It was the quiet that was alarming, a stillness that almost bred unease. The ride up the lift had been an exercise in solitude, and now, skiing my way down the mountain, I came to a stop, enveloped by noiselessness.
Had I wandered off the designated trail? Was I out of bounds? Where then to turn next?
My friends who ski exclusively in the Western mountains of North America like to regale me with stories of off-piste backcountry experiences during which they lose track of time and place. The accounts always end with a boast that there is nowhere in the Eastern part of the continent where such isolation and serenity can be found.
And yet here I was. Not, in fact, out of bounds or lost, just alone on a distant patch of Sugarloaf Mountain in northern Maine, knee-deep in snow with a hundred choices through the trees to consider.
The silence was a surprise I happily got used to. It was the subdued, inaudible calling card of Maine’s vast, unspoiled winter playground. Was this a rare, once-in-a-lifetime experience? Hardly. I’ve been skiing in Maine for nearly four decades. It is one of the best-kept secrets in snow country.
It is hard to explain why Maine is not more crowded with skiers and snowboarders in the winter. The state has some of the biggest mountains and most reliable snowfall in New England. Sugarloaf is the largest ski area in the eastern United States and has the East’s only Western-style, above-the-tree-line snowfield skiing.
Another Maine resort, Sunday River, has eight interconnected peaks with eight distinct terrain parks and trail systems, creating a three-mile-long network of choices that make it the East’s third largest ski area. (Killington in Vermont is second.)
And yet, except for devoted in-state residents — and some wandering Bostonians — Maine’s ski areas are underpopulated and overlooked. Sugarloaf, for example, has 154 trails and draws about 350,000 skiers and snowboarders a year. Sunday River, with 132 trails, draws about 525,000. Killington, meanwhile, with 140 trails, has historically drawn around 750,000.
Part of the explanation for this is stubborn tradition. New Yorkers and those from New Jersey routinely flock to Vermont, with a few thousand peeling off to the Adirondack Mountains. Long Islanders go to the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts. Those in southern New England, including a large swath of the Boston market, also head to Vermont, or to New Hampshire.
But Maine? Despite the fact that seacoast-seeking tourists turn Route 1 into a parking lot from Camden to Kennebunkport in the summer, the state is apparently deemed just too far for skiers.
Maine has 17 Alpine areas and 18 Nordic ones spread across a land mass that is more than three times the size of any other New England state. And most notable, at every turn there is an intrinsic come-as-you-are vibe.
As Chris Farmer, general manager of Saddleback Mountain, a large yet hidden gem in Maine’s lakes region, said: “Our trademark is that nobody will notice if your gear or your clothes are 20 years old. Who cares? It’s not a fashion show up here."
Authentic and unfussy
Late last winter, knowing Maine still had snow in an otherwise dismal snow year for the East, I decided to reacquaint myself with the state’s winter gifts. I could not get to every one of the 17 Alpine areas, but I certainly wanted to see the biggest mountains, and also to explore some of the lesser-known ones.
I started with Sugarloaf, deep in the Carrabassett Valley. Sugarloaf has managed to remain authentic and unfussy despite helping to groom the inaugural Olympic gold medal winner in snowboard cross, Seth Wescott, as well as the Alpine Olympic gold medalist Bode Miller. The trails here, some left natural and fluffy while others are steep and manicured, serve as a training ground for the U.S. ski team.
With a recent 655-acre expansion of backcountry-style glades, Sugarloaf has surpassed Killington in size. It does not, however, have Killington’s mile-long access road filled with bars and clubs. The lodge is not stylish, and the choices at the cafeteria are limited.
None of which vexes Sugarloaf’s fanatically independent following, proudly called Loafers. They know their place is not for everybody. That is exactly what keeps them coming back.
“There is a sense that our mountain is both the most popular place and the most unknown," said John Diller, Sugarloaf’s general manager. “I know that might not make sense at first, but what it means is that we’re never as crowded as the places in southern Vermont. And people love that."
