|Saddleback provides a stunning view of the Rangeley Lakes region from its 4,237-foot summit. (Photo Courtesy of Saddleback)|
A simple approach
Saddleback enjoys old-school success
For much of the 1980s and ’90s, war raged for the heart and soul - not to say dollar - of Maine skiing.
One skirmish had the public relations departments at Sunday River and Sugarloaf accusing each other of lying about the advertised distance to the respective areas. They accused each other of exaggerating snow reports, and did flyovers of parking lots to keep tabs on their rival’s crowd size.
Sugarloaf had signs halfway up the lift telling riders sarcastically that if they were at Sunday River they’d be at the top already. When the sniping and bickering did find its way into court, a judge firmly admonished them to settle their differences.
Then in 1996 the war of words abruptly ended when Sunday River owner Les Otten and his
Through those decades, Sunday River did gain supremacy in skier visits, drawing more than 500,000 annually, and revenues many times more than Sugarloaf. Sunday River was second only to Vermont’s Killington in New England. Still, both brands were very well known, inspiring passionate loyalty.
But always lurking in the memories of those who remember the growth of the two dominant resorts was that fabled area called Saddleback. When the sport of alpine skiing was just taking root in the 1960s, Saddleback, jut a few ridge lines away, resembled Sugarloaf. It was just as challenging, rawboned, wild, and beautiful.
But through the decades of the great Maine ski wars, Saddleback was all but forgotten and the western outpost of Rangeley became largely snowmobile central with a small, mostly local crowd that used a ski area that was becoming outdated.
“When we used to go skiing from Orono in the late ’70s,’’ remembered Marge Warren of Portland, “you’d just have to choose which area you wanted to be at that weekend. It was like they were the same. Most of the time we liked going into downtown Rangeley to eat and drink some beer, so we skied Saddleback.’’
But in 1971 Sugarloaf hosted a World Cup ski event - the Tall Timber Classic - drawing celebrities of the sport such as Stein Ericksen and Gustavo Thoei. Soon thereafter, the resort was renamed Sugarloaf/USA and an all-out development of real estate and mountain infrastructure was quickly turning The Loaf from a local area to a resort.
About the same time Killington acquired Sunday River and sent one of its young trainees, Otten, from New York to Maine to run the area. Though Otten could not convince Killington to make a financial investment in Sunday River, he did convince them to sell it to him in 1980 and Otten quickly took it on an incredible rocket ride.
In 1980, there were 32,000 total skier visits to Sunday River. Within a decade he had run that figure to nearly 600,000, with real estate development, snowmaking, and trail expansion transforming the area to a New England megaresort.
When a Boston newspaper offered Otten to write one side of a punch/counterpunch feature pitting Sunday River against Sugarloaf, Otten refused. Make Killington the chief rival instead of Sugarloaf, and the deal was on. To Otten, who had managed to make deep roots into the Boston market, the Maine ski wars, despite some lingering trash talk, were already over.
When in ’96 Otten’s American Skiing Company purchased Sugarloaf from Warren Cook, a release to the press contained some of Cook’s wry humor: “Just remember the toes you step on today may be connected to the butt you have to kiss tomorrow.’’
But now Cook is back in the game as manager of Saddleback, and the area that seemed an afterthought for so many years is making its own statement. For decades of a protracted legal fight with environmental and Appalachian Trail advocacy groups, Saddleback sat still in terms of development.
But with the suits settled and new owners Bill and Irene Berry from Farmington having installed Cook as general manager, Saddleback has developed something of a new buzz, certainly in Maine.
“Our marketing approach is value and service,’’ said Cook, acknowledging that Saddleback cannot compete with the infrastructures of Sugarloaf and Sunday River. “We certainly feel we have the best value in New England.’’
Through much of his reign at Sugarloaf, Cook went along with the general movement in snow country of widening and straightening New England’s typically winding, narrow trails.
But at Saddleback, whose 2,000-foot vertical descends from a breathtaking view of the Rangeley Lakes region from a 4,237-foot summit, the brand includes the old eastern trails that switchback through the woods.
Some of the densest, most challenging glades in New England are another part of that brand, as is a natural, untouched feel on the terrain. No re-engineering on Saddleback’s runs.
“Saddleback is very different from Sugarloaf,’’ said Cook, who understands his market is mostly in-state. “The Berry family’s vision is for Saddleback to be the alternative to the high-speed place.’’
This remark touches on an ongoing debate at Saddleback over whether to install a high-speed lift - standard at any modern ski area today - or progress with slower, fixed-grip chairs. The more traditional view is to go with slower chairs and use the considerable savings to invest in snowmaking and grooming.
“They [Saddleback] need to work on the snow,’’ said Tom Mori of Farmington, who has skied Saddleback and Sugarloaf most of his life. “We were up there after a storm and the wind had just shellacked the surface. They need groomers to bust that stuff up. But then you’re going to see the ticket price go up. [But] I still think it needs some grooming.’’
Cost of a one-day weekend ticket at Saddleback is $49, $35 weekday - more than $20 below Sugarloaf and Sunday River prices.
The Rangeley Lakes region has a storied past as a sportsman’s mecca, and Cook said Saddleback hopes to develop a four-season marketing approach. The company already has a marina on one of the area’s many lakes and wants to tap into the rich history of the days when trains brought flyfishermen from New York and the area had its own species of trout.
But with winter at hand, Saddleback is trying to consolidate last year’s gains (a better than 20 percent increase in day lift tickets sold) and move ahead in a down economy. The latter fact could help since Saddleback is so much less expensive than the big rivals.
“It’s simpler, it’s more of a throwback, and you need a little more good natural snow,’’ said Mori. “But if you can’t afford the high-end BMW, sometimes the old Ford does just fine.’’