Legends of the Loaf
By Sarah Stebbins
Photographs by Matt Kalinowski
Styling by Janice Dunwoody
One family’s sugarloaf story offers a glimpse into the mountain’s colorful past.
Eight years ago, after their children had left home, Cooper and Meredith Friend decided to expand their empty nest. The couple had owned a condo at Sugarloaf for more than a decade, and they had rented prior to that. But they fell in love with a five-bedroom, cedar-sided home, its roof composed of a trio of peaks that echo the great white peak rising up beyond the trees in the backyard. “People said, ‘What do you want with that big house?’” says Cooper, who owns motorcycle dealerships in Maine and New Rochelle, New York. “And I responded, ‘I hope it will be the Krazy Glue that holds our family together.’”
The family’s return to Sugarloaf was never in question. The Friends started bringing their son, Cooper, and daughter, Megan Hildebrand, to the mountain in 1987, when they were five and six years old. Although they were raised primarily in Ellsworth, where their parents still live, “our kids think of Sugarloaf more as their home than anyplace else,” says Meredith. The family would head to the mountain nearly every weekend, and Meredith lived there with the kids when they attended high school at Carrabassett Valley Academy. “Sugarloaf was like this whole other world, with people who shared this passion and common interest—we always wanted to be there,” says Megan. So when it came to real estate, the couple’s main concern was having enough space to accommodate their children, the friends they would inevitably bring with them, and, eventually, significant others and grandchildren.
With its exposed pine beams, central stone fireplace, and outdoorsy decor, the house has been a cozy backdrop for holidays, family gatherings, and impromptu get-togethers with the couple’s many friends on the mountain. The home also serves as a family archive of sorts, chronicling a dedication to skiing and to Sugarloaf that spans three generations. On the wall leading up the stairs is a pair of wooden jumping skis that belonged to Cooper’s father, Peter Friend, who competed in the sport at New Hampton School in New Hampshire in the early 1940s. A wooden T-bar from one of the first lifts installed at Sugarloaf hangs nearby. In the den, there’s a lamp made out of a Lange ski boot that Cooper wore in the mid-1970s and a bookshelf filled with photos of the Friends, smiling in their bright ski gear. Mingling with the color shots are faded black-and-white images of a young Cooper and his dad at the mountain’s old ski shop and of the family’s first Sugarloaf home.
Peter Friend and his wife, Beverly, built the little chalet, located a mile down Route 27 from the Sugarloaf access road, in 1960. The couple was good friends with King Cummings, one of the founders of Sugarloaf and a neighbor of theirs in Newport. Peter began skiing with Cummings at the mountain in 1954, three years after it opened, and later brought his young family there. Cooper was five when he snowplowed down his first trail and quickly became hooked. “We skied every weekend after my parents bought their place and I couldn’t wait until Friday afternoons to get up there,” he says. The camp had no running water or central heating, so the family would fill their station wagon with five-gallon jugs of water and immediately light a fire when they arrived. “It was an experience a lot of early Loafers had,” says Cooper.
During that first winter of 1960–61, Sugarloaf had five trails, three T-bars, a one-story base lodge, and a pair of Sno-Cats for rudimentary grooming. The Cats would drag steel rollers to pack down snow or chain-link fencing to break up icy stretches and make them less treacherous. (Snowmaking hadn’t taken off yet.) “I even remember hauling around bed springs to try to scarify the ice,” says John Christie, a longtime friend of the Friend family who served on the ski patrol in the early 1960s and later became general manager of the mountain. On powder days, “the moguls would get so big, we’d sometimes use a bulldozer to push the snow into the valleys between them,” he says. “Needless to say, nothing we did worked that well.” Portions of trails that could not be reached by machinery were left ungroomed or were tamped down by skiers who spent the morning sidestepping up the mountain in return for free afternoon lift tickets. One winter, Peter broke his leg and was out for the season. “It was probably some combination of ice and bindings that didn’t release the way they do now,” says Cooper. “That was a common injury back then.”
Between the accommodations and the conditions, skiing at Sugarloaf in those early days was “a pretty challenging endeavor,” says Christie, who wrote the book on the mountain’s history: The Story of Sugarloaf (Down East Books). He thinks the loyalty people felt, and continue to feel, to Sugarloaf has to do with the way the community evolved. “There was this group of people who were like pioneers at this emerging ski area and they developed an allegiance to it, and a camaraderie, that has been passed down through the generations,” he says. “A lot of the people I know at Sugarloaf today, like the Friends, are people I knew in the 60s, or their children and grandchildren.”
Many of the “pioneers” have stuck together or found each other over the years. Cooper and Meredith typically break from the slopes at 10:00 a.m. to meet a crew, including Christie and local attorney Don Fowler, for hot chocolate at Bullwinkle’s restaurant midway up the west side of the mountain. Die-hard skiers all, the guys at the gathering, dubbed “the AARP meeting,” also share a friendly rivalry. Fowler, a Loafer since 1958, skis almost every day the mountain is open. (And after it closes, he keeps going, hiking up on foot and skiing down “until the snow goes away.”) On workdays, he skis for a few hours in the morning, wearing a dress shirt, chinos, and sometimes a tie under his gear. In 2008, Cooper was determined to keep up with him. “Coop’s a competitive guy and when he sets his mind to something, there’s pretty much no stopping him,” says Fowler.
On one particular day that year, a “wind hold” prevented the lifts from running when the regulars showed up at 8:30 a.m. Everyone was sitting around the locker room under the ski shop feeling glum, but Fowler managed to finagle a ride up the mountain with a mechanic on a snowmobile. “I was quietly putting my boots on and Cooper, of course, wanted to know what was going on,” says Fowler. So a little while later I’m skiing down in these hurricane winds and as I neared the bottom I see this figure hiking up and it was Coop. He was damned if he was going to let me get a day on him.” Fowler ended up winning the competition, but Cooper received the Sugarloaf “Ironman Award,” given each year to a person who skis an insane amount in a season, usually 150-plus days. “There are a bunch of people who ski a lot, so the award kind of gets passed around,” says Fowler. That year, I told the people in management, ‘You better give it to Coop.’”
“I can get a little obsessed,” admits Cooper, who often rises before dawn and climbs up the mountain wearing a headlamp and alpine touring equipment, which allows the skier’s heels to be free when hiking and clipped in place for the ride back down. Being alone on the trail with the moon over one shoulder and a set of fresh tracks in your wake—“it’s very peaceful,” says Cooper. And there are plenty of opportunities for socializing later in the day. Cooper and Meredith sometimes meet up with the AARP group and others for beers at the Bag restaurant after the lifts close. Cooper also competes on the restaurant’s team in a local racing league. “Basically, a bunch of us old folks—and some young guys, too—get together on Wednesdays to race and have a party afterwards,” says Cooper. Last year, when work in New York kept him away from the mountain for a chunk of the winter, he flew back for the races.
“Sugarloaf gets deep into your soul and it’s hard to live without some part of it,” says Cooper. “When I’m away, I always have this ache to be there. It was that way for my dad, who skied right up until the end of his life and got to spend time with us in our house. And I know my kids have the same feeling.” On New Year’s Day 2012, the youngest member of the family, Megan’s son Anders, took his first fumbling, pole-less strides on the bunny slope. He was only 18 months old, but “the seed was planted,” says Cooper. “By the time he’s five or six, he’ll really be ready.” In this family, that seems to be the age when little skiers become “Loafers.”