beginners to skiing and snowboarding is repeated at smaller mountains all over the state, and the growing popularity of both of those sports, not to mention the infusion of new participants into the lifeblood of the business, is both reassuring and very exciting.

At Lost Valley in Auburn, starting the first week in January, kids ages 4 to 6 who’ve never skied before began participating in a six-week Mighty Mites program. Lessons were Wednesdays for 5- to 6-year-olds, and Saturdays ages 4-5.

For beginning snowboarders, Lost Valley’s Mighty Riders program introduces 5- to 6-year-olds to that sport with six weeks of concentrated training. For kids age 7 and up, the area’s Junior Program moves them further along in their mastering of both disciplines.

Just west of Bangor, Hermon Mountain is another perfect incubator for skiing and snowboarding hatchlings. Its Four Week Learn to Ski Program is offered twice a season, in January and February, as is a Learn to Snowboard Program.

Many area towns, including Hermon, Hampden, Bangor, Glenburn, Kenduskeag and Orono, have after-school programs modeled on the regular “Learn to” offerings.

In Farmington, Titcomb Mountain has a decades-long reputation as the gold standard in Maine for turning beginners into not only great skiers, but accomplished competitors as well. As it notes in its literature, “Our goals at Titcomb Mountain are to help children become skiers and riders for life.” And they’ve been doing that in spades since before I took my first runs there 61 years ago!

It starts with their Snow Cats Alpine Ski Program for grades K-3, and progresses to the Saturday Alpine Ski Program for ages 6-18 and the Saturday Snowboard Program, ages 8-18.

Other offerings there are the six-week Buddy Werner Race Program for grades 1-5, and the Nana Webber Ski and Snowboard Program, of similar length, for grades 3-6. Even more youth programs are available at surprisingly affordable rates – one reason being that volunteer support is a key element of programs like these at areas throughout the state.

John Christie is a former ski racer and ski area manager and owner, a ski historian and member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. He and his son, Josh, write columns on alternating weeks. He can be reached at:

[email protected]