Mainers will have to forgive my ignorance, but until I looked at a map, I hadn’t realized just how far north Sugarloaf is. From Sunday River, it’s a winding, bouncy two-hour drive. When I get there, I’ll be about 100 miles from the coast and just 30 from the Canadian border.
Turning left at the bottom of the access road, I resume my journey east on U.S. 2, down the left bank of the wide Androscoggin, which is muddy and swollen with spring runoff. The Androscoggin was one of the super highways of the logging industry, and it’s easy to imagine it choked with timber, as it would have been at this time of year.
The river and I descend through valley farmlands and occasional hardscrabble hamlets. The fields are dun-colored and mostly snowless; the maples show the first red tinges of awakening buds. Soon I’m in Rumford, an industrial mill town where factories line the river and the odor of paper pulp hangs in the air. Just beyond it, the river turns south, headed for Merrymeeting Bay and the Atlantic.
I head north, plunging in earnest into the near-wilderness of northern Maine. It’s beautiful country, with an especially isolated feel at this time of year.
Everyone knows about Oh My Gosh Corner, a bend in the road on Route 16 where Sugarloaf Mountain, heretofore invisible, explodes into view, all white-capped and ribboned with ski runs. Normally, it’s a stirring experience. Today, it’s just another bend in the road, the big mountain invisible behind gray clouds. Twenty minutes later, I’m pulling up at the front door of the big Sugarloaf Mountain Hotel, happy to see that the drizzle has turned to wet snow at this elevation.
Sugarloaf is a huge north-facing mountain in the middle of densely forested wilderness, with a stunning view of even taller Bigelow Mountain across the Carrabassett Valley. There’s no quaint, historic town—just an access road lined with a few inns and restaurants and a slopeside condo-village at the top. But it’s where “real” Maine skiers come to ski, drawn by its 2,820 continuous vertical feet, its no-nonsense expert terrain and the famous Snowfields—the East’s only lift-served above-treeline skiing. This is where Bode Miller honed his unconventional, hell-bent style of attack, defying the coaches at Carrabassett Valley Academy (and almost graduating, were it not for a senior-year disagreement with an equally uncompromising teacher). Sugarloaf’s remoteness is both a weakness and a strength. It’s a long drive here from anywhere (except that Canadian border). But that limits crowds and weeds out sissies. So when you see a car with that distinctive Sugarloaf bumper sticker—the blue triangle with the white tip—you can be pretty sure it’s owned by an avid and probably expert skier, one willing to drive a little farther for the terrain and the adventure.
It’s Monday night, and things are quiet this time of year. But just after dinner, a couple of busloads of British teenagers pull in to liven things up. They’re happy to have finally arrived after a long transatlantic trip. Later, I have a beer with a couple of their chaperones. They’re nice folks, but a little too weary to be much fun, so I watch the end of the Sox season-opener back in my room, then turn in.