Sugarloaf’s New Guard

Young families who came for the mountain and stayed for community.

There is some dispute about the best way to get to Carrabassett Valley from Cumberland County, but the Mainers I know can all agree on one thing: it is freeing to follow the signs that read “North,” to turn off of highways and take winding roads to places of real solitude. While I make this drive just a few times a year, there are those for whom the trek to Sugarloaf is a weekly ritual, who have purchased homes and become a part of this tightly knit, fiercely proud mountainside community. And then there are the people who live in Carrabassett Valley and the surrounding towns of Kingfield and Stratton year-round, who are building lives for themselves in western Maine. Equipped with a thermos of coffee and a collection of names and numbers, I go looking for Sugarloaf’s new guard—for the young families who are committed to these rural places, and who are shaping them for the better both on and off the slopes.

Whatever route you take to Sugarloaf, if you’re coming from the south, it’s hard to miss Kingfield, and that’s a good thing—you wouldn’t want to. Situated along the river, with views of Mount Abram and the backside of Sugarloaf, Main Street is lined with worn but beautiful old buildings. There is a busy gas station and the requisite white- steepled church and now—in an old New Englander that has housed many different families and businesses over the years—a casual eatery called Rolling Fatties, which is the creation of Maine natives Polly and Rob MacMichael.

In the Maine tradition, the MacMichaels (who met working at Sugarloaf) pieced together a living doing a variety of jobs, including carpentry and graphic design, before they hatched the business plan for what would eventually become western Maine’s favorite mobile food joint. With more people moving to the area, the MacMichaels identified a need for another gathering place, where locals and visitors could go to enjoy each other’s company along with tasty local food. They perfected a family tortilla recipe, refurbished an Airstream Argosy, and Rolling Fatties was born. While they’re still mobile, traveling around the state serving staples like their cheeseburger fatty, when I visited the MacMichaels on that sunny and frigid morning last February, they were in the midst of building a permanent, indoor location at their property on Main Street (now complete).

These two are part of a groundswell of longtime residents, young families, and couples who are bringing about positive changes in Kingfield. “It’s always been an awesome, sustainable community,” says Polly. “I don’t think that that core is going to change, but it’s becoming a little more active.” Plans for designing and developing a town common, sidewalks, and a river parkway are in the works.These enhancements, and the opening of new businesses like Rolling Fatties, make Kingfield an even more desirable stop for visitors to the mountain. “With the addition of the mountain biking trails and Maine Huts and Trails, this is becoming more of a four-season place,” says Polly. “People are coming from hundreds of miles away for the trails, and more people are discovering how much the area has to offer.”

Next stop: Birchwood Condominiums. Around noon on Saturday, it is warm and cozy at the Rapkin-Stiles home. Hilary Rapkin and Will Stiles look on while their two sons and a couple of their friends eat sandwiches and discuss the morning’s events. The boys—including Will—were out skiing this morning, and the proof is in their ruddy cheeks, messy hair, and sparkling eyes. Between bites, the younger sibling, Ethan, now ten, explains to me just how well he knows the mountain: “I basically have it memorized,” he says. His older brother Eli, now 14, does, too. The family has been making the well-worn trek from Falmouth to Carrabassett Valley just about every winter weekend since Hilary and Will bought the ski-in, ski-out condo in 2010. They’ve started visiting in the summer, too.

Will grew up skiing at Sugarloaf as a boy, before his family moved to Oklahoma when he was 12. In Oklahoma he missed the snow and mountains so much that after a rare snowfall, he would cart the precious stuff around in a wheelbarrow and pile it onto a meager slope in his backyard to get a few turns in before it melted. As soon as he was able, Will made his way back in Maine, where he eventually met Hilary, a Montreal native.

Both Will and Hilary talk about how rewarding it’s been to watch their sons come into their own on a real mountain, among this tight-knit community of people they admire. “I’ve met so many interesting people here,” says Will. “The thing I love about Sugarloaf is, it’s not about what you do for a living. Aside from friends who work on the mountain, there are some people I’ve known for years, and don’t even know what they do for a living,” he says. “Sugarloaf is not a place where people come to see and be seen. People come here to ski and to have a good time.”

