I missed Saddleback. I’ve always been a fan of Maine’s “Big Three,” so when Rangeley’s Saddleback shuttered operations in 2015, leaving Sugarloaf and Sunday River to carry the torch, I felt something was definitely amiss in the skiing universe.
We understand when small areas close. We even anticipate it. The ski industry, buffeted by COVID-19, climate change and keen competition for recreational dollars, is not a place for the faint of heart. But when a larger ski area ceases operations, it can send shockwaves through a region.
That’s how I felt seven years ago, when Saddleback owners announced they would cease operations at the resort if they couldn’t secure and install new lifts to replace the area’s outdated chairs. The lifts didn’t materialize, and Saddleback folded. The news hit me, a ski writer from Boston’s North Shore, hard. I couldn’t imagine how the loss must have resonated with the residents in and around Rangeley. The ski area at Saddleback Mountain opened in the early 1960s, and the mountain and the village have been inextricably linked ever since.
Fortunately for western Maine, reports of Saddleback’s ultimate demise were a bit exaggerated. It appears the revered ski area was simply hibernating for a few seasons. Today, Saddleback is back, and back in a big way.
Boston-based Arctaris Impact Fund acquired the defunct ski area in January 2020, for a reported $6.5 million, and significant improvements to the base lodge, trail network and snowmaking system followed shortly after the sale was completed. More importantly, Saddleback installed New England’s first new detachable chairlift since 2018, replacing the original (and outdated) main double chairlift. Then, less than 12 months after the purchase, and despite a pandemic that was wreaking havoc on the ski industry, Saddleback reopened for skiers and snowboarders in December.
“The thing that has always made Saddleback special is the generations of skiers and snowboarders that have called the mountain home,” Andy Shepard, Saddleback’s general manager, said. “What Sunday River and Sugarloaf do is great, but we are different.
“Our focus is on creating an authentically friendly and caring experience for our guests — treating everyone like they are a part of that special family,” Shepard said. “From our hosts who greet people dropping off equipment and skiers at the base area, to our lift attendants to all our business units, people are genuinely happy you’re here and want to make every day special.”
Shepard isn’t simply blowing smoke. The general manager is a tried-and-true Mainer. Two decades ago, he founded the Outdoor Sport Institute, a nonprofit that bought and transformed two defunct Maine ski areas — Bigrock Mountain and Black Mountain of Maine. He and his wife Betsey “honeymooned right here at Saddleback Lake Lodge, in 1981,” Shepard told Outside magazine in 2020.
“The people of western Maine are no-nonsense,” he told Outside. “They don’t care what kinds of clothes you wear or what kind of car you drive. If you love skiing, you’re in here. And the mountain itself, it’s been part of the lives of tens of thousands of families.”
A colorful history
The size, and inherent natural gifts of Saddleback can’t be overstated. The second-highest ski summit in Vacationland, Saddleback seemed destined to be a ski destination. And, like most New England ski areas, that destiny is reflected in Saddleback’s colorful history. It’s a history with more twist and turns than a Shakespearean drama.
The first act focuses on the Rangeley Lakes area capturing the fancy of ski developers during the 1950s, and local businessmen enticing ski area developer Sel Hannah to assess the potential of the 2,470-foot Bald Mountain in Oquossoc and the 4,116-foot Saddleback. Though Hannah reportedly saw more promise in Saddleback’s expansive terrain, work started almost simultaneously on both hills by competing companies.
The Rangeley-Saddleback Corporation, formed in 1958, eventually raised roughly $250,000 through a stock sale to secure a 45-year lease on land from Hudson Pulp and Paper Company and start trail and lodge construction. The nearby Bald Mountain Skiway (not to be confused with a Bald Mountain in Dedham, by Maine’s coast) won the sprint and opened first in 1959. But Saddleback won the marathon. Billed the “Sun Valley of the East,” Saddleback welcomed skiers a year later and continued to operate long after Bald Mountain Skiway ceased operations in 1973.
According to NewEnglandSkiHistory.com, Saddleback’s lower T-Bar opened on New Year’s Eve, 1960, serving Wheeler Slope (named after original stockholder Carl Wheeler). The upper T-Bar, serving Grey Ghost and Hudson Highway, opened in late January 1961. Saddleback’s owners then announced the addition of three new intermediate and expert trails for 1961-62. Those classic runs — Royal Coachman, Blue Devil and Parmachenee — still exist today.
