November 24, 2013

Josh Christie: Maine ski areas were busy in off-season

From base lodge facilities to new terrain, there are a lot of improvements for skiers to enjoy.

If you’re anything like me, your skiing life has essentially been packed up for the last six months. Our friends at ski resorts don’t share this luxury of a summer off. Throughout Maine, ski areas have been making improvements on and off the slopes to prepare for this season.

Unsurprisingly, some of the largest projects have been at Sunday River and Sugarloaf, Maine’s two largest resorts. Not content with simple maintenance, the two resorts have moved to add new terrain and base area facilities.

Sunday River, which opened for skiing and riding in late October, made $5.7 million in investments going into the 2013-2014 season. On the hill, the resort added 75 acres of new terrain. Along with quadrupling the acreage of the Chutzpah and Hardball glades, Sunday River added three new double black diamond glades. The new Poppy Fields (on Oz), Super Nova (on Aurora), and North Woods (on North Peak) glades all capitalize on the growing popularity of tree and sidecountry skiing, and put some formerly out-of-bounds skiing under the purview of ski patrol.

A new 15-acre terrain park, dubbed T72 and designed in partnership with Simon Dumont and Snow Park Technologies, also debuts on North Peak. The park, which will be the largest intermediate/advanced terrain park at the resort, replaces the Rocking Chair park above Barker Lodge.

Off the hill, Sunday River has added a new restaurant to the Grand Summit Hotel. Called Camp, the 300-seat eatery will offer “Maine comfort food.”

One of my favorite off-hill changes is a subtle one. The Sunday River Day Care in South Ridge has been renamed “Someday Bigger,” a clever reappropriation of Sugarloafers’ derisive nickname for Sunday River.

Up the road at Sugarloaf (which opened this weekend), the big story continues to be terrain expansion onto neighboring Burnt Mountain. Progress by the glade crew this summer adds nearly 70 acres of new glades, covering 1,100 vertical feet. The milestone here is that the newly cleared terrain reaches all the way to the summit of Burnt. Though it will require a bit of a hike, the summit is open to skiers and riders for the first time as part of contiguous gladed terrain.

Thanks to a land deal with Plum Creek, Sugarloaf has also added new terrain to the legendary backside snowfields. Locals have known these stashes by names like “Ball and Chain” and “Hell’s Gate” for years, but this season is the first time they’ll be legally accessible. It’s technically challenging terrain that’s not for the faint of heart; in fact, it will only be accessible through a backcountry-style gate that warns of dangers like mandatory cliff drops.

Elsewhere on the hill, a trail-widening project on West Mountain should allow Sugarloaf to move some of its race training programs west from the central slopes. New features on the kid-friendly Moose Alley, as well as a fleet of 135 new snow guns, round out the on-hill improvements.

The most visible change to Sugarloaf’s base area is a massive $240,000, 30-person outdoor hot tub. Located on the highly visible eastern side of the hotel , the new fixture will certainly liven up the Sugarloaf base area. Also, 45 North, the restaurant that opened at the Sugarloaf hotel just last year, just got a hefty $200,000 kitchen renovation.

The two big resorts aren’t the only ones who benefited from summer work. Perhaps the biggest surprise going into this season is Big Squaw Mountain in Greenville. After closing for a few years in 2010, the resort was revived by Friends of Squaw Mountain in February. While the upper mountain is still dormant, the mountain is operating all season long in 2013-14 with more than a dozen trails on 500 vertical feet.

Along with clearing and expanding trails that were skied this spring, the Friends of Squaw Mountain have made many improvements to the base lodge.

Elsewhere, summer changes were the usual melange of improving snowmaking capacity, adjusting slope grades and widening trails. Greenwood’s Mt. Abram expanded snowmaking and built a new tubing park next to the lodge, while Saddleback in Rangeley widened some trails and added a new groomer to their fleet. Rumford’s erstwhile Black Mountain has added a new glade and a spiffy new warming hut.

Some of the other changes are less visible but no less important. Ownership of Black Mountain and Bigrock, both previously managed by the Libra Foundation, has transferred back to the local communities (Friends of Bigrock Mountain and Chisholm Ski Club, respectively.) The groups have both had success with fund raising, which should keep the mountains serving their communities into the foreseeable future.

Also on the financial front, the Camden Snow Bowl just added $2 million in funding from the town of Camden to the $4.5 million raised by the Capital Campaign Committee of the Ragged Mountain Recreation Area Foundation. That $6.5 million will fund improvements that include a new lodge, a new triple-chair, and a doubling of snowmaking capacity.

Of course, these improvements won’t go in until after this season. Until then, get out there and enjoy some early-season skiing. Sugarloaf and Sunday River already have lifts turning, and many others will be opening in the coming weeks.

Josh Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime outdoors enthusiast. He shares column space in Outdoors with his father, John Christie. Josh can be reached at:

joshua.j.christie@gmail.com

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