The River's Edge

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Every river has two sides. And sometimes, the sides are completely different. A yin and a yang. Take the Seine. It has a Left Bank¿arty, kinetic¿and a right one¿neat, established. There's the Hudson. Its east flank hugs New York's savage urbania, its west, New Jersey's planned suburbia.

Then there's Sunday River. On one side, it's a capital of cruise and a snowmaking wonder. It's this side, the subtle tempo and soft snow, groomed smooth as gravy, that attracts Yankee plankers to this western Maine resort on the edge of the White Mountain National Forest. Ian, my yang, and I have been among them.

But last winter finicky snowfall had kept us glued to the groomers, and by midseason we were boulevarded out. So we prayed for snow and agreed that when it came, we would return to Sunday River, this time to explore its other, more hidden side, its Left Bank. Where lines are painted black and double-black¿assuming they haven't been lost in the trees. We wanted to ski its 14 vast glades tucked between the cruisers. We wanted to rush the area's bumps and steeps. So when we got word last March that the glades were skiable, we were on our way.

Into the Woods
Sunday River's vast network of 100-plus cruisers is nothing to scoff at: It's spread across eight interconnected peaks¿each with its own lift-and-trail network¿along one long ridge. Jordan Bowl, the easternmost peak, shaped more like a saucer than something you'd sip soup from, serves up some of the longest of these renowned cruisers. It's also home of the long, wide glade Blind Ambition.

As we approach the edge of Ambition, the wind tries to toss us out of bounds. This is cruel, cold northern New England weather, and we are zipped up and pink cheeked. We spot Ambition's This Way sign and make a break for it. Just beyond, two slender birches are peeling their pinkish-white skin, and bits of bark flap in the wind. The trees bend toward each other, forming an archway to the glade.

Suddenly, the world drops dead. The wind¿poof¿vanishes. Only the trees' top branchlets stir; all else is silent and still. Except for an army of trees, we are alone. Before us are waves of white, gently pitched for about 30 feet until cresting. What's beyond is out of view.

Here at the top it's crusty. But small clearings in the distance, spotlit with sun, look promising, and we push off. Ian makes tight little turns, and I try to follow his loopy line through the Krispy Kream snow. After a few turns, I jam, my skis open wide, and head straight for a tree. Luckily, its lower branches have been shorn by previous passersby, and I escape a scratchy caress. I stop and take stock: not going as planned.

But halfway down, the trees grow sparse. The sun has been spinning the crust into a blanket of silk. This soft, wet foam is the closest I've come to powder in a weatherless New England winter, and I'm in pig heaven. There is just enough pitch to get good speed going, and I trust my skis to do the rest. I am alone and can hear my breath and my skis making tracks and everything's working in tandem and I am so freaking into it all that I smile through my teeth and feel this karmic feeling I haven't felt all season.

"Yeeoww," I say. What the hell. No one can hear me. So I say it again as I fly over a lip. Twenty turns later, the trees close in fast, and I stop hard. And breathe. Hard.

Several skiers and riders flash past as I catch my breath. A man in a two-tone metallic hat sticks a darn good daffy, landing¿thwak!¿right next to me. He removes his dark glasses and hangs a big grin. "Whew," he says, his face flushed crimson. "Yeah, whew," I say.

Most Excellent
This far north, this far east, this close to Canada, the local folk are delightfully different from my Jersey neighbors. The 70-ish man who works in the Mountain Grocer store at the South Ridge base area must have been a Pepperidge Farmer in a former life. So wheI rush back into the store 15 minutes after buying batteries to tell him they are triple A when I asked for double¿speaking with all the metro-area angst I can muster¿he smiles.

"Uh, yah," he says ponderously. "I'd say that's a minor problem, wouldn't you?" Pause. "I'd say that's easily correctable." Pause. Smile. I shed my city skin and laugh.

Then there's our Keanu Reeves¿ lookalike waiter at the Grand Avenue Café, who seems straight out of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

We choose a Rabbit Ridge wine. "Excellent!" exclaims Keanu. "I'll have the haddock," I add.

"Excellent!" he says with a thrust of the chin.

"Would anyone want pepper with their salad?" he asks a few minutes later.

"I do," I say.

"Excellent!" he sings out as he grinds.

