Little Gem: Remote, Remarkable

Travel East
Little Gem J 1100

My first few years of skiing in Maine were spent at the usual high-profile resorts, cruising the wide-open intermediates at Sunday River or testing my nerves and technique on the upper reaches of Sugarloaf. All the while, though, friends were raving about an out-of-the-way treasure called Big Squaw Mountain Resort, a mid-sized area near Moosehead Lake in the northern part of the state. "The views!" they'd gush. "The snow!" One realist, after enthusing about the vistas and powder, added, "I damn near froze my face off."

When I could stand it no longer, I packed the car and headed for Greenville, a humble dot of civilization minutes from Big Squaw. For all its remoteness, Greenville is just three hours from my Portland home¿a bit far for a same-day outing, perhaps, but not an epic road trip.

Once on Big Squaw's slopes, I realized what all the gushing was about: good base, plenty of natural fluffy stuff, short liftlines, great views and 1,750 vertical feet of challenging terrain.

Did I mention great views? Off the Penobscot Trail, a 2.5-mile intermediate cruiser, I could look out over the entirety of the 40-mile-long Moosehead Lake, past the distinctive jut of 1,800-foot Mt. Kineo at the lake's narrows, to 5,240-foot Mt. Katahdin in the distance. On my first trip down Penobscot, I risked face-planting with all my rubbernecking, so I finally pulled over at a break in the birches and took it all in. The cost of those great views was skiing into the teeth of a steady north wind. I didn't quite freeze my face off, but by the end of each run I was already dreading the chilly ride back up.

Big Squaw has been around since 1963 and has been owned by Scott Paper Co., the state and various private interests (currently a Florida businessman), but it hasn't changed much since its earliest days. There's a triple chair and 70 percent snowmaking coverage, and various upgrades, such as a pool and saunas, are being added to the base hotel. But the place has a determinedly retro feel that's refreshing in this age of ski-area-as-entertainment-complex. It's out of the way enough to escape the hordes that clog most Northeast resorts every weekend, but how long it can retain its quirky local character while remaining viable is anybody's guess.

In the meantime, I'm spreading the Big Squaw gospel to my friends. The snow! The views! Only next time, I tell them, I'm wearing heavier layers.

Big Squaw, Greenville, Maine

WHERE Two hours north of Augusta.
VITAL STATS 1,750 vertical feet, 30 trails, two chairlifts, one ropetow. Average annual snowfall: 150 inches.
INFORMATION AND CONDITIONS 207-695-1000 or 800-754-6246.
LIFT TICKETS $24 Friday-Sunday, $15 Monday-Thursday.
LODGING The resort includes a 56-room hotel with dining rooms, lounge, base facilities.
A GOOD DEAL See "Lift Tickets," above.