Heading into the 1962-63 season, the ownership received a $50,000 Small Business Administration loan to make general improvements to the base area, and the Rangeley-Saddleback Corp. made a huge investment for the 1963-64 season by installing a 1,200-foot vertical double chairlift. At 4,600 feet in length, it was Maine’s longest chairlift at the time, and Saddleback’s star was on the rise. After two nearly disastrous seasons in 1963-64 and 1964-65, the area flourished under the guidance of Richard Arnzen, who through his marriage to Jean Gannett had access to the fortune of the Guy Gannett Publishing Company.
After Arnzen succumbed to cancer in 1972, Gannett sold the ski area, leading to a brief period of turmoil that saw the ski area foreclosed, rescued, and change ownership groups several times. Donald Breen, a pharmaceutical mogul from Massachusetts, brought some stability to Saddleback when he took the reins in 1978.
Under Breen’s management, the 1980s was a period of steady growth for Saddleback. But during the 1990s, his plans for a dramatic expansion, including accessing the bowl at the back of the mountain, were stymied by a protracted dispute with conservation advocates and the National Park Service over the Appalachian Trail corridor, which runs across the ridge atop the ski area. Breen eventually settled the dispute with the National Park Service in 2000 but had lost his enthusiasm for running Saddleback. In the fall of 2003, Breen sold out to the Berry family, headed up by UMaine-Farmington professor Bill Berry, for $7.5 million.
Over the next dozen years, the Berry family poured $50 million into Saddleback. They built a new base lodge, six new trails and a new quad chairlift (the resort’s first new chairlift in 30 years) in 2004. In 2007, the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission approved Saddleback’s 10-year development plan, which called for further expansion of lifts, trails, vacation homes and other facilities. During the summer of 2008, a second quad chairlift was built to replace the Kennebago T-bar at the top of the ski area, along with new trails. It wasn’t enough. As the number of visitors swelled, so did the lift lines, and older, slower chairs weren’t able to keep pace.
Despite ceasing operations in 2015, Saddleback had suitors. There was a dalliance with Sebastian Monsour, head of the Australian development firm Majella, who promised to build an eight-mile tram from Rangeley to the base lodge. However, the Monsour bid was undone when it came to light that he was less interested in reviving Saddleback than in the federal EB-5 program, which allows foreigners to attain green cards if they invest in a job-creating U.S. businesses (the same program that eventually wreaked havoc with ownership groups at Jay Peak and Burke Mountain in Vermont).
Finally, the Boston-based Arctaris Impact Fund, an investment firm, stepped into the void. Founded in 2009, Arctaris purchased Saddleback in early 2020 and expects to eventually spend $38 million to not only return Saddleback to its glory days, but also to bring it into the new millennium. Part of its strategy is to take advantage of the federal New Markets Tax Credit Program, established by Congress to encourage investment in low-income communities.
“A traditional private-equity firm wouldn’t have been able to make Saddleback profitable,” Jonathan Tower, founder and managing partner of Arctaris, told Outside. “An impact fund was the right fit.”
According to Shepard, Arctaris has spent more than $30 million dollars over the past two years, which includes new lifts, snowmaking improvements and a major renovation of the lodge.
“This is Arctaris’ second year of operation,” Shepard said. “We installed three new lifts this summer, added $2 million in snowmaking upgrades, added two new environmentally friendly eco-diesel groomers to our fleet, began construction of our mid-mountain lodge, and redesigned our ‘beach’ in front of the lodge to create a better experience. We also began construction on our new Parmachenee A-Frame Village.”
The fact that these improvements are happening at all is impressive. That they’re being accomplished during a pandemic is nothing short of remarkable, a reassuring indication of Arctaris’ commitment to both the ski area and the surrounding area of Rangeley (population 1,100) and Franklin County. And the owners have put it in writing.
According to the ski area’s website: “Being owned by an impact fund … gives us a mission beyond being a profitable ski area. Our mission includes a relationship and commitment to our communities, which serve as the touchstone for everything we do, both on and off the mountain.”
