The East Coast War of Fog - Ski Mag

The East Coast War of Fog

In the snowy mountains of western Maine, a bitter battle rages. Proud Sugarloafers swear allegiance, while brash Sunday Riverites remember every insult.
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I propose that I’d be the perfect envoy for peace negotiations between warring parties in the long-running conflict in western Maine.

My credentials: I live and ski in the neutral state of Vermont, which has been peaceful and stable for decades, with only minor flare-ups involving hardline Mad River Glen fanatics. I know and love Maine and its people: My mom grew up hauling traps from a dory on Muscongus Bay, my dad on a saltwater farm in Kittery; they met at UMaine Orono. I’ve skied many days at both Sugarloaf and Sunday River and have come to know the people at both resorts. They’re all decent sorts until the subject of terrain quality or sustained vertical comes up.

There’d be a peace conference. Delegates from both sides would gather at a neutral location somewhere nice down on the coast. Maybe Friendship Harbor, where I know a guy with a nice wharf (and how perfect is that: the Friendship Accord). We’d crack shedders, shuck succulent Pemaquids, and I’d shuttle between the two parties with cocktails—Allen’s and milk, of course. (Or maybe alcohol’s a bad idea during peace negotiations? Moxie and milk?)

A truce would be crafted. Then we’d hammer out language for a lasting agreement, picking wild blueberries during breaks in negotiations, watching the salty sunsets that inspired Wyeth and Homer, and working it all out. I’d be all John Kerry, measuring wall space for my Nobel Prize.

But of course it’s all pure fantasy. The truth is that there can probably never be real and lasting peace between such bitter rivals.

North vs. South

The shame of it is that skiers are torn between two remarkable resorts. In the north, Sugarloaf, the older, more storied of the two, draws adventurous skiers willing to make a longer drive. Its spectacular white-capped peak stands alone amid remote surroundings, and its famous Snowfields offer the only lift-served high-alpine skiing in the East—a rare treat when they’re open, though it must be said they’re seldom open. Near the foot of the Sugarloaf access road is the Carrabassett Valley Academy, whose alumni include Bode Miller, America’s most decorated ski racer, and snowboarder Seth Wescott, a two-time Olympic gold medalist. Sugarloaf’s famous Narrow Gauge trail has hosted big-time races for decades, including National Championships. The base-area amenities are minimal but sufficient—a nice hotel and a few iconic restaurants such as The Bag and Kettle. Skiers come here to ski, drawn by the promise of long, steep, challenging runs.

Sunday River is less bucket-listy but has its own strengths. Where Sugarloaf occupies a single, dramatic peak, Sunday River sprawls across numerous distinct peaks that are interconnected by fast lifts. The runs are shorter, but they’re efficient, with no run-outs. There’s a quiet but charming New England village, Bethel, nearby. Hundreds of ski-in, ski-out condos line its lower slopes. And above all, serious skiers know they can count on Sunday River’s mountain-ops team to work miracles when the weather isn’t ideal. Sunday River’s snowmaking and grooming are famous industry-wide. With water supplies that any Eastern resort would envy, it can stretch the season to its limits, frequently vying for first-to-open and last-to-close honors.

At one time, the two resorts coexisted peacefully. Sugarloaf had clear dominion over all of Maine skiing; Sunday River was one of the state’s many fine but small areas, hardly a threat. Then, in 1972, Les Otten appeared on the scene. Within a couple of decades, he would transform Sunday River into a thriving resort, build an empire of resorts nationwide, wage all-out war with Sugarloaf, and eventually conquer it.

Seeds of Conflict

Otten’s story is the stuff of New England skiing lore. He was a fresh graduate of Killington’s management-training program when Killington founder Pres Smith sent him to a remote outpost in western Maine to manage a tiny area recently acquired by Smith’s Sherburne Corp.

