November 11, 2012

Deirdre Fleming: Jeff Kuller leaves a legacy at Camden Snow Bowl

The coastal community around Camden lost a great friend and outdoor ambassador last week when Jeff Kuller was killed by a falling tree on Nov. 4. He left behind a unique recreation area and an appreciative ski community, as well as a wife and two children.

Kuller, the general manager of the Camden Snow Bowl, was more than the director of a ski-area, just as the Snow Bowl is more than a ski area.

The town-owned recreation facility has existed since 1936. The Ragged Mountain Recreation Area opened during the Great Depression and persevered through 70 years as a town park where kids could paddle, swim and mountain bike in the summer, as well as ski, snowboard, skate and toboggan in winter.

Kuller, 56, had only been there eight years, but he brought just the right positive spirit at just the right time.

Six years ago, the townspeople began what became a $6.5 million campaign to renovate the recreation area and build it into something better and more long-lasting -- while still keeping it affordable for local families. Kuller got behind the effort in action and spirit.

And yet despite the big-money movement going on, he didn't sit back. Wherever possible, he added new opportunities. He would get as excited over a new patch of glades for skiers as he would a new trail for mountain bikers.

The few miles of Nordic ski trail cut a year ago had Kuller dreaming of the potential: an around-the-mountain cross-country loop.

His focus was always on getting more kids outside, getting kids who can't afford to ski on the hill, and giving single parents a safe, affordable place to leave their children.

He wanted more doors and new avenues open to the outdoors for everyone, whether it was a tubing hill, a fancy Nordic trail or a jib park.

Most people a familiar with the Snow Bowl because of the nationally known National Toboggan Championships that draw sled racers every winter. But Kuller never seemed to care about headlines.

First and foremost, he wanted people in the area to know the Snow Bowl was there for them.

"Come up and ski," he'd say at the end of an interview. And it wasn't an invitation or public-relations pitch so much as a friendly gesture that seemed to say: "We have something special here. Come share it."

The last time I interviewed Kuller was three weeks ago, not long before his fatal accident. I arrived at the Snow Bowl on short notice to get a feature I needed to grab on the fly after a deadline got switched.

Having heard about a new mountain bike trail in Camden, I called to inquire and Kuller confirmed that it existed and had not been made public. So I drove up the next day to ride the trail with the Camden Hills High mountain bike team.

When I arrived, the Snow Bowl was empty except for Kuller and his assistant, Beth Ward. I chatted with them briefly before they told me the team was there and gone.

So I took off racing up the mountain.

Riding up the hill quickly turned to hiking, then running without my bike. Ski areas are far steeper than you realize until you try to run up them, and doing so was not my plan, but the light was fading.

Finally, just before dusk set in, I gave up and headed down the mountain, dejected -- until I came upon John Anders, one of the coaches. The team hadn't left. They were looking for me. And there was just enough light to ride and photograph them.

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