Loon and Then Some

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Expansion of terrain at Loon might just mean lower density - and more wide open spaces to find your stash.

I have this skiing fantasy. No, it doesn't involve supermodels and hot tubs or even helicopters and avalanche beacons. It's more ambitious than that. A mountain of my own. Just me, the snow, and gravity - and not another soul. One Hundred Runs of Solitude.

I got a taste of it last season at - of all places - Loon Mountain, N.H. On a perfect, crisp mid-March morning, I hauled myself to first gondola to the top, with my wife, Sally, my son, Ethan, and my daughter, Emma, in tow. I did my fatherly duty by wiping goggles and zipping jackets. And then we skied together. Or at least we did for the first pitch. Then, channeling that great philosopher Yogi Berra, I reached a fork in the road, so I took it. They went left, I went right, and I found myself alone on Race City - first skier of the day, not a gate in sight.

Now, Race City isn't the sort of run about which skiers normally wax rhapsodic. Moderate pitch, moderate width - perfect for NASTAR-caliber racers. But it was a peak experience nonetheless. I heard nothing but the sound of my edges working the slightly chalky snow, saw nothing but the early morning sun modeling the still-virgin corduroy. Nothing moving but me, and nothing to interfere with the joy of arcing.

Unfortunately, this kind of me-myself-and-I skiing is an all too rare experience at Loon. Thanks to its easy, all-highway accessibility from Boston, Loon has historically had more skier visits - about 300,000 a year - than any mountain in New Hampshire. But unlike the big Vermont resorts that do those kinds of numbers, Loon is a rather compact mountain. As a result, it's also a busy mountain, and experiences of blissful solitude, like mine, have been rare.

Until now. This season Loon expands in a big way. The first stage of South Peak opens in December, featuring three new trails served by two new lifts. And that's just a start. Four more trails and a quad are slated to open over the next two seasons. Sometime after 2009, there'll be five more new trails cut on the mountain's North Peak, where four existing lifts will be upgraded. When it's completed, the project will add 125 skiable acres to Loon's existing 272.

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Why didn't someone think of this before? They did. The South Peak expansion has been on the drawing board since 1984. Remember Culture Club, "Where's the beef? and a "fad called snowboarding? The master plan was drafted that year and presented to the Forest Service, with the environmental impact studies begun the following year. It wasn't until 1993 that the Forest Service granted permission for the expansion, a decision that prompted two separate lawsuits intended to stop the project. Two trails were cut in 1996, much to the delight of hardcore locals who spent the next decade poaching them. The lawsuits were finally resolved in 2001, at which time the Forest Service called for another environmental impact statement. Final approval for the project was granted in 2003, with construction beginning soon afterward, 19 years after the plan's inception.

Not long after my solo flight down Race City I experienced my second moment of solitude at Loon when I got to preview the new South Peak terrain. If my midmorning amuse bouche was any indication, the long wait has been well worth it. A snowmobile ride over a little saddle - along the lift line of the Tote Road Connector - revealed a single rough groomer pass through a healthy schmear of natural snow. The trail I skied is called Cruiser, and the choice of name won't run afoul of any truth-in-advertising laws. It's wide but not characterless, perfect for arcing GS turns across its full width. In that way it reminded me of Walking Boss, a broad-shouldered expert run on North Peak. To my right was Boom Run, which appeared to exude more of an old New England feel. After a wide start, it plays hide-and-seek through the woods and along a granite wall - a bit like North Peak's Speakeasy. The road less traveleon South Peak will be Undercut, a new gladed trail. All three runs are served by the Lincoln Express quad, which was going up just to my right.

The next round of expansion will feature some serious steeps, but expert terrain is not the heart of the project. The fact that most of the new terrain hits the blue-square sweet spot is a key to its success. Loon doesn't need gnarly expert terrain. It needs sheer acreage so that the skiers can get up and down the mountain more efficiently. And while the emphasis will be on the new terrain, savvy skiers will soon discover that South Peak's biggest boon may be the easing of congestion on Loon's North Peak so that gems like Bear Claw, Rum Runner and Angel Street will shine that much more brightly with fewer skiers.

Halfway down Cruiser, I got a glimpse of the other important way in which the expansion will help Loon redefine itself. The existing Loon base area is located just up the road from the quaint New Hampshire town of Lincoln. It's only two miles, but that's enough to isolate the two from each other. The new South Peak trails, however, peer out over Lincoln proper. And its new base lodge is virtually at the edge of town. The distance should shrink even further in the near future, as an additional condo development is planned in what's now the big dirt parking lot that serves South Peak. This miniature village will be a short stroll from Lincoln proper. Indeed, by linking Loon's slopes to the shops and restaurants of downtown, the South Peak project should still pay benefits long after the lifts close.

As I continued to cruise down Cruiser, I was struck by the irony of the situation. I was heading away from the old Loon on this yet-to-be- completed trail, yet I was also heading directly toward its future. All I needed was a little traffic. And sure enough, at the bottom of the trail I hit a bottleneck of a sort - a hiker with his chocolate lab. As I approached, the squared-jawed dog perked up his ears and let out a clipped bark, seemingly startled by the sight of a human moving so fast without picking up his feet. I slowed down and gave the lab right of way. "Get used to it, Boomer, I wanted to tell him, as he scampered in front of me. After a two-decade wait, Loon is about to stretch its legs, and snow-sliding bipeds, at least, will be that much the better off for it.

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Under New Management
The South Peak terrain isn't the only thing new at Loon this year. The resort is under new management. Since 1998, Loon had been a part of the Booth Creek Resort Group, along with Cranmore and Waterville Valley, N.H., Summit at Snoqualmie, Wash ., and Northstar-at-Tahoe and Sierra-at-Tahoe, Calif. In October, Booth Creek sold the lease agreements for Loon and Snoqualmie to Michigan-based Boyne USA Resorts. The growing Boyne family also includes Sugarloaf and Sunday River, Maine, Big Sky, Mont., Brighton, Utah, Cypress Mountain, B.C., Boyne Mountain and Boyne Highlands, Mich., and Crystal Mountain, Wash. For skiers, the transition should be relatively seamless, at least for this season. The Threedom Pass program, which links Loon with Cranmore and Waterville Valley, is still in effect, and passholders can expect discounts at Sugarloaf and Sunday River, as well.

SIGNPOST: LOON
324 skiable acres; 2,100 vertical feet; 47 trails and six glades; 120 inches; 12 lifts (including three high-speed quads and one gondola). Tickets: adult $69, teen (13—18) $59, junior (6—12) $49, senior (65—79) $49, over 80 free.
Lodging: The slopeside Mountain Club on Loon offers a spa and indoor pool (ski-and-stay packages from $98 midweek, $165 weekends; innseason.com; 866-873-2766). In nearby North Woodstock, the Woodstock Inn is a charming Victorian B&B with a lively brewpub ($63—$184; 800-321-3985; loonmtn.com

u>; 866-873-2766). In nearby North Woodstock, the Woodstock Inn is a charming Victorian B&B with a lively brewpub ($63—$184; 800-321-3985;

loonmtn.com

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