LOCATION-January + February 2012
By Sandy Lang
Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards
Slope-side stories of epic snows, fireside proposals, and smoky barbecue for the ski and snowboard set
SADDLEBACK | SUNDAY RIVER | SUGARLOAF
On this Wednesday evening, the winter sky outside is black, and looking out from our table at Local 188 in Portland we watch plump snowflakes fall on Congress Street. For a minute or two, no cars break the white blanket on the roadway. It’s like clockwork, this Canadian-system snowfall arriving just in time for my week’s stay in Maine. Photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I are up from the Carolinas to get on the slopes. While we make a dinner out of appetizers and beers, I map out the week-long circuit that will get us to the mountains at Sugarloaf and Saddleback and—why not?—Sunday River as well. Actually, we’ll start there, since it’s the nearest to Portland. All of these mountains will be new to me. Until this trip, the only other Maine downhill spot I’ve tried is Hermon Mountain near Bangor—a 75-acre, 360-foot drop that’s a lot of fun on an afternoon.
The next morning, the snow’s still coming down in Portland, and we step outside into one of my favorite settings, the hush of a fresh snowfall. The rental car we picked up at the airport has been in a garage overnight, so thankfully we don’t have to start the day shoveling. For thrift, it’s a small Kia, and I soon note most every other car on the road looks to be a four-wheel drive. Throwing caution to the snowy wind, we start to motor along for the two-hour trip to Newry, just outside Bethel.
Soon we’re onto ME-26 and driving north on this route that passes Gray, Bryant Pond, and Paris. Everywhere, the landscape is buried, and branches of the spruce and pines droop downward with the white weight of snow. Drawn in by the winter scene, we take a short detour into the deeply tucked in Poland Spring Preservation Park, where the nineteenth-century buildings stand proud in the peaceful drifts. Peter Frank wants to do some photography and tromps through unbroken snow in his blue jeans and boots. Back in the car, he brushes the snow onto the floor mats. The flakes are dry and feathery, almost like powder—maybe we’ll get to ski in this very stuff soon.
But first, we’ll eat. Not far from the charming Main Street and white steeples of Bethel, we come upon a curved orange vision at the roadside. It’s the vintage camper on Route 2 that’s been converted into a barbecue stand. (Now known as Smokin’ Good BBQ, formerly the home of BBQ Bob’s.) Smoke is rising through the snowflakes from a hulking black smoker beside it. We can smell the barbecue cooking, and we pull on our jackets and hop out to place an order. Soon we’ve got little containers of barbecue sauce lined up on the dashboard, and before we’re out of the parking lot, we’re tasting the pulled pork, baked beans, cornbread, and slaw.
TWO HOURS NORTHWEST OF PWM, IT’S ALWAYS SUNDAY
Our next stop is a few miles up the road in Newry, where we check in at the Grand Summit Resort Hotel, one of Sunday River’s two mountain lodges. Families with children, lots of them from Boston, are also filling up the hotel this week—sports logos and accents are their giveaways. Sunday River is no bunny hill but a ridgeline of eight mountains with interconnecting slopes. The tallest summit is 3,140 feet, and the runs are long. Looking at the trail map I realize I can ski across several mountains in a long, diagonal path to the bottom, and the next morning I do just that. Around mid-day, I find Peter Frank with his snowboard (and cameras), and we line up for a ride in one of the enclosed, eight-person gondolas that glide over the trails while we watch individual skiers cut weaving lines down the mountain. That night, it looks like most everyone we saw on the slopes is at the Matterhorn Ski Bar, under a ceiling hung with beer mugs, skis, and posters of snowy peaks, for cheeseburgers, pizza, and knots of garlicky dough cooked in a gaping brick oven.
The next day at Sunday River I ski again, and then I return my rented equipment and go for a swim outside, nearly under the ski lifts. Really. From the heated pool inside the Grand Summit, you can swim to the outdoor section where steam is rising. You can float on your back and watch skiers and snowboarders pass by almost overheard. Snow sometimes drops in clumps off their boots against a steely backdrop of sky. I marvel that I am out there in the water in February. That night we hear that lanterns are being lit in the woods behind the Sunday River Inn for a nighttime snowshoeing tour. We rent snowshoes and walk the loop for a while, following the glowing light of lanterns hung on trees. The white snow reflects the moonlight, giving a silver cast to the woods. We hear voices ahead and soon come upon a woodpile and a couple dozen people—many with children—sitting around a bonfire in the woods, roasting marshmallows on sticks and watching the fire. A guide from the inn is telling stories. It’s all part of the trek, and we watch the burning logs while warming up before the return hike.
