BRIDGTON, Maine -- In winter, the brick-trimmed sidewalks of Bridgton aren't exactly rolled up, but the laid-back rural life gets even slower.
In summer, this Lakes Region town, about 40 miles northwest of Portland, is alive with music in the Big Kahuna Cafe or Hollywood's latest on the screen at the drive-in. But now? Those popular places and others are closed, and skiers, snowshoers, ice fishermen, and snowmobilers have replaced the summer people at places such as Highland Lake, Moose Pond, and Long Lake.
Shawnee Peak is Bridgton's winter heart, pulsing with skiing and riding day and night. The 40-trail midsize mountain on the frozen shores of Moose Pond is a magnet for both the after-school crowd and the weekend enthusiast. In this age of fast-flying, high-speed quads, Shawnee is the slow and steady workhorse. You'll get to the top rested and ready to go.
The summit views of the White Mountains are spectacular, with many trails giving the illusion that you're going to ski right into the pond. The path less taken is on the eastern side of the mountain, with narrow cruisers like black diamond Upper Appalachian and the various adrenaline-laced fingers of Yee Haw and Upper Kancamagus. Swooping down Lower Roosevelt to the curves of Mohawk is a delight. On a busy weekend, try East Lodge as home base. When it dumps, the eastern glades are an adventure land.
The front side of Shawnee hops with the wide, under-the-lift Jack Spratt to roominess on both the Horn and the Main. Upper Haggett's to Riley's Run is a tad off the beaten way. It also provides beginners with their own secluded place to learn. If T-Line's open, find it and fly straight.
Right outside the weathered base lodge is a terrain park and halfpipe where seasoned snowboarders and skiers take flight. The Grommet Garden, a mini-terrain park, is where would-be snow sliders earn their wings before moving on.
And, still, change is in the air at Shawnee. With the purchase of more than 400 acres on the west side of the mountain, more trails, lifts, and real estate development are planned.
The honor system is alive for cross-country enthusiasts skiing through the apple orchards and along the logging roads of Five Fields Farm in South Bridgton, high up rolling Route 107. If owner Tom Gyger is out tending to other business, just plop the trail fee in the cigar box, sign in, and head out on the trails -- kind of like a farm stand.
The base lodge at Five Fields is about as down-home as it gets: a workshop complete with finicky cat, classical music, and an R2D2-like 1920s coal furnace that is now a functioning wood stove fueled by orchard prunings. This isn't flat golf course skiing or snowshoeing. The Nordic center is relatively high in elevation, at about 800 feet on a side of Bald Pate Mountain. The 25 kilometers of trails go through the farm's woodlands and onto the adjacent Loon Echo Land Trust's 1,150-foot-high Bald Pate (itself a fine winter hike or snowshoe trip). Farm landmarks figure in the names of the trails, like the ominous-sounding Graveyard Loop (there's a cemetery along it) and Irrigation Alley.
Bridgton's Main Street is no place of fancy, but rather a comfortable collection of old and new, from a branch of Maine's 1949 discount store Reny's to the assortment of art in the Bridgton Art Guild's Gallery 302. Wooden snowshoes may line up outside the country store Corn Shop Trading Co., but there's high-wired caffeine and wireless access in Cafe DeCarlo, and a collection of shops in the yellow Maine Difference building across the street from the pink Craftworks, which is in an old church. Though the Magic Lantern Theater is closed because it is sinking, plans call for a twin theater to take its place.
The restaurants aren't fancy either, but there is a pleasant range of choices, from the longstanding Chinese offerings of Ruby Food to the relatively new and tasty Chao Thai. Grab a booth in Ricky's Diner or slip into a Bridgton favorite, the Black Horse Tavern, a 200-year-old homestead on Route 302.
Bridgton was first settled in 1768, with many first making the trip on foot from Massachusetts. Incorporated in 1794, the town has over 4,000 residents. Stagecoach routes in the early 19th century started bringing travelers to the area, while early mills and eventually the railroad contributed to the economy.
The town heats up for the Mushers Bowl Winter Carnival Feb. 10-12 (www.mushersbowl.com) with its sled dog rides and races, skijoring (when a dog is hitched to a person on skis), frozen plunge into Highland Lake for charity, snowmobile tours, ice fishing contest, pancake breakfasts, and other small-town fun from broomball to ice skating. The mushing races are based at Five Field Farms, while the shores of Highland Lake Beach play host to lots of other activities.
Walk from the frozen shore to the fireside warmth of the Noble House, a bed-and-breakfast. The nine-room Queen Anne Victorian circa 1903, run by Rick and Julie Whelchel, is a place to chill out amid an antique camera collection, 100-year-old grand piano, pump organ, and walk-in closet under the stairs with board games aplenty. A bottomless cookie jar is close at hand. Creative breakfasts of fluffy egg strata, bread pudding with apple and raisin sauce, fruit, and home-baked breads will fill the internal furnace.
A mile away are the complimentary trails of the Bridgton Highlands Country Club, where volunteers groom about 8 miles of pathways along the golf course up on the ridge overlooking a hulking Pleasant Mountain and Shawnee Peak. The Whelchels will loan you snowshoes, and later will make sure the fire is going before your head meets pillow, a popular winter activity in Bridgton.
Marty Basch can be reached at email@example.com.