RANGELEY, Maine - One irony attached to the success of a ski area is that most skiers root against it.
Sure, they want some measure of good business - enough to keep the lifts running, the snow guns whirring, and the chili hot. But too much usually means huge crowds, long lines, jammed slopes, and no fresh powder after 9 a.m.
Most snow riders want to keep their favorite places to themselves, and Saddleback in Rangeley is a case in point.
Throughout most of its 50-year history, Maine skiers and a few from outside have known Saddleback as a sleeping giant in the remote western hills - a mountain of terrain as varied and challenging as any in the East, with gorgeous summit views of the lakes region, and most significantly, with a clientele so sparse there is nary a line.
So why does Saddleback, with its 4,120-foot summit, 2,000-foot vertical drop, 200 inches of natural annual snowfall, and 85 percent snowmaking lack for visitors?
For starters, it's four-plus hours from Boston. That's OK for areas like neighboring Sugarloaf, which have well-developed destination services, but Saddleback's relatively underdeveloped resources are part of its history.
The area had been envisioned as an "Aspen of the East" by Donald Breen, a Massachusetts businessman who had hoped to build a mega-resort when he bought Saddleback in 1984. A decade later a prolonged battle with various environmental groups had forced Breen to put all development plans on hold.
So in an era when most New England ski areas were developing lifts, snowmaking plants, and bed bases, Saddleback's future became mired in a battle with the National Park Service and Appalachian Trail Conference over protection of the Appalachian Trail, a hiking corridor that runs across Saddleback's 3 1/2-mile summit.
Visitors found a ski area that had changed little in a quarter century. That was great news for those who liked Saddleback the way it was: big, raw-boned, and with dwindling numbers of skiers.
Still, it had hit highs of around 50,000 skier visits in a winter, though by 2002, just before Breen sold it, that number had shrunk to 16,000, and then rebounded to about 35,000 in the following years. By comparison, Sugarloaf serves some 300,000 skiers and riders in an average winter.
Now, thanks to a compromise with the park service and trail group, Bill Berry of Farmington, who bought Saddleback four years ago, has plans to transform the area into a four-season resort village.
In August, the Berry family received approval from Maine's Land Use Regulation Commission for a 10-year development plan that would construct nine new lifts, expand the trail system, and beef up the snowmaking and base facilities.
Such a transformation will mean the end of Saddleback's lonesome skier image, but the Berrys are well known for their environmental and philanthropic interests. Their plan, John Cannizzaro, the development manager, said in a release, will enable Saddleback to evolve with "an abiding commitment to the natural beauty of Maine."
The first phase includes a new Magalloway lift and trail network, an increase of snowmaking to 85 percent, increased capacity on the existing Rangeley chair, and a new quad chairlift and trail system dedicated to beginners and families.
Already completed are a larger post-and-beam base lodge, expanded terrain offerings, especially in the high elevation advanced area, a tubing park, and an amenities center with pool, spa, fitness center, and tennis courts. All of which gets reaction from longtime Saddleback aficionados.
"I'm not going to say I've always liked the mountain the way it is," says Marcia Gaynor of Portland. "One slow chairlift from the base lodge could be kind of painful on really cold days. And if there wasn't a lot of natural snow, the conditions could be really tough. But on great ski days with plenty of snow on that mountain it felt like you had the place to yourself, and it's just a beautiful mountain to ski.
"I know there'll be more people, but I hope it just doesn't change the character of Saddleback. . . . Some things had to change anyway."
Skiers and riders should not think that Rangeley is some lonely outpost with no facilities. From the historic Rangeley Inn to Pleasant Street Inn, Country Club Inn, and assorted motels and condos, there are plenty of places to stay, even for larger groups and families.
Tony Chamberlain, a freelance writer in Duxbury, can be reached at email@example.com.