December 2, 2012

Skiing in Maine: Early season skiing brings the passionate back to the slopes

By JOSH CHRISTIE

After a largely snowless spring and a too-long summer, skiers and snowboarders are getting back on their gear and out on Maine's slopes. Maine's two largest resorts -- Sugarloaf and Sunday River -- are open now, and nearly all of the state's other areas plan on opening in the next few weeks.

Like a handful of other passionate skiers and riders, I make a point of getting out on the hill as soon at the lifts start turning. It's always an interesting mix of folks on the slopes during these early days. It's the most hardcore of skiing passionistas: racers from around Maine and New Hampshire resorts like Wildcat and Attitash; college students from UMF, Bates and Colby; long-time skiers at Sugarloaf; and ski bums in the classic mold.

There's hardly a person on the hill who isn't an expert. Skiing and snowboarding have always been communal sports, but it never feels as much like one happy family as when it's just these passionate souls who've been eyeing their equipment since August.

Conditions are objectively worse in the early season than at the height of winter, but you couldn't tell that by looking at the people on the mountain. Whenever I was tempted to grumble about firm packed powder or a lack of skiable acres, there were plenty of people ready to remind me that a bad day skiing beats a good day doing anything else.

Lifties at both mountains were in similarly high spirits, happy to be back on the hill. One at Sunday River was even giving out high-five tips. (If you want to be sure to make contact, look at the other person's elbow instead of their palm.)

Early season skiing does present some unique challenges. There is, of course, the hard packed boilerplate snow -- familiar to any New Englander, but particularly noticeable when every skier on the hill is going down a handful of trails. Blasting snowguns, crucial as they are, create artificial blizzards to test riders. The first few times out are also hard mechanically, inasmuch as it takes a few days to get your snow legs back under you.

Mother Nature also gives us less sunlight for skiing. We're nearing the shortest days of the year, and the sun disappears before 5. At Sugarloaf and Sunday River, the sun slips behind the summit well before it dips below the horizon. Thankfully, most skiers' legs will also have a tough time making it to last chair this early in the season.

Still, some things feel just like midseason. If you're riding up the Locke Mountain Triple, it still rattles like a train car just after the midstation. Java Joe's still pumps out enough coffee to get a contact caffeine buzz walking by. These familiar bits and pieces tell us what brings the few hardy souls to the mountains early in the season. Opening day might fall a few weeks after homecoming weekend, but it still feels a lot like coming home.

Even if the slopes aren't packed shoulder to shoulder, there's no doubt that it's a point of Maine pride to get people skiing as early as possible. Sunday River was the first Maine ski area to open, on Nov. 6. Sugarloaf wasn't far behind. The Carrabassett Valley resort opened for skiing and riding on Nov. 9. It was the mountain's earliest opening day since 2007.

With an absence of any natural snow to speak of, these early openings have been possible due to expanded snowmaking capacity at both resorts. Sugarloaf's biggest snowmaking expansion in 20 years included 300 new guns on trails from Skidder to Tote Road, along with new snowmaking pipes and valve stations. A million-dollar investment at Sunday River, already notable for snowmaking mastery, added 300 snowguns to over a dozen of the most popular trails.

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