Although Hilary doesn’t ski, Sugarloaf has become a special place for her, too. She goes to the gym every day and often snowshoes up to Bullwinkle’s to meet Will and the boys for lunch, or gets a little work done while the house is quiet. Both are lawyers; Hilary is the general counsel at WEX Inc., while Will works in private practice at Verrill Dana. Sugarloaf provides some respite from their busy week-day lives and a chance to catch up with family and friends. Evidence of their active social life is the number of limes in the refrigerator, ready for cocktails—and in the fact that they seem to know just about every Sugarloafer I can name. For a big mountain, Sugarloaf is a small place. Despite the number of new programs and opportunities now available to his sons, Will says Sugarloaf is basically the same place he skied as a boy.

Lunch is over, and it’s time to get back outside. While adding layers, snapping buckles, and handing off coats, Will says, “The Sugarloaf vibe is something special. There’s an old timer—I think it was Peter Roy—who says, ‘You don’t get here by accident.’ It’s farther away. It’s colder. It’s windier. You have to want to be here.”

Early Sunday morning, the weather has taken a turn for the worse. It is windier than it was yesterday, and colder, but that doesn’t stop the Punderson family from getting in a few runs first thing. Afterward, walking around with Kate Webber Punderson, the head of school at Carrabassett Valley Academy (CVA), I experience the “Sugarloaf vibe” in full force. Outfitted in CVA attire, making her way from the SuperQuad to the Base Lodge early Sunday morning, she greets at least a dozen people. Given the face masks and goggles you’d think it would be tough to recognize familiar faces, but that does not appear to be the case; on a ski mountain, coats become an important identifier. Punderson says that a typical winter weekend day begins this way: with lots of hellos, a few good runs—sometimes in the company of Will Stiles after they’ve dropped their sons off for CVA’s Alpine Weekend Program. But Saturdays typically devolve into a slew of meetings and events. Especially in the winter, she is never off the clock, a status that would be tough to sustain if not for one important fact: “I can be myself at Sugarloaf,” she says. “And I don’t think I’d feel that way if I lived and worked anywhere else.”

Kate Webber Punderson grew up in Carrabassett Valley. Her grandfather cut some of the Loaf’s original trails in the fifties, and her parents owned and operated the Sugarloaf Inn while she was growing up. After attending undergraduate and graduate school in Vermont and working for various outfits and independent schools throughout New England, Kate and her husband, Sam Punderson, came to work for her alma mater, CVA, in 2001. In 2011, she became the head of school. Sam now works as a realtor with Mountainside Real Estate, just a stone’s throw from where we sit down to chat.

Having both grown up in rural New England towns, Kate and Sam knew they wanted to raise their son Calvin, now ten, in a similar setting. They wanted him to grow up with an appreciation for the outdoors and a strong sense of community. Carrabassett Valley offered them all of this and, in Sam’s words, “a real mountain, with real terrain.” The Pundersons tell me that since they moved to town 15 years ago, Carrabassett Valley and the towns of Stratton and Kingfield are attracting more and more people who want a less crowded life. The job options and amenities are limited, but people are willing to make certain concessions, and—whether permanently or part-time—they are finding their way to western Maine.

“It’s amazing what people do to get here,” says Sam, speaking of locals and weekend warriors alike, some of whom drive four or five hours to and from Sugarloaf on a regular basis. Kate adds, “I think as communities of southern Maine continue to creep north, it gets hard to find real solitude. People are willing to drive further to find it.”

In a remote part of a remote state, solitude is to be expected. Less expected are the myriad resources available for kids like Calvin, who participates in activities like the trampolining at the Anti-Gravity Complex, swimming lessons, and the Ski/ Skate Program, which also provides local kids who may not have season passes the opportunity to learn the sport so central to their town’s identity. At Sugarloaf, Calvin’s gotten to know kids from all over Maine and New England, in addition to his classmates at Stratton Elementary School; all told, his is a diverse friend group. Kate and Sam appreciate this opportunity for him to get to know people from different backgrounds. They also take advantage of the cultural offerings in Quebec City and Montreal, both only a few hours away, and which they visit a couple of times a year.