Otten worked wonders at Sunday River, laboring relentlessly on snowmaking and grooming and terrain expansion, funding continual upgrades with the sale of affordable slopeside condos, whose happy occupants formed a built-in customer base. Otten bought his resort away from Sherburne Corp. in 1980, and within 10 years he had increased skier visits tenfold.

As Sunday River thrived and flourished, Sugarloaf decayed. Its influence diminished, skier visits stagnated, and marketing resources dried up. In 1986, with $12 million in debt, the resort filed for bankruptcy. In 1997, the top-to-bottom gondola was removed, never to be replaced, making it hard to get to the ’Loaf’s signature terrain.

But through it all, Sugarloaf passion and pride never wavered, recalls Tony Chamberlain, a longtime ’Loafer and ski editor for the Boston Globe. “The place had a lot of swagger. ‘We’re real skiers. Our terrain’s better. We’ve got the Snowfields and the steeps.’”

Dana Bullen, who in 2003 would take charge of Sunday River but was still working his way up through the ranks at Sugarloaf, recalls feeling similar pride.

“We were very proud of the resort. And it wasn’t just Sunday River: Every other resort in the East was second to us.”

The stage was set: A proud but decaying ’Loaf, a brash upstart Sunday River, competing for the hearts and minds of Maine skiers. What broke out was one of the bitterest marketing wars the ski industry has ever seen.

Open Warfare

“It got pretty ugly,” admits Skip King, who as Otten’s VP of communications was a frontline combatant.

“Sugarloaf, for a long time, was barely hanging in there financially, and they looked at all the growth at Sunday River with a mix of contempt and alarm. The competition wasn’t always friendly. For a while there it was pretty much hammer and tongs.”

There was a simple genius to Otten’s strategy, recalls King, now proprietor of a Portland public-relations firm. “Sugarloaf didn’t have the money to put in the capital improvements that Sunday River did because of the way Sunday River was run. Les would buy bridge loans, build condos, close on them in the fall, and use the money to pay off all the debt on those plus whatever new lift or trails went in that year. We were adding lifts and trail pods almost yearly for a good long stretch. And racking up skier visits. And we were not at all shy about bragging about all the new stuff. That fed the enmity.”

From his Globe desk in Boston, Chamberlain had a front-row seat for the war and an outsider’s perspective on the clashing cultures of the two resorts.

“The stereotype was that Sunday River was a little more buttoned-down, more family-oriented, more solid middle-class affluence, whereas at Sugarloaf, you had
a more rawboned feel—college kids and hippies and people skiing in the woods, most of them from Maine. And the marketing was Portland-only. They didn’t think about Boston.”

On occasion, Chamberlain found himself caught in the crossfire. Example: skier-visit claims.

“Les had all these notebooks, and he’d show me his notes about the number of cars in the parking lot at Sugarloaf, saying they were lying about skier visits. He had a plane, and he would fly up there and count the cars. It got to that level, and he had reams of notes.”

In one particularly hot skirmish, Sugarloaf marketing director Chip Carey made the claim that Sugarloaf was only 39 miles farther from Portland than Sunday River. King says he tried never to name the enemy publicly, but the mileage claim was too much for Otten to quietly swallow, and he filed a complaint for unfair advertising. “Les could take things quite personally, and our marketing director would get him even more riled up.”

At one point, King says, someone in Sunday River’s marketing department sent a one-page fax to the Sugarloaf marketing department—a simple, hand-scrawled, two-word message: “F**k you.” It was proudly displayed on a Sugarloaf conference-room wall for years.

“We were not at all blameless,” King admits, clearly relishing his memories of the war years later. “But it was fun. A tactical marketing battle. I always tried to do things with as much humor as possible, but Les, though he’s mellowed, was thin-skinned in those days."

And if there was a single emblem of the war between the two Maine rivals, it was The Sign. Everyone remembers it. It hung on Tower 19 on the old Double Runner West chair, some 1,500 vertical feet shy of the ’Loaf’s high-alpine summit. It said: “If you were at Sunday River, you’d be at the top.”