"No thank you," says Ian.

"Excellent!" he smiles.

Skier's Telephone
Riding the Jordan Bowl Express, we play telephone with our quadmate, who tells us the best snow is on Barker's, four peaks to the left. In erratic winters like this, great snow must be grabbed, so we scoot across a long traverse, under the series of peaks we'll have to catch later.

Sunday River's trail-and-lift network is nicely laid out, and you can easily and quickly get from any point A to any point B. Simply navigate the ridge as if you are blanket-stitching a hem: Quad up, traverse over, straight shot down. Or you can baste-stitch: Quad up, down on the diagonal, bearing west or east. And up around again.

The first summit we reach, Oz, contains two of the ski area's steepest, tightest glades: Flyin' Monkey, a 100- foot-wide, 1,160-foot-long birch grove that spanks you hard; and Tin Woodsman, truly heartless.

Zipping under the next peak, Aurora, we are waylaid. Celestial glade, another double-black doozie, had been closed due to peanut-brittle cover. But what's this? The ropes are down. As we stand there, wondering what's beneath that fresh cover, Adam from Boston pulls up and happily introduces himself, orange jacket aglow.

"You going in?" he asks.

"I don't know; are you?" I reply.

"I will if you will," he says, so we do.

Ten turns later, we see we have been sucker punched: The glade gets ugly, the trees fill in, the pitch falls away, and the trees are getting way too close for comfort, and then Adam from Boston face plants into the crust. "Sheee-it," he says, and we all bail.

Before long we're on the Sunday River Express, again heading for Barker's.

The Right Stuff
Adam from Boston has told us we'll find great snow on Right Stuff, so we go, joining the first sizeable group of skiers we've seen all day (about six). It's a GS lover's dream that snakes steeply down Barker's, over contours and around corners.

Then we reach Last Tango, Sunday River's largest glade run. It looks less steep than Blind Ambition, and the hardwoods are spaced farther apart. Still, a young skier with curved poles looks dubious.

"I don't know how to ski this," he says plaintively to his father.

"Just go downhill," his father offers sensibly, and they do.

Now, at one o'clock, the sun has been softening things up for a while, and we can work the snow with each turn. Our lines look good, and we link short turns through the creamy white heart of the glade as odd scenes whiz by. Some joker has spray painted a happy face on a tree. Two turns beyond is a sad face. "Glades!" screams a gleeful snowboarder in the distance, his voice echoing off the bumps.

Next we come to a precipice, flagged by stumps and rocks, marking the entrance to a steeper, hairier pitch. We adjust our stance, tighten our focus, and keep going until all signs of recent tracks disappear before an impenetrable thicket. It looks like everyone has fled, and so do we.

Chaos Theory
The South Ridge base area is Sunday River's ground zero. Navigating the ridge, spread out as it is, we have often found ourselves alone, skiing in silent forests, gliding through nonexistent lift lines. But here, we experience another side of Sunday River: crowded chaos. This is the learning area, sensibly separated from the more advanced runs higher up-mountain. Here, the termini of multiple novice runs converge, as do hordes of ravenous newbies. The flat before the lodge is a de-skiing frenzy.

This place is a scene. Tanners and drinkers in cowboy hats and flashy red suits have staked their claim on the sundeck, which overlooks the works. Inside, at the ski-memorabilia-laden Foggy Goggle, we drink brews and eat burgers in dismantled chairlifts, the deafening chatter almost drowning out Jackson Browne.

That night, we mingle with another crowd: the locals at Suds Pub¿a basement bar in the one-horse town of Bethel¿with a live Charlie Daniels¿like band, overfilled dance floor, and a few wobbly wood tables. We talk over electric riffs and under a low ceiling, which is water stained and so puffy it looks ready to give birth. The joint is dark and speakeasy-esque and everyone is dirty dancing and we're buzzed and the crispy coated fries are the best I've ever had. Anyone who thinks Sunday River is too antiseptic for their taste should come here.

