Cold and miserable conditions do not sell skiing very well, but they apply to my first time skiing at what became — in some conditional ways — my favorite mountain. That peak’s life as a ski area is now in jeopardy.
It was about 1964 when my current wife and my late roommate piled into his old Bonneville and wound our snowy way for hours from Orono west to Rangeley, Maine, to a wonderful mountain called Saddleback.
By today’s standards, it was really rough. Western Maine gets a ton of snow, but with a kind of homemade “grooming” machine that looked like a big VW on skis with a rake hanging down, you never came to expect grooming.
So you learned to ski the rough snow and unbroken ice, and if you were lucky enough to get an instructor named Dan Dacey, in about 10 sessions and dedicated practice, you could manage to survive about any kind of conditions, even wearing long wooden Kastle skis with leather tie boots that looked something like bowling shoes.
In the winter of my senior year at the University of Maine, Saddleback put in a new double chairlift, said to be the longest in the state, and we assumed the company was flush with cash. It replaced some fairly ancient gear, so it seemed this was bound to grow into one fantastic ski area.
Sure it was a little hard to reach, and the wind could blow like stink off the lakes and across the Sandy River Plantation. But I am not romanticizing the beauty of the view, looking out at those lakes from Saddleback’s summit, seven miles in the distance.
For a few years I lost track of Saddleback after moving to the Boston area. But I learned from Rangeley friends that a few consecutive seasons of bad snow years in an area without much snowmaking forced the owners to sell Saddleback to Gannett Publishing, a media conglomerate that ran the Portland Press Herald and WGAN TV. In the mid-1970s, one of Sugarloaf’s founders, John Christie, bought Saddleback, and it was clear that he knew how to grow a ski mountain. He had some great plans. Unfortunately, if you’re old enough to remember the Carter-era gas shortages, and long lines creating ridiculous prices, then you can figure out what happened to outlying ski areas sorely in need of cash. With the gas crisis, the weather again turned bad for a prolonged time, and Christie was forced into bankruptcy.
Despite the financial realities, Saddleback and the Rangeley region, so pristine and beautiful and with a history of drawing crowds of fly fishers in the warm season, still tantalized many who were convinced of the area’s potential. One of them was Donald Breen, a Big Pharma success from Massachusetts who acquired Saddleback and some 1,200 acres on which he planned a mega four-season resort. The idea of a huge developed playground in an untracked wilderness appealed to some, but the roadblocks came fast from conservationists. Their specific opposition was about the Appalachian Trail, which environmentalists insisted should remain in its natural wild state and in a wilderness setting. The trail goes over the Saddleback uplands, and the vision of development around it took the matter to court.
In the 1980s, though many smaller areas were dropping out, larger ones were consolidating and engaging in a war for marketshare. That meant development of snowmaking, grooming and real estate. Areas such as Okemo, Sunday River, Bretton Woods and Loon were leading the charge in this quest for bigness. But alas, the area sitting on what many thought was tremendous potential for development was tied up in an eminent domain fight with the National Park Service, which wanted to take 3,000 acres for preservation.
Breen was basically defeated in his grand plan, and he announced that if he couldn’t sell the area, he would close it. But in 2003, a retired UMaine geology professor with an inherited fortune, Bill Berry, bought the land from Breen, and for a time it seemed Saddleback had broken the logjam.
Berry cut new runs, built a new lodge, improved snowmaking and grooming and generally had the ski area finally on the upswing. There was even an idea afoot of selling memberships in a four-season resort that utilized the lake for fishing and boating. But it turned out to be too little, too late, as Saddleback couldn’t keep up with its own infrastructure maintenance, let alone invest in the kind of development that would let it compete with two nearby modern giants — Sugarloaf and Sunday River. While Saddleback was preoccupied with its war with the Park Service, these two areas were growing into top-tier resorts in New England.
Then three years ago, after 55 years, by which I mark my own beginnings in the sport, Saddleback failed to open. It was an aging resort with simply too many expenses to stay in the game. For starters, it needed $3 million for a new double chairlift to alleviate the long lines at the base lift.
In 2016 Saddleback failed to open for February vacation week. Though the Berry family found a buyer in the Australian Majella group, the deal was never finalized.
So the sleeping giant, with all its beauty, wild steep terrain and almost limitless potential as a four-season resort, remains in a very sad state of limbo.