“Saddleback is resolute in our promise to break down the barriers that stand between our communities and the challenge, confidence, adventure and sheer fun that awaits on this mountain,” stated the resort owners. “And we are equally committed to doing everything we can to strengthen the vitality of all people within these communities, whether they join us on the mountain or not. Their health and happiness, their economic well-being, their access to healthcare, workforce development, daycare, affordable housing and even the environment in which they live, work and play, all are important to us, because we recognize that none of us stand alone.”
The resort’s stated commitment, and initial investment, has caught the attention of New England skiers and snowboarders.
“We’ve been exceptionally pleased with the response of the skiing public,” Shepard said. “They’ve noticed the impact of the new lifts on eliminating lines, the additional snowmaking capacity, all without losing the reputation of the down-to-earth, up-for-anything culture of the Saddleback family.”
A Maine classic
On the mountain, Saddleback’s lineup is impressive. The area boasts 68 named trails and glade areas (some dating back to Saddleback’s first season) plus two terrain parks that together cover more than 600 skiable acres and 2,000 feet of vertical, with a breakdown of 35 percent beginner (mom and dad, take notice), 30 percent intermediate, 25 percent advanced, and 10 percent expert. Many ski areas promise “something for everyone,” but Saddleback delivers like few do. An annual snowfall of 225 inches is supplemented by an improved snowmaking system that helps blanket 85 percent of the terrain.
As an added tribute to the area’s rich fishing history, many of Saddleback’s trails — like Doodlebug, Silver Doctor, Grey Ghost, Smelt Streamer, Squirrel’s Tail, Nymph and Wooly Bugger Glades — are named for famous fishing flies created by Rangeley legends Carrie Stevens, Bud Wilcox and Dick Frost.
Saddleback’s terrain is ingeniously segmented by degree of difficulty, making it easy for anyone to find their comfort zone and stay there. Beginners, or visitors looking for a chill experience with the family, should head to “South Branch.” This is a terrific spot for learning, ideal for skiers and riders of all ages and abilities. Located below the lodge and separated from the rest of the mountain with its own easy-loading quad chairlift, South Branch boasts terrain over 14 trails and gentle glades.
The “Rangeley Area” offers a wide diversity of terrain for intermediates, with a few black diamonds for those looking to expand their limits, plus a long, easier combination run that loops away from the other trails. Hardcore powderhounds, meanwhile, are bound to gravitate to “Kennebago Steeps,” which the resort claims is “the largest steep skiing and riding facility in the East,” with a daunting mix of a dozen black and double black diamond trails and hand-cut glades, including the infamous Casablanca Chutes (also known as the Casablanca Glades). This advanced terrain is accessed via its own chairlift, the Kennebago Quad.
For the cardiovascular crowd, Saddleback offers a designated uphill trail for skinning that winds along the western edge of the resort, from the lodge to the summit, providing access to both the Rangeley Area and Kennebago Steeps terrain.
Park grommets, meanwhile, can choose between a pair of terrain parks that are groomed daily. The Freerider Terrain Park, located on Wheeler Slope in front of the lodge (a source of endless entertainment), offers a multiple jump line of 15- to 25-foot booters in addition to more than a dozen box, rail and jib features. At the South Branch area below the lodge, the Gee Whiz Terrain Park is a mellower park experience, ideal for learning and perfecting new skills, or for an initial terrain park experience, with smaller jumps, rollers, boxes, rails and jib features.
Getting skiers and riders to the tops of those trails are seven lifts, including two quad chairlifts, one high-speed quad (replacing the painfully slow top-to-bottom double chair from 1963), one T-bar (no doubt for tradition’s sake), a rope tow and one magic carpet. That capacity alone is an enormous improvement over the Saddleback that I last visited in 2013.
Shepard also confirmed that Saddleback’s reputable ski school is again fully operational after being limited by COVID-19-related restrictions during the 2020-21 season. Have a budding Ted Ligety or Mikaela Shiffrin in your clan? Consider enrolling them in the Rangeley Alpine Ski Club. The club is a fully independent, championship-caliber team and development program that Saddleback supports and partners with, and is designed for young skiers ages 8 to 18 interested in developing their skiing and ski racing skills. The program places an emphasis on inclusivity, empowerment, personal development and fun. Or, as head coach Jeff “Hawk” Hawksley stated, the goal of the program is to “ski fast and laugh often.” A variety of training packages are available (207-670-8010).
