Is Saddleback Really Back?
Not too long ago, skiing was the easy part. It was getting up the hill — balancing the slippery horizontal brace of a T-bar under yourself or else withstanding the rude impact of a double chairlift as it scooped you off your feet — that posed the greatest challenge for skiers. But these days many ski areas have replaced such comparatively medieval devices with quadruple or even six-person detachable chairlifts. These remarkable machines whip scores of skiers up the mountain seemingly at highway speed and yet miraculously slow to almost a crawl when people need to gently deposit their tired, snow-covered bottoms upon them.
One Maine ski area that has resisted such modern advancements is Saddleback, the forty-six-year-old network of trails and lifts overlooking Rangeley and Mooselookmeguntic lakes. Under new ownership, after declines in skier visits that looked to spell the end of skiing in Rangeley, Saddleback has seen more than $20 million poured into it in just the past three years. A sparkling new base lodge lets skiers warm up in comfort, snowmaking equipment covers nearly the entire mountain, and more than a dozen new trails have been cut. One chairlift was extended and a vintage T-bar replaced with a quadruple chair, but nowhere will you find a high-speed lift transporting skiers and snowboarders around the mountain. In some ways the ski area almost seems to be slipping backward in time — and that's just the way the Saddleback faithful say they want it.
In the late 1980s, Rangeley was a ski town. Forty-five thousand people, mostly families, were making the trek to the Franklin County hamlet each winter to slide down Saddleback's slopes. They were lured by lift ticket prices that were still affordable, interesting trails that meandered through the woods, and breathtaking views of the lakes and surrounding hills. Sugarloaf and Sunday River had already begun building base developments that could house thousands of people a night, and they were carving wide new trails and installing fast lifts to accommodate these skiers. Despite such improvements at its competitors — Saddleback's original, circa 1961 cafeteria bore no comparison to the huge new food courts and restaurants popping up at the larger ski areas — people still came to Saddleback. However, Massachusetts businessman Don Breen, who had owned Saddleback since 1978, saw the success his larger neighbors were having and decided he needed to follow their lead. In 1989 the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) granted Breen approval for a major expansion that was to include new lifts, lodges, condominiums, and trails.
But Breen misjudged one detail: the Appalachian Trail crossed land he hoped to develop into ski runs. A decade-long legal battle with environmentalists ended up costing Breen millions and spelled doom for his plans. He finally sold off 1,100 acres of the ski area and donated 350 additional acres to settle the trail dispute. Throughout this period, he was barely investing a dime in Saddleback, and the number of skiers plummeted. The ski area was listed for sale for several years, and few believed it would remain a going concern.
"I've been involved with this mountain for over twenty years, and we really thought it was a lost cause," says Peter Christensen, manager of the Rangeley Lakes Trail Center, which maintained cross-country ski trails near the Rangeley airport before moving to the Saddleback access road two years ago. "I mean, who's going to buy a ski area when you really can't make money with it?"
One of the Saddleback faithful, that's who. Bill Berry, a retired geology professor from Farmington, had for many years owned one of the few condos at Saddleback and had watched the ski area wither. In 2003, after a brief meeting with mountain manager Tom McAllister ("He thought I was just another irate skier," Berry laughs) and a trip to Breen's home in Massachusetts, Berry, his wife, Irene, and their seven grown children pooled their resources and bought the mountain for $8 million. The previous winter just 14,000 people had visited the ski area, having not-so-quietly been replaced by thousands of snowmobilers who had transformed Rangeley from a skiing hotspot into a snowmobiling mecca.
"It was getting sort of sad, because nothing was being done and we were losing skiers to Sugarloaf," says Sue Jones, who has been a lift operator at Saddleback with her husband, Bill, for the past twelve winters. "It was really just a matter of snowmaking — we just didn't have enough. You can't rely on God, even in Maine."
Berry agreed, and within the first year of owning the mountain he spent $2.4 million to increase snowmaking from 50 percent of the mountain to 85 percent, including switching from a man-made pond that held 750,000 gallons of water to 360-acre Saddleback Lake, which holds more than a billion gallons. He also more than doubled the size of the base lodge, spending more than $5 million to transform it into a 36,000 square-foot post-and-beam structure that now houses a pub, cafeteria, rental center, and ski patrol. Twenty additional trails now wind their way down the mountain, with two new ones added each summer. A new beginner chairlift has been installed below the base lodge. Berry has completed six new condominium units and has a dozen more under construction, the first phase of a development that is slated to bring 2,117 new bedrooms to Saddleback within the next ten years. In three years Berry hopes to break ground on a forty-room inn across from the base lodge, as well as a winter tubing hill and an ice-skating rink. That same year calls for a new lift, a day lodge, and several intermediate trails south of the existing base area. The year after that he plans to install a lift in the expert terrain at the opposite side of the ski area, followed by up to two more lifts by 2012. In total, the Berrys will pour $125 million into Saddleback — provided, of course, that their full plan comes to fruition.
All that, and Berry says he hopes to keep lift tickets — currently forty dollars for an adult — within a few dollars of where they are now. A similar ticket at either Sugarloaf or Sunday River this year costs sixty-seven dollars. As an added bonus for locals, Saddleback lets Maine residents ski for just twenty-five dollars on one Sunday each month.