In other words, Sugarloaf is popular because it is not that popular.
Around the state there is a similar dual — or dueling — sensibility: Come visit for all we’ve got; come because few know what we’ve got.
On a visit to Sunday River late last March — a mountain I made regular tours of as a college student — I rode the Jordan Bowl quad at the resort’s isolated west end by myself. There was not another person on the lift whom I could see. The trails beneath me appeared all but deserted.
At the top it was possible to take a panoramic, unhurried look across at New Hampshire, Canada and the Atlantic Ocean. To the right was Sunday River’s Oz Peak, a delightful choice for expert skiers because of its steep, narrow double-black-diamond trails: Tin Woodsman, Emerald City and Ruby Palace.
It was just after a restful lunch, and I wasn’t feeling like the Wizard of Oz just yet. So I headed instead to the left, taking in the long, wide Excalibur trail.
It was a perfect warm-up to the afternoon, an intermediate blue-square cruiser that started gently and picked up the pace with tightly spaced mounds that gave the trip down the feel of a roller coaster. That raised the blood pressure a bit. Especially when I skied it again at greater speed, turning the mounds into jumps.
After a quick ride up the lift, the broad glade of Blind Ambition beckoned next. At the resort’s westernmost edge, it is perhaps 40 yards across with comfortably spaced trees and saplings. You had to be alert and turn quickly, but with the right rhythm it was an entertaining trip down. And then finally it was time for one of those pride-punishing runs beneath the chairlift, a trail aptly named iCaramba — bumped up, testing and a bit hard underfoot, especially if you lost even a little edge grip.
All the while, there was the freedom to go or stop at my own pace, alone and in unison with the mountain.
“I started coming here when I was a kid," said Doug Wilson, who makes the trip to Sunday River from his home in Acton, Mass., about 10 times a year. “As I got older, I wanted to see other places, other states. And I had fun elsewhere, but I found myself coming back here. It’s less crowded and more about the skiing. I like that it’s not about bright lights and distractions. The focus is on the mountain."
Remoteness may be a calling card for the Maine ski scene but it does not necessarily mean primitive. At Sunday River, for instance, there are two major on-mountain hotels, about 700 condominiums for lodging and an expanding set of dining choices in the lodges, including a Korean and Japanese restaurant with a sushi and noodle bar, Cho Sun.
But there is not an abundant, boisterous night life. There won’t be anywhere to go for a 3 a.m. dessert. Aspen it is not. What does set Maine winter resorts apart is their general lack of traditional ski base villages. As big as Sunday River is, it has not built an all-inclusive village at its core. Instead, the resort encourages people to wander into the neighboring classic New England village of Bethel.
“It isn’t all about skiing," Dana Bullen, the Sunday River general manager, said. “Go there and walk around, interact with the locals. They’ll entertain you."
Here is one last example of how skiing in Maine is different from maybe anywhere else in the East, or across the country, for that matter. At resorts nationwide, getting access to the mountain just after dawn before anyone has cruised through the powder or the freshly groomed snow is a skier’s dream. It is called first tracks, and at many ski areas it is a privilege for which skiers or riders pay extra.
At Saddleback, the people who run it instead decided to make first tracks an opportunity to ski with the resort’s management on Sunday mornings. It is open to anyone with a regular lift ticket. “People ask questions or just enjoy the scene," said Chris Farmer, the Saddleback general manager.
On a powder day — in 2010 there were two storms that each hung over Saddleback for four days and dumped several feet of snow — there will be 100 people awaiting Farmer for the 7:30 first tracks departure. Most days, it is more like 30 people.
But there is always a hardy crew regardless. What would you expect at a mountain with 2,000 feet of vertical drop and 12 top-to-bottom, black and double-black diamond trails, part of the famed Casablanca glades and chutes?
“One Sunday morning it was 15 below zero at 7:30," Farmer said. “I wondered how that might affect the turnout. I showed up at the lift, and there were still 15 people there. That’s Maine skiing. They didn’t care."