When hunger pangs hit — and if you arrive for first chair, you’re going to need to refuel — Saddleback has plenty of options. To start the day, stop by The Market at Saddleback. Located on the second floor of the base lodge, and open daily from 8 a.m.-3 p.m., the market has early morning selections, including breakfast sandwiches served on an English muffin, brioche or bagel, hash browns, fried chicken and waffles, lox and bagels, muffins and cinnamon buns, and midday options like daily flatbread specials, fresh chili and chowder, chicken tenders, buffalo chicken rangoons and pretzel bites with beer cheese. If the sun is shining, grab one of the “Market Shareable” charcuterie boards like the Saddleback Shark Board (salami, prosciutto, capicola, pickles), The GOAT (marinated goat cheese, sundried tomatoes, garlic confit), or the Mediterranean (hummus, olives, feta, sea salt) and head for the deck.
The newly renovated pub (open Wednesday-Saturday from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sunday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.) offers spectacular views of the mountains and lakes to the north and of Saddleback Mountain, and a convivial après-ski vibe, with a hand-crafted menu that highlights local farms. Pair a Saddleback Smash Burger, pastrami reuben, buffalo chicken sandwich or one of numerous hand-tossed pizzas with a Maine craft beer like Lone Pine Portland Pale, Bissell Brothers Substance, Sebago Saddleback Ale, Bigelow Brown or Allagash White.
Entrees include a 16-ounce ribeye steak, the Rangeley rigatoni with roasted garlic, cream sauce, mushrooms, chicken and a sweet bacon shallot glaze and the Saddle Mac cavatappi with a creamy housemade cheese sauce and bread crumbs (buffalo chicken optional). You can even indulge in that great imported delicacy, poutine, with housemade gravy, French fries and cheese curds.
Finally, the ski area has teamed up with New Belgium Brewing to launch the Fat Tire Mountain Bar to anchor the area’s Fat Tire Village, slopeside in front of the lodge. The bar serves up coffee and hot breakfasts, plus grab-n-go lunches and snacks from a recycled shipping container.
Speaking of the main lodge, Saddleback has gone above and beyond to protect visitors during the pandemic.
“We take COVID seriously at Saddleback and have followed CDC guidelines, and will continue to do so,” Shepard said. “For this year, that means there will be no restrictions on outdoor activities. We’re also allowing people to come in, sit by the fire, and get your boots and gear on.
“We have a lot of cubbies and just ask that everything be put away in the cubbies, rather than left on tables. One of the biggest sources of feedback last year was people appreciating not having bags in the lodge and, therefore, having unfettered access to the tables to eat and relax.”
Next, where to stay. Again, you’ve got options. Morton & Furbish Vacation Rentals has partnered with the Saddleback management team and condo owners to deliver a true ski-and-stay experience at the mountain (housekeeping and discounted lift tickets are included with every rental). Learn more at RangeleyRentals.com.
Looking beyond the ski area and adjoining condominiums, Rangeley Lake has been a destination for outdoor enthusiasts since the legendary Fly Rod Crosby — the first female Maine Guide — introduced the world to the region in the late 1800s. The quick drive down Saddleback Mountain Road and Dallas Hill Road (less than 8 miles) brings you to the town of Rangeley, where you’ll find a surprising assortment of restaurants, sports and accommodations.
Lodging options in town include Lyons Lakeside Cabins (lyonslakeside.com), which are located on the Eastern shore of Rangeley Lake, with one, two and three-bedroom all-season vacation cabins with high-speed Internet access, full kitchens and baths and unparalleled sunset views. The stately Rangeley Inn (therangeleyinn.com) in the center of town is just a short walk to restaurants, shops and galleries. The Loon Lodge Inn and Restaurant (loonlogeme.com; see our Check In, Check Out feature in this issue) has a great variety of well-appointed rooms and a wonderful pub. The Highland Heath House (highlandheathhouse.com) is a log cabin bed and breakfast with four spacious guest rooms located in an alpine meadow overlooking the eastern shores of Rangeley Lake and the mountains of Maine and New Hampshire.
That kaleidoscope of natural wonders makes Maine’s Rangeley Lakes region a special place. It’s even more special now that Saddleback is again a part of it.
976 Saddleback Mountain Road
Rangeley, Maine 04970
Brion O’Connor can be reached at [email protected].