75 MILES FARTHER ON, SADDLEBACK RISES
One mountain down and two to go. We drive north and then east toward Rangeley, following US-2 through Rumford before we stop at the Mexico Chicken Coop. I’ve passed by before, in summer, and the restaurant’s painted sign, which reads CLASS A and NO BRAG, JUST FACT, has always raised my curiosity. Inside we go, and I see a salad bar on wheels, families seated at long tables, and Christmas lights still up and lit everywhere. We sit down, dive into the menu, and read the local ads for businesses in Rumford and Mexico that have been printed on the paper placemats. I choose a baked pasta, and Peter Frank orders a daily special that looks like a Thanksgiving feast in minature—a roast turkey sandwich smothered in gravy with corn, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce. (A person’s got to fuel up to snowboard and ski.) Along the rest of the drive that day on ME-17 and ME-4, we slow down several times to gaze at distant mountains, icy creeks, and snowbound seasonal cabins. In Rangeley, we wander up onto the long porch of the late-1800s Rangeley Inn and immediately want to go inside. In a lobby of handsome upholstered furniture, the glass eyes of a massive mounted elk head gaze out over a big fireplace and over a stuffed bear standing on its hind legs with paws raised. The bear looks ready to scrap. We make plans to return to the tavern for dinner. The rest of Main Street in Rangeley is lined with shops and businesses and follows the shore of Rangeley Lake, which looks like wind-whipped Arctic tundra this time of year. From town, the final few miles to Saddleback are an ascent into a blustery and wild mountaintop of open land and forest until we reach the condos and the lodge.
Maybe it’s the word “saddle” and all of its pine construction, but this resort has the rustic look and feel of a dude ranch out West. The lodge features a large fieldstone fireplace and the Swig ’n Smelt Pub, where we end up with the crowd after the next day’s skiing for a round of cold PBRs and live country music. The skiing and snowboarding at Saddleback are rugged and serious, and the off-trail backcountry skiing is a big draw. Snow falls most of the day I’m on the mountain, and sometimes the wind is howling. The summit’s elevation here is 4,120 feet, a vantage that gives clear views to the frozen lakes below. “It’s all vert here,” says Peter Frank, summing it up when he returns from his day of snowboarding. “Lots of verticality.”
For dinner, we’re seated near a freestanding fireplace in the middle of the Rangeley Inn dining room, and I’ve got a delicious boeuf bourguignon in front of me when I realize I can overhear another couple near the fireplace. In the wood-paneled scene of warmth, wine, and food, I hear the man at the next table ask the woman to marry him. She says yes! Peter Frank and I want to catch the couple’s attention and congratulate them, but they see only each other for the rest of the meal.
UP HIGH AND IN DEEP AT SUGARLOAF
We pack up and drive on from Saddleback the next morning, heading north again. The drive from Saddleback to Sugarloaf is less than 40 miles, and the longest stretch is along ME-16, which follows the Dead River’s south branch. Out the rear window, we see the ribbonlike trails on Saddleback shrinking into the distance. In the town of Stratton, a sparkling dust of snow is blowing across the road when we stop at the White Wolf Inn, a two-story building with the silhouette of a wolf on its flat roof. The “open” sign is glowing in the cafe, which looks like an ordinary country diner, but its menu and flavors turn out to be anything but ordinary. From the chalkboard specials, we order a white bean chili, a barbecue sandwich (served on a good kaiser roll and seasoned with five-spice powder), and a side of fried fiddlehead ferns, aka “wolf whiskers.” Everything tastes great, and it’s tough to leave the comfortable booth. But onward and upward is our mission. A few miles on, we begin to climb the road to Sugarloaf (elevation 4,250 feet), the highest mountain in Maine after Mount Katahdin.
Snow is falling more steadily as we approach the Sugarloaf Mountain Hotel, where we’ll be staying, and the sky looks fat and full of more. The resort’s corrugated, steel-colored walls and angled rooflines pierce the heavy clouds. I remember a Maine friend telling me he always wonders if he should dress up when he’s at Sugarloaf. “It’s the hip mountain,” he says. At the hotel entrance, valets stand ready to park cars, and the one who walks up to our rented ride is surprised we made the trip with no snow tires. “You might not make it out, though,” he says. “The storm’s coming.”
That night we catch a ride to the Rack, a bar and restaurant co-owned by Olympic champion snowboarder Seth Wescott. Under rafters hung with surfboards and snowboards, the lively crowd is eating, drinking, playing foosball, dancing, and talking about their day on the mountain. Snow season is in full swing, and you get the sense that everyone in the room is exactly where he or she wants to be. Overnight, we get the best snowfall of the trip, 25 inches, with more falling throughout the morning. I wake before the chair lifts are running and stand looking out from the slope-facing window of the hotel room. Still in my pajamas and with a bowl of microwave-heated oatmeal in hand, I watch the lifts begin to move through the near whiteout. Later that morning, for as long as I can bear it in the bitter-cold whip of wind, the skiing is almost unbelievable. In places, I can’t see my skis below me in a powder that must be knee-deep. They’re the kind of conditions everyone thinks are only possible out West. But we find them here in a winding week of ski days, on three “S” slopes in northwestern Maine.