“It was essentially meaningless,” says King, “because their base elevation was higher. It wasn’t apples to apples. So I thought it was kind of dishonest. But I also thought it was funny, in a grudging way.”

It may also have been a sign of Sugarloaf’s hubris. (“Otten always had his eye on the prize, and Sugarloaf was a little smug,” says Chamberlain.) For in the end, 
the mighty ’Loaf would fall, and Otten would capture its flag. When Otten’s American Skiing Co. swallowed up Sugarloaf in 1996, Sugarloaf struck its colors. Warren Cook, the CEO of Sugarloaf, had the sign taken down, then brought it to a meeting at Sunday River headquarters, where he personally presented it to Otten.

“That was a classy move on Warren’s part,” says King. “Sort of, ‘You won, dude. Here’s your sign.’”

A Tense Cease-Fire

So, yes, it was mostly a war between marketing departments. But it trickled down to the skiing public. “Certainly Sugarloaf management supported the idea that it was OK for Sugarloaf skiers to look down on Sunday River skiers,” says King.

Proud ’Loafers frequently lashed out. “Someday Bigger,” they called their rival to the south. Jared Ishkanian, a Maine boy and Sunday River skier who went on to become the PR guy at Snowbird, remembers actual schoolyard scuffles with Sugarloaf toughs. Today the two resorts cooperate harmoniously under the ownership of Michigan-based Boyne Resorts, but there are echoes of conflict.

“The rivalry thing comes more from the Sugarloaf side,” says Mark Ecker, who has owned a Whitecap Village condo at Sunday River for 20 years. “It’s bigger, it’s been around longer, and there’s a lot of pride in being the best in Maine. ’Loafers really resented being swallowed up by ASC, and they always felt that with Les at Sunday River, Sunday River got all the attention and the resources. That’s where the bad blood comes from.”

As a moderator on the Sunday River message board, Ecker still occasionally sees flare-ups in the rivalry.

“Someone will be talking about a difficult trail at Sunday River, and someone at Sugarloaf will say, ‘Come up here if you really want to learn how to ski.’ Three or four guys will get on from both places and it turns into a weenie-wagging contest.”

He stays above the fray. Mostly. For all the talk of Sugarloaf’s superior vert, he can’t help noting that there’s a pretty long run-out at the base. And he’s happy to put in his 60 to 80 days a year at Sunday River. He knows
 the snowmakers will put out a reliable product, he likes the changes in scenery from peak to peak, and he and 
his wife love the sense of community, the mingling of families at barbecues and tailgate parties. “It’s very social. Everyone knows everyone else’s kids.”

Kimara Jebb, a Portland physicians assistant and longtime ’Loafer, makes it clear where her loyalties lie. “I’ve got friends at Sunday River, but Sugarloaf has better terrain. There’s more vertical, there’s less traversing than at Sunday River, and it’s less crowded on the busy days. It just feels less commercial. And the work you have to put into getting there weeds out a lot of the riffraff.

“But mostly I just like the vibe. It’s a really tight community. If someone gets hurt and doesn’t have insurance, people will fire up a relief fund pretty quickly. Everyone’s proud of their hill, proud to be ’Loafers.”

Bullen, as you’d expect from a guy who’s been a company man at both resorts, sees the virtues of each.

“When it comes to the skiing, there are 10 days a year when Sugarloaf is like no other resort in the East. The sun’s out, the Snowfields are open, no wind—when it’s like that nothing compares. The other 130 days of the season I’ll put Sunday River against any other resort in the East.”

For now, the conflict between Maine’s two marquee resorts simmers below the surface, and flare-ups are rare. It’s a little boring.

“The rivalry isn’t as intense as it used to be,” says Jebb. “The fighting siblings have been forced together.”

“But yeah,” she adds, “we still call it Someday Bigger.”

And, hell, Bullen might be just fine with that. “We’ve got four more peaks out there that could someday be developed.”

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