"It's not that we don't want to make money, but we have seven children, and if the nine of us were to go skiing at Sugarloaf, it would be out of the question," Berry says. "The big mountains have basically gone for the out-of-staters who can afford it, but we want to provide a place where the local people can enjoy big-mountain skiing." To encourage four-season uses, Berry hopes to put in an RV park a couple of miles down the access road and to coordinate mountain biking trips with the Rangeley Lakes Trail Center. He says that while the proposed real estate developments are necessary to keep costs down, he is being careful not to mimic the paths carved by larger New England ski areas. "When you drive into Killington, it's like driving up Sunset Boulevard, with all the chain stores and the parking," Berry remarks. "We're trying to make it that you're off into the wilderness, so we want to hide the condos, hide any development."
Berry believes that a wilderness experience can even be imbued onto the very man-made ski runs. "We are not going the route of many ski areas by making superhighways that are often hundreds of feet wide," he says. "Most people like to ski on narrow, winding trails, and that's what we're cutting now." The entire 8,087-acre ski area is restricted to non-motorized uses in both winter and summer, maintaining the quiet. As for the chairlifts, Berry says he's reluctant to start replacing the mountain's vintage T-bars with high-speed quads. "I think it would be difficult to justify putting in a high-speed lift in the place of any of our lifts," he remarks. "The high-speed quads are creating problems in many cases where you get too many people at the top of the mountain."
For now, at least, too many people is not a problem Saddleback faces. While the number of skiers jumped 71 percent the first year the Berrys owned the mountain and 49 percent the year after that, last year the mountain saw a 3 percent decline due to the warm winter. ("We couldn't convince people in Farmington who were mowing their lawns that we had great snow," Berry remarks.) A rise from 14,000 skiers annually to 35,000 in just three winters seems impressive, but it hardly compares to the 180,000 skiers Saddleback would like to be hosting within ten years. Saddleback's current numbers are also barely a drop in the bucket of larger ski areas, where up to a million skiers might visit in a single winter and ten thousand skiers in a day is not uncommon. Most weekdays at Saddleback see a few dozen cars — almost all with Maine license plates, though on the weekend you might see a Bay or Granite Stater or two — parked in lots so close to the lifts that on powder days kids might ski right from the minivan. Many of these skiers are regulars; though the total number of skiers was down last year, season passes were up 79 percent.
Raising the number of weekday skiers is the motivation behind the eighteen new timeshare condominiums Saddleback will build next spring, according to John Cannizzaro, the general manager of Saddleback Development Company, which handles all development on the mountain. "We need to increase the number of beds on the mountain; we could have 50 people skiing on a Tuesday and 1,100 on a Saturday, and yet it costs us the same amount to run the mountain," Cannizzaro says. He says the new base lodge could easily handle two thousand skiers a day, though he hopes to build two new day lodges before the mountain attracts that many.
Cannizzaro realizes that talking about building new lodges while the paint is practically still wet on the base lodge seems presumptuous, but says he'll only build to meet demand. "The plan is very ambitious, but the construction will be very conservative," he says. "We want to do it in stages, not 'if we build it, hope they will come.' The projects will be market-driven, probably something where when I sell two, I build two more."
By making big plans now — and getting them approved by LURC — Cannizzaro hopes to ensure that Saddleback preserves the wilderness atmosphere families have long enjoyed. "The idea is to maintain wilderness developments," he says. "There are only two condominiums on a foundation, and in between each foundation there are trees. Hopefully, you'll feel like you're in the woods, and not in a development." Even new parking lots will follow the design established at Saddleback — just two or three cars wide and bordered by trees — to prevent what Cannizzaro calls the "football-field effect."
Other, more subtle touches reveal that Saddleback has not forgotten its humble roots. The base lodge includes such modern amenities as automatic doors (surprisingly important if you're lugging skis and boots), but it also features rough-sawn pine paneling and lockers that cost just fifty cents. And where at many ski areas the lift operators might be twentysomethings blazing Rage Against the Machine, at Saddleback they're mostly retirees who after just a few runs end up on a first-name basis with skiers. Uniforms are practically nonexistent, with even the ski patrol wearing jackets that look like they might be hand-me-downs from a larger resort.
While virtually everyone in Rangeley hopes the Berrys' infusion of energy and capital into Saddleback will help boost the economy, most are taking a wait-and-see approach to the changes on the mountain. "I think people will believe it when they see it," says Steve Grant, manager of the Red Onion eatery in Rangeley. "I mean, the other guy had lots of ideas and they didn't happen. Now this guy's got lots of ideas, and yes, he's already gone and done the lodge, but I think most people still say they'll believe it when they see it." Despite such reservations, Grant says in the future he expects about a third of his business to come from skiers — double what it was last year.
And day by day, run by run, Saddleback seems to be bringing back the faithful. People like Jon Crane, who grew up skiing at Sugarloaf. "If you asked me, I'd say that I'm a Sugarloafer, but I actually prefer Saddleback now," says Crane, who makes the nearly three-hour trip from Warren to Rangeley with his three children. "There are a lot of things not to like about modern skiing — the trails are wide so you don't have depth perception, and detachable quads just put too many people up on the mountain and it all gets skied off too quick. Saddleback is kind of a throwback."