When Tom Butler first visited Sugarloaf while attending the University of Maine, little did the New Jersey native realize that it would be the beginning of a lifetime affair with the Maine ski resort.
His father had some doubts, especially when Butler’s plan of taking off “one year” to teach skiing at Sugarloaf stretched into a few more. Where was he going with all this? What’s the plan here?
All it took was a long weekend at the ski resort for the elder Butler to understand what his son was doing.
“He always said you will find bigger mountains out west,” Butler said. “You will certainly find higher-paying jobs. But you will never find better people. So, if you can prove to your mother that you’re not starving and you can pay your bills, you have our blessing.
“That was it from there.”
Today, nearly 30 years later, Butler is Sugarloaf’s vice president of skier services, who also oversees the resort’s Outdoor Center, which boasts Maine’s largest nordic center. According to the Cross Country Ski Areas Association, sales of cross-country skis, boots and binding sales are up more than 30 percent on average compared to sales through mid-February last season. Several retailers noted that sales have doubled or more.
With that recent explosion in cross-country interest, we wanted to get Butler’s view on the sudden popularity of the sport, as well as how the Outdoor Center offers guests at Sugarloaf a variety of other activities to try during the winter and spring months.
New England Ski Journal: What is your background in nordic skiing?
Tom Butler: It’s something that I picked up before I started working with the Outdoor Center, just as a cross-training thing during the winter time. I just got really into it there for a bunch of years. Then, I had kids and things fell off to the wayside there for a while. Then I started working with the Outdoor Center and started getting back into it again.
NESJ: Can you tell us a little bit about what Sugarloaf’s Outdoor Center offers to guests?
Butler: The Outdoor Center is a full-service operation geared not only toward families but individuals. It offers nordic skiing, fat biking, skating — we have an NHL-sized hockey rink — and snowshoeing. We have snowshoe trails all over the network. We have a full-service retail and full-service repair shop for all our nordic and skating needs — skate sharpeners and everything, so we can take care of that — and also a cafe.
NESJ: Recent numbers have shown a steady increase in sales of nordic equipment. Have you found the sport has become more popular this season, particularly in its ability to practice social distancing?
Butler: Yes, absolutely. It’s grown. It even started last year because it was one of those things that people could do when the lockdown happened and there was still snow on the trails. So, people were still going out and skiing and it was one of the things they could do to continue a little normalcy in their lives. This year has been really good. We’ve been seeing a lot more families going in there. We have a junior program that we started this year that we had really good numbers for. It’s been great to see. It’s just a fabulous way to get out there and just kind of forget about things for a while.
NESJ: Do you find a good number of guests taking advantage of your Alpine Exchange Program in order to learn a new skill, or to experience another activity available at the Outdoor Center?
Butler: The Alpine Exchange usually happens when the weather is not good. That’s what we offer. If you’re here for alpine skiing (because really, that’s the big draw up in this area) and aren’t satisfied with the skiing that day, we offer a snow guarantee. You can go ski for an hour and just say, ‘OK, I’m not digging the conditions.’ We can give you a voucher to come another day, or if you want to turn in your ticket, you’re more than welcome to turn that in and exchange it for a voucher down at the Outdoor Center. It’s not only a condition-based thing but on a wind-hold day, people will still want something to do if they’re here for the weekend. So they’ll turn their ticket in and go down to the Outdoor Center.
NESJ: What sets the Outdoor Center apart from other nordic circuits in Maine?
Butler: I think the real thing is that we’re far enough north that we have pretty reliable snow late into the season. So, that’s a biggie. Also, being situated right next to one of the top ski areas in the East really is a fantastic draw. So people can have a choice of things to do. Even if they don’t alpine ski, it comes with all those amenities — the restaurants, the nightlife — and so it really makes it and completes the package. The other really cool thing, in addition to the network of trails on what we call, the Outdoor Center side of the river, if you go across the river, there’s a trail that goes down from the Outdoor Center, across Route 27, and there’s a bridge that will bring you to the other side of the river. There’s the Narrow Gauge Pathway, which is a multi-use trail, six miles long. You can ski top-to-bottom on that. It’s relatively flat, slight downgrade. The experience is great. You can go out there with your dog, you can ski with friends and still remain socially distant and have a great time with it.
NESJ: This is the resort’s third season offering fat biking. Can you explain a little bit about what that entails, and has it been a successful addition to Sugarloaf’s offerings?
Butler: It has been successful. They’re called fat biking or winter biking, based on the tire size. Some of them go up to four inches in width. They run at lower tire pressures so they’re able to run over snow without digging in, which has been spectacular. It’s really another great way to enjoy winter. What we find is a lot of people who are cycling nuts go out winter biking, and on the other side of the river there are some singletrack trails groomed specifically for fat biking. We have three trails on the outdoor center side of the river that we have designated for fat biking and we do rentals as well.
NESJ: You have been a “Sugarloafer” since 1987. What was it that originally drew you to the resort and what has kept you there all these years?
Butler: I grew up in New Jersey and went to college at the University of Maine in Orono. Nineteen-eighty-seven was the first time that I came to Sugarloaf, and after I graduated college I had always wanted to teach skiing. So I said I was going to take “one winter off” and that was more than 30 years ago. I just got hooked. The skiing is great. The Outdoor Center, as a facility, really complements everything. But the thing that really hooked me was the people.
NESJ: How long do you anticipate the Outdoor Center being able to stay open through the spring season?
Butler: It all depends on what happens weather-wise of course, but we’re going to look at the beginning of April and really assess what do we still have. Usually we stay open through the first week in April and then we’ll close the facilities down. Then what we’ll do is we’ll continue grooming the network for as long as we can so people can keep skiing. As of right now, the closing date could be the 28th of March or it could be the 4th of April.
NESJ: What has been the most challenging aspect of dealing with the pandemic this season?
Butler: I think the biggest thing has been the ability to gather like we have in the past. The nordic skiing crew is highly social. When you go out nordic skiing, sometimes you like going out by yourself, but more often than not you see groups of people wanting to go out and enjoy it. That ability to really embrace all things nordic. There is a social scene associated with nordic skiing. There’s an après scene. There are gatherings. People will go out and ski for a couple hours then regroup at the lodge, and then go back out. That hasn’t been possible this year unfortunately. We’ve had to limit capacity in the base lodge and not encourage gatherings of any kind. That’s a challenge. A lot of these people are friends and have been for years. You want to share the experience with them but we just haven’t been able to do that.