“Independent but community minded” are the first words that come to Kate’s mind to describe the people who live in Carrabassett Valley and the surrounding towns. “The people who live here do their own thing,” she says, “but at the same time, we look out for each other. You see people in the village or at the bus stop, and that may be the only place you see them, but it doesn’t matter— that sense of community is there.”

On Sunday afternoon, the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center is quieting down and the manager, Chris Parks, has some time to chat about how and why he found his way to Carrabassett Valley. After graduating with an engineering degree, Parks got a job in southern Maine but found himself hightailing it north at every possible opportunity, seeking out that “real solitude” Kate Punderson spoke of earlier. In 2008, he decided to move to Carrabassett Valley permanently, and he has been managing the center for the past several years. What he loves most about his job? The people. “Everyone’s happy, easygoing. There are no niches based on income or anything like that. You get up here and there’s not a lot of judgement. People help each other out,” he says.

A few minutes into our conversation, his wife Audrey and their dog Peat have joined us, and Audrey adds that, “people form friendships around their interests, not their ages,” which is something she appreciates about living where they do. For the past few years, the pair has been settled beside the river, a few miles south of the mountain along Route 27. Before Audrey opened Western Maine Pharmacy in Kingfield in 2011, people from Carrabassett Valley had to drive 40 miles to Farmington to fill a prescription. She is just one of many people in this small community whose presence has been a boon to everyone’s quality of life.

The sun sets early in this part of the state at this time of year. Skiers call it quits for the day, and people head home or out to the local ski bars and restaurants for a drink and warm food. Sunday evening, I make my way to Coplin Plantation, just outside of Stratton, where Heidi Donovan and Tony Rossi have turned a formerly abandoned farmhouse into the area’s newest fine dining destination, The Coplin Dinner House. When I arrive, Heidi, who manages front-of-the-house operations, is busy taking reservations in anticipation of a sizable dinner crowd while Tony, the executive chef, is readying the kitchen. Coated in a fresh layer of snow, the pastoral views out of the restaurant’s many windows are breathtaking. I say as much, and they nod in agreement. While working together at the Shipyard Brewhaus down the road, Heidi and Tony fell in love with the quiet beauty of this area, and—to diners’ delight— decided to stay put.

On the last day of my Sugarloaf stay, I sip coffee while waiting to meet Sarah Pine, the hut operations manager with Maine Huts and Trails, and her husband, Joe Hines, who builds trails for Carrabassett Region New England Mountain Bike Association in the summer and terrain parks at Sugarloaf in the winter. A storm is brewing. Through the windows, the wind kicks the snow into such a flurry it’s difficult to see more than several yards in front of me, but it’s toasty inside the coffee shop, amidst the grinding and whirring of espresso machines and the friendly chatter. Business is far from slow on a Monday morning.

Sarah and Joe are well-known at Java Joe’s and exchange hellos with several people before we start chatting. Originally from Virginia, Sarah and Joe met while working as rafting guides on the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers. When he asked what it would take to keep her in Maine, she said, “A ski resort.” They’ve lived in Carrabassett Valley since 2005, minutes away from skiing, hiking, and biking. They built a home for themselves just a few miles from where we sit, and count themselves lucky to be able to live here year-round, to help shape this area—in Joe’s case, quite literally. “People are working hard to bring economic growth to this area,” says Sarah. “That’s probably the reason we’re here. I think more and more young families are coming to the area and are staying if they can, for as long or as often as they can. It’s not always easy, but we love the way we live.”

We have to cut our conversation a little short. They’re minutes from home, but I’ve got quite a ways to go, and the weather is going to get worse before it gets better. Driving slowly along the snow-covered Access Road, I think back on this common refrain: “It’s not always easy.” I also I think back to what Will Stiles said: “You have to want to be here.” Everyone I spoke with wants to be in the mountains more than anywhere else, and that is a powerful common thread. They sacrifice certain conveniences, but what they get in return is unfettered access to the outdoors, which is probably worth more than most of us realize.

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