Wednesday Slalom

If it's midweek in winter, it's high time for some fast moves on the slopes.

“I literally screamed the whole way down,” Meryl Kelly says about her first time on the course.

Don’t fall, don’t fall, remains her mantra, she explains. “As long as I don’t go into the nets I’m good.”

Kelly, part of the Honey Badgers team, is wearing her race bib and eyeing the slope. She works
in the events office at Sunday River and is part of a short line waiting for her turn on the giant slalom course that’s marked with flags on Barker Mountain. The competition crew set up the race arena this morning in the mixed weather of steel gray heaviness and bright, glinting sunshine. The trail is cordoned off with orange net fencing and is reserved solely for this week’s competition in the Bud Light Local’s Challenge.

From under an American flag at the starting canopy, the day’s 99 competitors are getting a panoramic view of the western Maine mountains that rise around Bethel and Newry and down toward Barker Lodge and the rest of the resort below. From the line, I hear bits of conversation. “Where you been?” “Ah, I slept in.” “Go, Joy Tonic!” And as a competitor watches a fellow skier, “She punches it on the front and sits and hits it on the backside—that’s her style.”

There’s been no new snow falling for a few days. Temperatures are up to about 40 degrees in these first days of March, and the tree branches are mostly bare, but there’s plenty of groomed snow on the ski runs. Sunday River’s impressive snowmaking abilities are at play. At the skyline, what looks like a horizontal rainbow hangs in the last of the clouds across the sky.

“Racers ready,” says John Gustatis when the courses are clear. Dressed in black and gray ski gear and with his spiky hair standing tall, he’s the competition staffer at the top who gives the go- ahead to skiers and snowboarders to start. The competitors typically race in pairs, whooshing and scraping edges as they descend the groomed dual-slalom course marked with red gates to the left and blue gates to the right. Kelly drops in, and I don’t hear any yelling. (While she talked of trepidations and having to work up her courage, I notice later that she finished with times right in the middle of the pack.)

Between racers, Gustatis tells us that some of the skiers are elite and serious, and others are more laid-back—like teams in a bowling- and-beers league. He’s from Bridgton and grew up skiing at Shawnee Peak there. Others here are Gould Academy alumni or have connections to Telstar High School. Kids at the Newry- and Bethel-area schools ski early. And many of the day’s competitors work at the resort, at night at local restaurants and bars, or are retirees—this is a morning event on weekdays, after all.

Barry Hallett is the sole person I see telemark skiing in the challenge on this day’s runs. (He’s one of four who will ski the course that way over the season—teleskiing is a combo of alpine and Nordic ski styles.) He’s also the only one with a GoPro camera mounted on a long stick, so he can film while he skis. “I’ll see you on the hill,” he says, smiling, as he manages his ski and camera gear.

Hallett is captain of the All Funked Up team and explains that his Bethel bar, the Funky Red Barn, is a major supporter of the Local’s Challenge. “What once started as a good- sized group of local skiers,” he explains, “has morphed into close to 150 participants from as far as Massachusetts vying for the coveted Golden Ski Boot.”

It’s the skiing that drew Barry and his wife, Brooke, here in 2008, and she skis for All Funked Up, too.

For the Gold (Boot)

Except for the lack of large crowds lining the course with cowbells and roaring cheers, it looks like I’ve skied up to a smaller-scale Olympics event, like the kind I watched on TV growing up. Or maybe a preview of the professional alpine racing, the Pro Ski Challenge, that would be hosted by Sunday River in a couple of days.

In addition to the big-name sponsor, the Bud Light Local’s Challenge has its own announcers. Doug Hall and Pierce Stevens are at the base of Barker in the timing booth—in a building not far from the decks of the Barker Bar—to closely watch the races and record times according to bib numbers.

“Time on the blue course for Katie is 27.46,” Stevens says into a microphone.

Wearing headphones, they are also communicating with Gustatis up at the top of the run. The men take turns announcing the names of each person crossing the finish line—people are finishing anywhere from just over 24 seconds to just under 57 seconds. Everyone gets two chances at two timed runs each week—one red and one blue.

And speed isn’t the only factor for a team to win; the scoring depends strongly on team participation. Twenty or more teams of seven competitors each take part in the 10- week series from January to March. Points are highest for teams who have a full slate of participants turning out for races. Besides catching up with skiers at the start, I watch a while from the finish line, close enough to hear the skis chatter and skitter as the skiers come down, shifting their weight and leaning left then right in the zig and zag of a smooth slalom run.

Stevens’s voice breaks again into the winter morning air: “Tom on the red course for a time of 33.99.”

