October 30, 2011

John Christie: Across Maine, skiers' losses are hikers' gains

With the start of the 2011-2012 ski season now less than a month away, my thoughts have turned, as they always do this time of year, to the abundance of wonderful fall hikes on the mountains that once were active ski areas and have reverted to their original wooded state.

click image to enlarge

An observation tower offers enhanced views from Coburn Mountain, the site of the ill-fated Enchanted Mountain Ski Area. Numerous trails lead to the 3,718-foot summit.

John Christie photo

On a few of them, ghosts still appear in the form of overgrown lift tower foundations and base lodge slabs, pieces of steel from lift terminals, and the occasional trail segment to remind us that they were once thriving winter recreation areas.

On the fascinating website www.nelsap.org, from the creators of the New England Lost Ski Areas Project, and on the pages of Glenn Parkinson's thoroughly researched and interesting book, "First Tracks: Stories From Maine's Skiing Heritage," the stories of Maine's lost ski areas come alive.

Hard as it is for some to believe, there are 76 abandoned ski areas in Maine, not counting Squaw Mountain in Greenville that hasn't technically closed down, but has failed to operate for several years except for the efforts by some local volunteers to run one of the lifts on weekends in a couple of recent years.

Many of them were mom-and-pop operations, with a single rope tow as the only means of uphill transport, that helped introduce thousands of Mainers to skiing during the 1945-1975 period. But some were multimillion-dollar projects that, for a variety of reasons, just couldn't make it.

From Fort Kent to York, and Alexander to Oquossoc, it seems that at one point virtually every town that had a hill of any size featured a ski area … and in some cases, more than one.

Three of my favorite hikes on abandoned mountains are on Coburn Mountain between The Forks and Jackman, and on the two Balds, one in Oquossoc and one in Dedham. These were all once busy, cable-lift ski areas, complete with base lodges, ski schools, ski shops and cafeterias.

Coburn is the site of the ill-fated – and misnamed – Enchanted Mountain Ski Area, which opened with much fanfare in February 1966 and carried its last skier up the mountain on its double chairlift in 1974. Its first brochure read, in part, "Enjoy skiing at a new resort designed to excite and challenge skiers of all ages. A unique new chalet overlooks Moosehead Lake and a panoramic view of vast, rugged mountain ranges. It's the 'Switzerland of Maine,' where the skiing is fun and exciting." A little hyperbole, perhaps, and although the ski area failed, despite the valiant efforts of local investors who tried to keep it going, Coburn makes a fabulous late autumn hike.

At 3,718 feet, it's a prominent peak, the highest in the region, and the views in every direction are spectacular. There's an observation platform at the summit on the site of an abandoned fire tower, reached by a variety of routes from the site of the old base lodge. To get to the mountain, turn west on a dirt road 10.6 miles north of the bridge in The Forks. It's a logging road whose condition varies from year to year and season to season, but I've always navigated its 2.2 miles to the base of the mountain without much trouble in my Jeep. I even followed a huge black bear up the road for about a mile one year.

From the base, you can bushwhack on a 280-degree compass heading, following variously an old Jeep trail, a footpath, and the still-visible line of an old ski trail. You'll come on the first of two solar-powered radio repeating stations in less than a mile from the base. There, a snowmobile trail leads to the summit, but I'd suggest taking the foot trail that exits to the right after about 150 feet for the half-mile scramble to the top.

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