Bridgton, ME – Spanish music reverberated
throughout my Jeep, escaped from the rolled down windows and floated toward
the blue mountain sky. I couldn’t exactly figure out why my girlfriend’s music
seemed strangely appropriate Down East, but it did. We arrived at Shawnee
Peak on an unusually warm March morning not knowing what to expect. I’d never
skied or boarded in Maine before, and it was only Sarah’s second time on snow.
She’d rather salsa than ski. However, it didn’t take long for the mountain
and its staff to win us over. Only later did we learn that Shawnee is literally
a mountain of love: the tree line that separates the trails at the base spells
out “lov” from afar.
Located in Bridgton, Maine, Shawnee is not like Pine Tree State
giants Sunday River and Sugarloaf. The mountain has a nice variety of terrain,
with most suited toward the intermediate skier or rider, but it only has 41
trails and a 1,300-foot vertical drop. Those who run the mountain and those
who ski it have no illusions of grandeur. Red flannel and army surplus gloves
are the rule, not the exception, and there isn’t a Bogner or Conte of Florence
one-piece to be found. At Shawnee, bigger isn’t necessarily better.
“The people who come here, come for the classic New England
skiing,” said Melissa Roberts, Shawnee Peak marketing director. “The skinny
trails and the warm hospitality, those are the things of New England’s past
that we keep alive. Yes, we have wide open cruisers and a terrain park, but
we also have trails where someone can feel alone in the wilderness.”
Most families that visit Shawnee come back frequently, said
Roberts. And she might be right. Parents and their children made up a large
portion of the skiers on the Friday we made the 2½-hour drive from Boston.
Groups of kids snaked down the trails and huddled around the small video game
arcade at lunch, seeing who could claim the highest score. Parents often skied
by themselves on favorites like Happiness Is and Lower Kancamangus.
Shawnee is a way of life for some, including those who work
it. The Mountain Operations Manager has been at Shawnee for 32 years, while
some lift operators have well over 20 years experience.
“At Shawnee, we like to think of skiing as something that’s
passed down generation to generation. We have people who were skiing here
as kids and, now, their grandchildren ski with them,” said Roberts.
Established in 1938 as Pleasant Mountain, the peak is the longest
continually running ski area in Maine.
SLOW BUT STEADY
Sarah and I started
out on Rabbit Run, which is Shawnee’s polite name for the “bunny slope.” After
almost two decades of skiing, I thought I’d give snowboarding a chance — mainly
because I wanted to improve my surfing technique. (Notice the justification
that only a diehard, and extremely guilty, skier would use).
It was only our
second time out, so Rabbit Run was a no-brainer for our first few attempts.
With the trail’s light, forgiving pitch, it’s easy to see why families feel
comfortable bringing their kids here. The beginner’s slope is wide and presents
no danger to those who easily get out of control, such as the odd inexperienced
We quickly graduated
to Pine Slope, a gently rolling intermediate run underneath Shawnee’s quad
chair (the mountain also features two triples, a double, and a surface lift).
“Are you sure I’m ready for this,” asked Sarah, giving me here patented “you’re
gonna be in trouble if I’m not” look.
She was, which
was as much a tribute to Shawnee Peak as it was to her rapidly improving skills.
As she followed me down the mountain, both carving our best possible turns,
it hit me that a number of factors contributed to our meteoric assent to snowboarding
AS EASY AS
ONE, TWO, THREE
One, the snow was
very good considering the horrendous eastern winter. Driving up north, there
was hardly a snowflake on the ground until we were an hour into Maine. Maine!
The state where harsh New England winters were invented. But as we pulled
into the Shawnee parking lot, a white blanket lay in front of us, greeting
us like a bed for the sleep deprived.
There were patches
of ice, but those intermittent spots merely kept people on their toes. No
one complained, not even the intrepid western Massachusetts skier I talked
to on my first ride up the quad. He had forgotten to pack his skis before
his 3-plus hour drive and was making do with a beat-up pair of rentals. Still,
he was grinning from ear to ear. Skiers and boarders alike could easily find
and hold an edge, which was just this side of nirvana during a drought year.
The lift operators
also smiled upon our every return trip up the mountain, almost like they didn’t
realize they had the most monotonous job in winter sports. They’d ask us how
our last run was and provide a helpful “here it comes” every time the chair
swung around toward us. This brings me to the second contributing factor to
our newfound snowboarding skills: the atmosphere at Shawnee Peak is so relaxed,
it’s natural to feel at ease on and off the slopes.
According to Roberts,
half of Shawnee’s visitors come from Maine, while New Hampshire and Massachusetts
residents evenly split the remaining 50 percent.
Large areas with
greater amenities are within equal or less driving distance for most, but
Shawnee still resonates because it has the feeling of an exclusive club rather
than a resort. It’s like all visitors are in on a secret that shouldn’t and
mustn’t get out.
(Photos: Shawnee Peak Ski Area)
Shawnee Peak illuminates many of its runs
Trails like West
Slope and the more challenging Upper and Lowe Haggetts make the most out of
every vertical foot; winding and turning like a mountain stream. And around
almost every turn is another enthusiast ready to tell you how much they’re
enjoying themselves and how they hope you are too.
Perhaps its because
Shawnee also has a killer bar at the main base lodge, thought no one was skiing
inebriated (RE: Don’t drink and ski). Located on the second floor and boasting
a large deck overlooking the mountain, Blizzard’s Lounge is a cross between
the Maine woods and 70’s kitsch. This is not an insult, but a compliment of
the highest order. Large windows provide sunlight and mountain views and skiers
can relax among the many booths and tables in this airy pub. There are even
a number of Maine brews on tap for that après-ski rendezvous.
My third and final
reason for our snowboarding prowess is that Shawnee has "back to basics"
skiing and riding. Though there are amenities, there aren’t holding company
stock quotes to post next to each lift. All I had to do was concentrate on
my technique and not worry about how I looked doing it. Locally owned by Kennebunk,
Maine businessman Chet Homer, the area is everything you need and nothing
you don’t need if you’re serious about winter.
A PLACE TO LEARN
“We have a very
large learn-to-ski program,” said Roberts. “It’s vital to our continued success
because it helps replace our older base, but also adds to our overall numbers
highly personalized instruction for kids age 4-12. Children’s staff members
are specially trained and most classes include constant supervision. Full-day,
half-day, and hourly rates are available. Full-day lessons even include lunch.
Said Roberts, “Youth
and corporate racing are also big. One of our most popular programs is ‘Racing
with the Moon,’ which is a corporate league that races every Wednesday and
Thursday night. It’s a chance to both relax and get some friendly competition
going. This year we’ve had over 400 racers participate.”
take place January through early March and while Sarah and I didn’t get a
chance to view the league firsthand, we did see a number of high school racers
crashing the gates.
As twilight engulfed
the peak and stunning views of several lakes and New Hampshire’s Presidential
Range faded, the racers took their allotted spot on the mountain. The young
racers, clad in spandex suits, ripped through the giant slalom course while
their times where heard echoing from the loudspeaker.
There is something
very comforting to me about a ski area that has its own race program or conducts
local races. Maybe because I used to race too, but it sends a message that
the area actually cares about the sport at a grassroots level. And that sets
me at ease.
Sarah and I were
nearly ready to pack it in as a set a racers cheered the latest finisher.
“Just one more run,” I thought. “How about Happiness Is?”
IF YOU GO …
A variety of bed and
A wider variety of accommodations