Lost Valley, Maine

Travel
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0
Little Gem 1002 Pic A

Lost Valley is an aberration-a vest-pocket ski area secreted in the barely rolling countryside of central Maine. With a piddling 231-foot vertical, it's the kind of area that depends upon a large, nearby population base for survival and on creative programming to thrive. Lost Valley has both. And while it's not the kind of hill that you'd expect to have helped produce four Olympians, it has: '70s downhiller Karl Anderson and the Parisiens: Anna, Julie and Rob. There probably will be others, too. Hundreds of kids swarm Lost Valley's slopes every afternoon and evening, correctly convinced this bump of a hill, in Auburn, is every inch a big mountain.

In local parlance, Lewiston and Auburn, twin cities that flank the Androscoggin River, are known as "the other L.A." This L.A. is a close-knit, family-oriented community of about 60,000, mostly of proud Franco-American heritage. And the twin cities' central location means that 50 percent of Maine's population lives within a 30-mile radius. The region was a thriving manufacturing center when Lost Valley was founded in 1961, but by the mid-1980s, the region's economy was in shambles, its sense of self-worth devastated. Now, L.A. is reinventing itself as a modern business, commercial and industrial hub, an effort that is bolstered by the presence of six colleges, including Bates College, one of the nation's top liberal arts schools. Lost Valley, which had expanded through the early 1970s to include a glass-walled base lodge with a huge fieldstone fireplace, a respected ski school, 100-percent snowmaking coverage and night-skiing, settled into complacency when L.A. hit hard times in the '80s. That's where it stayed until 1999, when three longtime employees with deep community roots convinced owner Fern Pontbriand to let them manage it.

"Tuesday is one of our busiest days," Diane Moreau, one of the managing partners, tells me as I pick up a lift ticket. I raise an eyebrow. At the moment, only one skier is zigzagging his way down the hill, and only one of three lifts is turning. "You'll see," she promises.

Lost Valley may be small-two doubles, one T-bar-but it provides enough variety to keep a skier interested. The almost-flat summit glade invites skiers to slalom through the supporting poles of its evergreen canopy, while a couple of short-but-steep drop-offs titillate experts. I ease down Big Buck, an intermediate trail with a consistent fall line from summit to base. Next, I skid down Bull Moose, a steep, usually bulletproof slope favored by local race teams. Squirrel Run is a gentle beginner run that edges the ski area's perimeter. All trails meet at the centralized base, so there's no getting lost at Lost Valley.

Around 3:30 p.m., the buses arrive. They roll into the parking lot in a seemingly endless convoy of yellow. "We have approximately 50 schools in our program," Moreau says. "We put more than 5,000 kids through lessons each week." That number doesn't include adult programs or walk-up lessons. "Big areas couldn't survive doing what we do. It's what sustains us," she says.

Back on the hill, the place is jamming, just as Moreau promised. I find a group of 10- to 12-year-old boys sprawled at the top of the terrain park. It's small, but "awesome," they tell me, as they take turns hitting the rails and jumps below, then trudging back up the hill. Thanks to Yankee thriftiness, they may not be walking much longer. The area's original ropetow has been in storage for more than 30 years, but Moreau thinks it may find a new home here. Kids at Lost Valley are given a say in the park's design. "The park is theirs, and when they contribute, they think: I'm making it for me," Moreau says.

Three-time Olympian Julie Parisien treasures having grown up on these slopes. "My fondest memory is being free and being alone and being able to go anywhere on the mountain, ride the lift with anyone I wanted to," Parisien says. "I loved that sense of being away and not being told what to d" The good times, she says, continued inside the lodge, where kids today do the same things she used to do: hang out, tease each other, play video games and eat junk food. "At big areas, you have to worry about your kids being hit by other people, about getting stuff stolen. We really don't have that at Lost Valley." Here, it seems, everyone knows everyone else. "I feel as if I could leave my wallet in the lodge and not worry about it," she says.

