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Back In The Saddle


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Saddleback skiers have long been torn between the devil they know and the devil they fear. The one they know is a hopelessly old-fashioned ski area in the wilds of western Maine, long neglected by an owner embroiled in a bitter dispute with the U.S. Park Service. Its antiquated lifts serve up big-mountain skiing on a 4,115-foot peak, but the skiable terrain-110 acres of trail on about 500 total acres-is a tiny fraction of what it owns on adjacent land. For now, skiers in the know keep it to themselves, sharing Saddleback only with those they deem worthy.

The devil they fear is what Saddleback might someday become, and that day now appears closer, following an agreement that clears the way for this sleeping giant to finally achieve its potential.

A generation ago, Saddleback was primed to become-in the words of owner Donald Breen-the “Vail of the East.” Breen had ambitious plans for expansion, which he laid out for the approval of state regulators in the mid-Seventies. But opponents noticed that the Appalachian Trail crossed Saddleback’s summit ridge, and the battle commenced. For nearly 25 years, the ski area has been trapped in a time warp. Breen-locked in a fight with the Park Service, which wanted to protect the trail by seizing large tracts of ridgeline land-stopped investing in the mountain, spending his money on legal fees instead. Saddleback languished, open but forgotten.

Settlement finally came in November. As part of the agreement, Saddleback sold to the government its entire backside-some 1,600 acres of potential ski terrain, though by no means the bulk of its holdings-and agreed to hide any new lift towers from the view of Appalachian Trail hikers. In exchange, it can at last begin to develop some of the frontside terrain that wistful skiers have long admired from afar.

But don’t expect anything to happen quickly. Change comes slowly in this part of Maine, and nothing will happen until the mountain has a new owner. “My father is 70 and ready to retire,” says Kitty Breen, vice president of Saddleback Mountain Inc. and spokeswoman for the family. “This has been his dream, though, and he hopes to pass it on to someone else.”

Donald Breen has always dreamed of a ski resort that would be one of New England’s largest. Saddleback Mountain ski area (“resort” is too high-falutin’ a word for the place) rises higher than Stowe or Killington, offering a big-league vertical drop of 1,830 feet. When fully developed, it could sprawl across as much as 6,000 acres.That’s right: six thousand.

The potential terrain available to the buyer of Saddleback stretches along a five-mile mountain range. “It’s basically a huge bowl of land comprising 10 mountaintops,” says Kitty Breen. “Ninety-five percent of it is undeveloped.” Throw in a mile-long lake and two remote ponds-nice to look at, especially if you’re a snowmaker-and you begin to sense its potential as a destination resort.

Kitty Breen also cites Saddleback’s location as a positive factor, even though it’s more than five hours from Boston. It’s the “point of the triangle,” she notes, between Sugarloaf and Sunday River, Maine’s two largest resorts, both operated by American Skiing Co. “That opens up a niche for Saddleback as a beautiful, large ski area with its own culture and exceptional ski terrain,” she says. And Saddleback averages 200 inches of snow annually, so even in a bad year, Mainers find powder here long after it’s been tracked out at busier Sugarloaf or Sunday River.

What stands to be lost, however, is Saddleback’s culture. This is a mountain where children can ski by themselves; where cafeteria workers offer, unprompted, to warm up your chocolate chip cookie; where everyone, it seems, knows everyone else. Workers live nearby and take pride in their mountain, knowing that if they don’t provide a good day’s skiing, they’ll be taken to task by friends and neighbors. The smiles are genuine, the greetings warm.

“This mountain has a heart,” says instructor Bea Macleod, who, at 80, still teaches six days a week. “If you’re not friendly, you don’t stay. You go away, and that’s fine.”

Saddleback encourages visitors to slow down and enjoy life. There’s no rush. Regulars don’t even begin to straggle into the base lodge until 9 a.m. or so. Greetings and gossip are exchanged as little feet are stuffed into boots and helmet straps are snugged over neck-warmers. Bag lunches and street shoes are stashed in cubbyholes, not lockers. If it’s a Sunday, expect Macleod to make the rounds, recruiting children for the free afternoon Lollipop Race. And expect most of the locals to turn out to help run the race and cheer the kids on, leaving the rest of the mountain even emptier than usual.

Like Mad River, Saddleback inspires a cult following. But unlike the Vermont resort, it has never been discovered by the masses. The Rangeley Lakes region is better known for fishing and snowmobiling than for skiing. That’s a shame, because the skiing here is good, though it requires an appreciation of long, slow lift rides.

In general, Saddleback’s trails get more difficult as you work your way from west to east and from bottom to top. Gentle rolling slopes at the base and a two-mile beginner trail on the western periphery give way to intermediate trails at the center of the ski area. The Stagecoach lift accesses all this, as well as a handful of true black-diamonds. With few exceptions, all are narrow, twisting trails that snake through birches and other hardwoods, offering glimpses of Saddleback Lake and the surrounding wilderness. Intersections are few, so the trails ski long, and Saddleback’s limited uphill capacity means they’re usually empty. The quiet can be overpowering.

Most of Saddleback’s expert terrain is on the top third of the mountain, and the only way to reach it is the Wells Fargo T-bar. The T-bar track itself rates a black-diamond. Steep, rutted, icy and wind-whipped, it’s not for the inexperienced. The rewards for enduring are untamed terrain and views that are certainly worth fighting for. No wonder it took nearly a quarter of a century to find a compromise. On a clear day, skiers gaze out over wind-stunted trees and across the Rangeley Lakes to the Presidential Range and Mt. Washington. The terrain is steep, laced with a handful of expert trails and a glade. Muleskinner, a natural-snow trail on the edge of the area, offers an out-of-bounds experience in-bounds. It’s a double-diamond thriller: steep, narrow and twisting and punctuated with moguls, trees, rocks and other obstacles. It is the mountain’s ace of spades, and a touchstone for experts.

Will development tame this wild trail? Probably. Snowmaking would necessitate widening it; grooming would homogenize those natural obstacles.

Yes, development has the potential to change this mountain’s heart and soul. The devil to be feared is the one that would sacrifice Saddleback’s small-hill culture for big-time gains, for characterless trails, modern lifts and a trendy village. In the meantime, skiers bumping along the T-bar track can’t help but wonder: Will bigger really be better?