This competition is a winter tradition—a Wednesday tradition—to meet here above Barker and try your speed on the slalom course. Begun in the 1990s, about 150 people signed up last year. The teams represent groups of friends, and often the winners are associated with local ski haunts—the bars and restaurants around Bethel.

Brent Grygiel takes this seriously. He’s the competition and events hill manager at Sunday River and competes for the Honey Badgers, which took home the Golden Boot trophy in 2016. The award is literally a golden-painted ski boot atop a wooden base that’s affixed with metal plates inscribed with the names and years of winning teams. Hallett from the Funky Red Barn built the trophy’s wooden base, and the boot itself ? That was Grygiel’s.

The prized boot is at the competition center offices when I stop by. The winning team keeps it for the year, and the prior year the winners were employees of the resort’s competition and events departments. Grygiel himself is often one of the fastest skiers, yet the strategy he recommends for the series isn’t about speed. He advises, “The best thing is to just go out and ski.”

Rhumb Line and Coastguard

At 71, Fred Shrigley, a.k.a. “Shred,” has been the owner and manager at the Rhumb Line restaurant in Gloucester, Massachusetts, since 1978, and bought his first Sunday River season pass in 1988. On one of his birthdays, he rented the race hill for an hour for a private giant slalom race. “I had a bunch of friends come up from Gloucester, and they loved it and found that it’s not as hard as they thought.”

He ended up buying a house in Bethel, and some of his friends bought places in the valley, and for about a dozen years during the Local’s Challenge series, he’s made the less than four-hour drive for a mid-week getaway to ski at Sunday River. He likes how the scoring is weighted for team participation and the diversity of skiers—his longtime teammates include a millworker from Rumford, a retired social worker, a yacht broker, a carpenter, and a contractor.

“There are former Division One racers, Gould Academy and Sunday River ski coaches, and beginners who are snow plowing,” he says. “After a few races, you can find someone who’s near you (in speed), start talking trash with them, and be rivals for the season.”

For Katie Casey, the series is not only a friendly competition; it’s date night for her and Claude Muff, teammates on the Newry Coastguard team, one of the series’ fastest. “Whoever loses has to do the dishes,” she says, smiling.

Beata Wiktor of the Mixed Nuts team, the fastest woman of the day, says what’s interesting is that skiers and snowboarders compete evenly. “Anyone can come and can win in your category. There’s no age or equipment discrimination.”

Post-Race Pace

After the racers finish their runs on the course, it’s still early in the day. There’s time for lunch and an afternoon of more skiing or rest before the après-ski party. Grygiel suggests a lunch stop at Farmer’s Market and Taps in Bethel (now called Harvest Bar Eatery and Alehouse), and I head toward Parkway Road. On this March Wednesday most of the tables and stools are full of people in sweaters and plaid flannel, and the menu is based on organic food and drink. I try a hemp milk smoothie with avocado and blueberries and a black bean burger on crusty bread made by DiCocoa’s on Bethel’s Main Street. The restaurant is known for its organic wines and craft beers, but I wait.

This team-based series is designed to be social. The night of each race (and often the night before, too), competitors meet at local bars and restaurants in a season-long showcase of area ski bars and restaurants, including Barker Bar, Trail’s End Restaurant and Tavern, Matterhorn Ski Bar, Suds Pub, the Foggy Goggle, Funky Red Barn, and Rooster’s Roadhouse.

Today, the after-party is at the Millbrook Tavern and Terrace, downstairs at the sunflower-yellow Bethel Inn Resort. The general manager there is Brad Jerome, a ski racer when he was at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire who formerly participated as part of the boot-winning team the Stay at Home Jeromes. He remains a devoted supporter of the series. By the time everyone gets to the tavern, all have cleaned up and changed from ski clothes. Beer and wine glasses are clinking all around, and after everyone has a chance to go through a dinner buffet line, Grygiel begins to announce door prizes and the best individual and team results for the day. Rhumb Line, Joy Tonic, and the Honey Badgers are in the top ten.

At the end of the 2017 series, I get a message from Grygiel: “The Roosters and Chicks
are the champs and got to take home the trophy.”

That means the Golden Boot trophy will spend the year in a different spot—displayed with the toboggan sleds and ski gear decor at Rooster’s Roadhouse restaurant in Bethel.

Maybe the sight of that golden award will inspire other skiers to join the series. The highest goal of all of this, beyond the fun, is to create lifelong skiers, according to Shrigley and Grygiel. Some locals have been adding the local ski challenge to their calendars for years. Some wear their game face on the Sunday River race days, but mostly, they look joyful out there on the
lift line. A Wednesday ski day is a way to keep moving and have a good time in snow season. And sometimes on a giant slalom course in the western Maine mountains, it’s a way to compete just like the pros.