December 23, 2012

Skiing in Maine: At 91, Benoit will still take a powder

By JOHN CHRISTIE

On Oct. 26, at Lost Valley Ski Resort in Auburn, eight amazing skiers and visionaries were inducted into the Maine Ski Hall of Fame at its 10th annual induction ceremonies.

click image to enlarge

Andre Benoit began skiing more than 75 years ago, served in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II and is among the inductees in the Maine Ski Hall of Fame.

Courtesy Photo

In the 2012 class were two whose contributions were in the early days of lift and ski area development, two long-time and notable instructors, a Nordic coach of national repute, a former national freestyle champion, and two Maine men who made their mark in retailing.

One was L.L. Bean who introduced skiing to generations through his retail store and catalogs.

The other, Andre Benoit, is a legendary ski shop operator known especially well by us older skiers, and by anyone in southern Maine who took up the sport in the 1950s and bought their equipment from him for some 30 years.

But most of us who looked to his A.H. Benoit & Co. Ski Department on Congress Street for our Northland and Paris skis, Henke boots and Marker bindings were unaware of the tremendous skiing accomplishments of this remarkable man, and were yet to see the contributions he would continue to make to the sport during his long and still-active lifetime.

Benoit's skiing saga began when strapped on skis as a young man, venturing with his buddy, Phil Harmon, from his home in Cape Elizabeth to Fryeburg, where a rope tow had been installed on Jockey Cap in 1936. He remembers that he didn't even have to know how to turn, as the one trail, in his words, "was banked so much on each side that you just let 'em run."

He continued to ski whenever he could during his years at Kimball Union Academy and then at Bowdoin College.

Graduating from Bowdoin in 1943, he joined volunteers from the National Ski Patrol System who formed the now-legendary 10th Mountain Division. After Fort Devens he went to Fort Hale in the Canadian Rockies to train with the 87th Division for two years, learning alpine combat maneuvers in winter conditions while developing his skills in skiing and rock climbing.

As one of the more competent skiers, he was named an instructor helping to hone the skiing skills of the less experienced. He eventually headed for Europe and the division's victorious campaign in the mountains of Italy.

Back home in Portland in 1946, Benoit joined the family clothing business at its established downtown store.

He found time to ski close to home at Pleasant Mountain, making his first turns on the Bridgton hill before there were any trails to speak of. And his memories include introducing his four children to the sport, transporting them between his legs up the original rope tow.

His love for skiing, the growing popularity of the sport and his acute retailing instincts resulted in the creation of a specialty ski shop in 1947 within the walls of the clothing store, at a time when the only place enthusiasts could buy equipment in town was at Edwards and Walker or King and Dexter hardware stores, or at James Bailey Sporting Goods.

As a specialty shop, he was ultimately awarded the franchise, along with Harvey Boynton in Kingfield, for Head skis which at the time was a considerable distinction. He also sold Henke boots, and he recently donated to the Ski Museum of Maine in Kingfield an early pair of leather and plastic boots, the first to introduce plastic as a component of ski boots. Interestingly, thanks to his generosity, the museum also features an original Anderson and Thompson automobile ski rack. Not to mention 10th Mountain Division equipment proudly on display there thanks to him.

Retiring from the retail business some 26 years ago, Benoit devoted himself to both an old and a new skiing passion.

A deep commitment to his 10th Mountain buddies provoked him to become deeply involved in the 10th Mountain Veterans organization, resulting in his annual participation in reunion trips to the Rockies each year until 2011, his most recent skiing trip west at the age of 90.

"With the dwindling number of surviving WWII veterans, the annual gathering has diminished to a mere handful of participants," Benoit regretfully reports. Not that he doesn't continue to ski the mountains of Maine to this day, and his classic technique can be spotted at Shawnee Peak, Sunday River and Sugarloaf.

His love for his fellow veterans provoked him to be the moving force behind getting a section of Route 302 between Portland and North Conway designated as the 10th Mountain Division Trail.

His newfound love in the 1980s was the Maine Handicapped Skiing program whose launch coincided with his retirement. He began making weekly winter trips to Sunday River to volunteer to help individuals with disabilities learn to enjoy the sport of skiing.

In 2011, Benoit was recognized by Maine Handicapped Skiing for his 25 years of devotion and contribution to the mission of the organization.

Now known as Maine Adaptive Sports and Recreation, the program has expanded far beyond its original mission of introducing people with disabilities to skiing to now offer year-round programs that teach a variety of adaptive sports activities to individuals age 4 and up.

The program helps individuals build confidence in their abilities, develop physical strength, create new friendships and, perhaps most important, just have fun outside.

Especially satisfying to Benoit was the creation of a special program in 2007 called Veterans/No Boundaries for all veterans and active duty personnel, enabling them to participate, free of charge, in a variety of activities. Funded by a generous donation from Bath Iron Works, and supported by local businesses, veterans groups and individuals, this program gives disabled military personnel the opportunity to participate in a variety of physical activities.

Andre Benoit has reason to be proud of all he has done for skiing in Maine. And we all have reason to be very proud that he's one of us.

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 ski columns on alternating weeks. John can be reached at:

jchristie@fairpoint.net

 

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