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I’ve never been to Saddleback, but within 20 minutes of being there I know it’s one of my new favorite places. A little backstory: Saddleback’s previous owner, a Philly millionaire named Don Breen, long planned to redevelop this quiet family mountain as the “Vail of the East.” The only thing realistic about the plan was size: Saddleback’s land-holdings were vast and ripe for expansion. Thing was, the Appalachian Trail ran right through the place. After a protracted battle with feisty Trail-lovers, Breen gave up in disgust. In 2003, Bill Berry, a retired geology professor and insurance-fortune heir who’d been a Rangeley lover and Saddleback skier since his youth, led a family group to buy Breen out for $7.4 million.
Saddleback skiers were giddy to have one of their own as owner, and Berry and his new team quickly demonstrated that they appreciated the place for what it was as well as what it could be. First Berry announced a drastic cut in ticket prices. Then he got rid of the dumb Western-themed lift and trail names (El Hombre, Cowpoke’s Cruise and worse), changing them back to their original, much lovelier names, honoring local rivers and the work of renowned local fly-tyers (Gray Ghost, Royal Tiger, etc.). Next he built a roomy, tasteful post-and-beam base lodge with a huge fieldstone fireplace. He paved the long access road, updated lifts, cut trails, thinned glades and developed a new beginner area. Finally, he announced and got approval for a 10-year development plan for additional lift and trail expansions and the construction of new vacation homes, whose owners will have access to Saddleback’s slopes in winter and a Berry-owned marina in the summer. If the new base lodge is any indication, any real estate development will be tasteful and low-impact, as promised.
I mentioned that Berry updated the lifts? Yes, but there’s this: The guy hates a crowded trail, so high-speed lifts are out. That’s fine with me, even though as I enjoy my first leisurely Saddleback lift ride, I don’t have a lift-mate to poke and say, “Wow, look at that view.” In front of me is the long, white-tipped summit ridge of Saddleback Mountain, a legit 4,000-footer. To my left is the expert terrain, crowned with a short section of hike-to snowfield up top. Behind me is the Rangeley basin, where cloud shadows race across the blue lake.
It’s sunny but cold up here—a last wintry blast—so I’m content to stick to the groomers, which are the only trails open anyway. This late in the season, and this early on a cold day, I’m not surprised there’s almost no one else skiing. My last run of the season is an appropriately fun one, a fast cruise down America, a winding, ultra-narrow run at the resort’s southern perimeter. I won’t get to ski all that tasty looking terrain over on the north side today, but that’s OK. I’ll be back.
Meanwhile, the coast beckons, on the other end of another long, beautiful drive through rural Maine. I kick off the boots for the last time of the season, hop in the car and switch gears.