Parisien, now 31, a full-time nursing student and mother of two, retired from ski racing after the 1998 Olympics. She came home to Auburn to be near her parents and reconnect with her roots. Now she directs Lost Valley's racing program, working with 60 kids, ages 6-16, every Tuesday and Thursday night. She points out that while Lost Valley is small, it's not boring. The layout-a flat section on top, glades and a good fall line-makes it ideal for training. "You can get good turns in," she says, adding, "only 10 turns, but 10 good turns."

Auburn resident Mike Grimmer has two of his four kids in Parisien's program. Lost Valley, he says, "is a great resource for the community," and the Grimmers take advantage of it, skiing here every weekend and on race program nights. "People who grew up here have fond memories of it. They hung out here, not at the mall; they have friends here," he says.

They still do. By 7 p.m., the base lodge is filled with young families; moms and dads watching over groups of infants and toddlers, while friends, spouses and older children ski or ride. And no wonder. A Family Pass costs $598 for two adults and unlimited kids. The current record is held by a family of 10. It's the cheapest baby-sitting service around, and parents know it.

Price is one reason a lot of people choose Lost Valley. Another is the multitude of day and night learn-to-ski/ride programs. Night instruction is so popular that Moreau is trying to reduce the evening lodge crowd with an interchangeable lift-ticket program that allows a parent to ski while the kids are in lessons. "We don't care whether it's mom or dad out on the hill," Moreau says. "It's not two people using the ticket, it's one." That's the kind of thinking and innovative programming that's helping draw new skiers and riders once again to Lost Valley.

"We know families aren't coming here to ski, they're coming here to learn to ski. Once the kids can drive, they're going to ski at bigger hills," Moreau says. "We don't worry about that, though. There are always other kids behind them."

Lost Valley, Maine Essentials

Vital Stats 45 skiable acres; 15 trails; 231 vertical feet; 255-foot base elevation; 50 annual inches and 100 percent snowmaking coverage; two double chairs, one T-bar; open mid-December to mid-March.

Ticket Prices Weekend and holiday adult lift tickets range from $17 for two hours to $30 for eight hours; $17-$27 for ages 6-12; 5 and younger ski free with paying adult. A family weekend Value Pack for two adults and two children costs $89.

Dining For family-friendly food and prices, you can't beat Tin Tin Buffet, a Chinese-American restaurant where the all-you-can-eat buffet costs just $10.

Java Joints Tim Horton's (855 Lisbon Street) in Lewiston.

Lodging Try the Munroe Inn in Auburn, a four-room, Queen Anne house listed on the National Register of Historic Places ($79-120, including breakfast; 207-782-4984 or 800-668-0638; www.munroeinn.com).

Après-Ski Locals favor Gipper's Sports Grille, a casual restaurant with big-screen TVs. L/A Arts stages concerts, cultural and theatrical events, many with a family focus. Check the schedule at www.laarts.org, or call 800-639-2919.

Locals' Tip No trip to the L.A. area is complete without a stop at Marden's, the flagship of a statewide chain of discount stores, where you're as likely to find last year's top-model skis for $100 as you are tires, mattresses or clothes. (Northwood Park Shopping Center, Lewiston).

Getting There Take the Maine Turnpike to Exit 12/Auburn. Take first right on Route 202 South, then take first right on Kitty Hawk Ave. Take first right on Hotel Road. Go 8 miles, then bear left at fork, continuing on Hotel Road through the stoplight. At the stop sign, veer left, again staying on Hotel Road, to a blinking yellow light. Turn left on Young's Corner Road. Go half a mile to a sharp bend, Lost Valley Road is on the right.

Information Lost Valley Ski Area, 207-784-1561;.www.lostvalleyski.comPark Shopping Center, Lewiston).

Getting There Take the Maine Turnpike to Exit 12/Auburn. Take first right on Route 202 South, then take first right on Kitty Hawk Ave. Take first right on Hotel Road. Go 8 miles, then bear left at fork, continuing on Hotel Road through the stoplight. At the stop sign, veer left, again staying on Hotel Road, to a blinking yellow light. Turn left on Young's Corner Road. Go half a mile to a sharp bend, Lost Valley Road is on the right.

Information Lost Valley Ski Area, 207-784-1561;.www.lostvalleyski.com

Related