The Ridge's End
The next morning, we set off to ski Sunday River's two westernmost peaks, Locke Mountain and White Cap. Locke, the original peak, is still a locals' favorite, with twisty, New England¿style trails and Bim's Whim, a narrow snake full of fir trees that faces the back side. To get there, we hike up a hillock, about 25 feet higher than the lift. At the top is an undulating, cratered ski planet¿wind blocked and sunswept and well forested¿and the ski area's best view: 180 degrees of National Forest and New Hampshire's Mount Washington. A couple sits on the rocks beside the trail, overlooking the vista, kissing.

Then it's on to the ridge's end, White Cap peak, which has a handful of chilling steeps and some of the ski area's hardest bump runs. We are in luck. They have been stockpiling snow on Shock Wave, a scary free-falling double-black that rides like a roller coaster, and on White Heat, a notorious under-the-chair bump run that must generate good business for ski patrol.

Today, White Heat is half man-made mogul field, half groomer. We breeze by the sign that warns us that if we fall we could die, and we reach the start of the run, which is surprisingly gentle, but¿what the hell...?¿the trail drops right out from under our sorry butts, with a pitch like the wall of a skyscraper and bruising moguls, and our quads are burning like hell, but we know that it will take more energy to stop and start than to just keep going, and we make 30, maybe 40 turns through the sweet manmade till the run finally flattens out and our endorphins are set free.

On the long ride home, scenes from the forest and the steeps fill our minds and conversation. What we have discovered is a place where the trees are like people and the people are like characters in a dream. We have realized that even in a low-snow winter, at one tucked-away Maine resort, there is always hope that the glades will reveal their splendor, and if not, the always-snowbound steeps will satisfy like sugar on the tongue.ines. But here, we experience another side of Sunday River: crowded chaos. This is the learning area, sensibly separated from the more advanced runs higher up-mountain. Here, the termini of multiple novice runs converge, as do hordes of ravenous newbies. The flat before the lodge is a de-skiing frenzy.

This place is a scene. Tanners and drinkers in cowboy hats and flashy red suits have staked their claim on the sundeck, which overlooks the works. Inside, at the ski-memorabilia-laden Foggy Goggle, we drink brews and eat burgers in dismantled chairlifts, the deafening chatter almost drowning out Jackson Browne.

That night, we mingle with another crowd: the locals at Suds Pub¿a basement bar in the one-horse town of Bethel¿with a live Charlie Daniels¿like band, overfilled dance floor, and a few wobbly wood tables. We talk over electric riffs and under a low ceiling, which is water stained and so puffy it looks ready to give birth. The joint is dark and speakeasy-esque and everyone is dirty dancing and we're buzzed and the crispy coated fries are the best I've ever had. Anyone who thinks Sunday River is too antiseptic for their taste should come here.

The Ridge's End
The next morning, we set off to ski Sunday River's two westernmost peaks, Locke Mountain and White Cap. Locke, the original peak, is still a locals' favorite, with twisty, New England¿style trails and Bim's Whim, a narrow snake full of fir trees that faces the back side. To get there, we hike up a hillock, about 25 feet higher than the lift. At the top is an undulating, cratered ski planet¿wind blocked and sunswept and well forested¿and the ski area's best view: 180 degrees of National Forest and New Hampshire's Mount Washington. A couple sits on the rocks beside the trail, overlooking the vista, kissing.

Then it's on to the ridge's end, White Cap peak, which has a handful of chilling steeps and some of the ski area's hardest bump runs. We are in luck. They have been stockpiling snow on Shock Wave, a scary free-falling double-black that rides like a roller coaster, and on White Heat, a notorious under-the-chair bump run that must generate good business for ski patrol.

Today, White Heat is half man-made mogul field, half groomer. We breeze by the sign that warns us that if we fall we could die, and we reach the start of the run, which is surprisingly gentle, but¿what the hell...?¿the trail drops right out from under our sorry butts, with a pitch like the wall of a skyscraper and bruising moguls, and our quads are burning like hell, but we know that it will take more energy to stop and start than to just keep going, and we make 30, maybe 40 turns through the sweet manmade till the run finally flattens out and our endorphins are set free.

On the long ride home, scenes from the forest and the steeps fill our minds and conversation. What we have discovered is a place where the trees are like people and the people are like characters in a dream. We have realized that even in a low-snow winter, at one tucked-away Maine resort, there is always hope that the glades will reveal their splendor, and if not, the always-snowbound steeps will satisfy like sugar on the tongue.

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