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Where Now: Saddleback Maine

Where Now: Saddleback Maine

Big-mountain skiing meets little-mountain attitude.
By Hilary Nangle
posted: 03/22/2011
Saddleback, Maine

My friends would prefer I not dish about Saddleback. They don’t want to share the big-mountain skiing with littlemountain attitude, the inviting glades, staggering views and down-home charm. But I believe in spreading the wealth, and this 4,120-foot peak in between Sunday River and Sugarloaf, in western Maine, has a wealth of many things.

Saddleback is no newcomer, but it almost didn’t make it to this 50th anniversary season. Once touted as the potential Vail of the East by an ambitious former owner, it languished for decades during fruitless permit battles. “That was the best thing that could have happened,” says former chief executive officer and general manager Warren Cook. For 20 years, this spectacular chunk of real estate overlooking the frozen expanse of the Rangeley Lakes chain remained virtually unchanged.

Those years of near dormancy preserved Saddleback’s classic narrow, winding trails. “Saddleback’s not as developed, so crowds are smaller,” Cook says. “It’s not as expansive, but it’s just as challenging,” he adds, comparing the resort to its larger neighbors. It also charges about $25 less per ticket and has cornered the family market by offering Maine honorroll students $59 season passes.

Saddleback began inching into the 21st century after the Berry family purchased the resort in 2003. The Berrys expanded the base lodge, added a beginner area with its own quad lift, replaced the summit T-bar with a quad, invested heavily in snowmaking and grooming, and cut new trails. Last season, Saddleback gained additional cred among advanced skiers when it unveiled Casablanca, a 44-acre glade—slated to expand to more than 60 acres this season—complemented by a midmountain yurt.

For all its updates, Saddleback’s biggest appeal is that it hasn’t lost its soul. “We’re competing at a new level, but we haven’t outgrown our small-town charm, the country living, the real atmosphere of Rangeley,” says operations manager Jim Quimby, a second-generation mountain employee, referring to the lakeside town seven miles down the road.

Cook knows that to survive, Saddleback must upgrade and increase uphill capacity while preserving the familypleasing charm and wilderness feel. Over brews in the slopeside Swig-and-Smelt pub, he outlines a $5 million expansion plan— from converting the old Rangeley double into a quad to building a new daylodge at the beginner base that will take the pressure off the main lodge. He also foresees trail and glade expansion, catskiing, employee housing and an 80-room hotel with spa. “We’ve created energy and buzz, and people are coming,” he says. “We have to be able to service them without destroying the culture of the place.”

When I arrive on a clear March day, Joni Mitchell is playing on the speakers. I’ve entered a time warp, and I’m loving it. Cubbyholes line the sun-drenched lodge. The dress code favors function over fashion, with lots more Labonville than North Face. And yes, that’s a pair of Rossi Strato 210s in the rack. They’ll fit right in on the pokey Rangeley double, which keeps the retro vibe alive.

I spend the morning cruising down the rolling blues and gentle bump runs snaking through fir and birch glades. I lollygag down America and Hudson Highway, soaking in the views of the lake. I grin myself silly on Blue Devil and Red Devil, which now rank among my top 10 joyrides.

“I like Saddleback’s vibe,” says Steve Prince, who grew up nearby. “It’s not all glamour and glitz but the essence of family skiing.” As we ascend the Kennebago quad, he points out the summit snowfields. “Snowfields, here?” I ask. They’re about a 20-minute hike. I pocket this knowledge along with my trail map.

We skate out Dazzler, passing a bounty of expert trails. All but one are steep, New England ribbons that furl and unfurl with the mountain’s contours. But Casablanca is calling us. Third-generation Saddleback patroller Jared Emerson had the vision that created this fire-and-brimstone marriage of moderately thinned glades and untouched forest of tight trees cut in the bowl between two expert trails.

When it comes to great lines, Casablanca the glade rivals Casablanca the movie, and just as the movie’s Captain Renault is like any other man, only more so, Casablanca is just like any other glade, only more so. There’s a bit of the Wild West here, a sense of frontiers to be explored, limits to be tested. Raising my pole in a mock toast, I address the glade: “Here’s looking at you, kid.” And then I play it again, and again, and again.

 

Skiable acres: 220
Vertical feet: 2,000
Base elevation: 2,120 feet
Summit elevation: 4,120 feet
Annual inches: 225
Lifts: 5

Lodging Slopeside, Saddleback has one-to four-bedroom condos ($175–$450; saddlebackmaine.com). In Rangeley, try the Pleasant Street Inn ($135– $155; pleasantstreetinnbb.com) or the Rangeley Inn ($84–$154; rangeleyinn.com).

Dining Take in sunset views over Rangeley Lake with dinner at Loon Lodge (loonlodgeme.com). It’s worth the 18-mile drive to Bald Mountain Camps, in Oquossoc, for a lakeside meal in a classic sporting camp (baldmountaincamps.com).

Après-Ski On the mountain, the action is at the Swig-and-Smelt; in Rangeley, Sarge’s Sports Pub and the Sunset Grille Pub are favored spots.

Must Ski If you’ve got the chops, tackle Casablanca.

Getting There Saddleback is 230 miles north of Boston, 125 north of Portland.

Info saddlebackmaine.com

 

 

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