The Ghost of Ski Areas Past

“It was a strange figure – like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions” – Charles Dickens

I first spied the line while on a fat bike ride earlier this winter. OK, there’s not much elevation change anywhere near Portland, Maine so calling it a “line” is a little optimistic. But seeing as how I’ve been earning my turns for the past 10 years or so any bit of nearby skiable vertical is a good thing, especially if I don’t have to drive an hour (or more) to reach it.

The snow was crusty and old (much like myself) as we hadn’t had any fresh for a few weeks and the midwinter thaw was in full force. As I rode I noticed that off to the side of the trail was an undeniable clearing in the woods. It led directly off the ridgeline and out of view.  I walked over to the edge of the incline and immediately saw it: a fall line with just enough space to link some turns. I made a mental note to return when (if) the snow did.

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The one, the only – Poplar Ridge

In the meantime I did a little research. Amazingly enough, there had once been a ski area on this hill! The topo map of the area still shows the liftline of the defunct Hurricane Ski Slope .  From 1946-1973 it had operated on this pleasant little slope, with a larger open area of private property still remaining as a pasture to this day. It just goes to show that skiers know a line when they see one, even if it’s only 200 or so vertical feet. I can almost hear the schralpf of ski edges and the cries of kids learning to ski in Winter’s past.

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Entering the danger zone (downhill haha) on my ancient Kazama’s

A week later I finally got my chance to ski it.  After a massive almost 70 degree warm spell had decimated the remaining snowpack we were gifted with a surprise foot of fresh. I headed up to the ridge on my ancient Kazama Mountain High metal edged touring skis, found the clearing and pointed them downhill – a direction they remained headed despite my best efforts to turn them until a tree loomed in my field of view. I’d forgotten how fun it is to coax skinny 210cm double cambered touring skis to turn in fresh snow. I kick turned down the rest of the massive vertical face. Errrrr well it felt intimidating on the skinny skis at least.

As unenlightened it may have been, the proof of concept was sound. There was a hill nearby that offered an opportunity for some sorely lacking verticality in my life! I dug out my rusty-edged-almost-as ancient-as-the-Kazama’s K2 Piste Stinx tele skis and ordered up some 3-pin bindings for some control with my touring boots. After another excruciating week of ridiculous up and down February temperature swings (60deg to zero and the almost back to 50! No one ever said living on the coastal plain in Maine is conducive to great snow conditions!) and a visit from mail order Santa, I was ready for the next storm cycle.

The buds of the beeches may have been fooled but the calendar still read “winter” as a few coastal storms soon churned up the Eastern seaboard. Three feet of fresh fell within a week – winter was back!  With my grungy 90’s era skis humming Nirvana I hit that slope after every storm blanketed it with fresh snow.  The Atlantic Ocean can be a great snow gun under the right conditions.

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“Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us”

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Trees tend to grow arms in the wind and grab skis around here

Some days the powder was knee deep, on others it was crud.  Though the runs may have been short the lift lines were even shorter, not to mention the price was right. I’m not a total cheapskate but $100 plus lift tickets are not my thing anymore. As long as I have enough base to clear most of the fallen tree branches that litter the floor of my little glade the price is right.

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Glades are fun, even if they’only provide 200ft of vertical

Of course now the calendar has been flipped from Winter to Spring. The snows are melting as the sun intensifies with each passing day.  Soon I’ll be mountain biking these very hills as some of the best trails in the area wind to the top of this tiny ridge. It’s my hidden gem, my escape from the everyday.  Regardless of season, it’s a chance to recapture the past and feed that inner child on the slopes of Poplar Ridge.

Oh and Powder Magazine, if you’re listening – feel free to drop by anytime for a tour.

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Then There was Color

My previous black and white post was from within the depths of a winter day earlier this year. Yesterday I went back to the scene of the crime (the Carrabassett Valley) for what will probably be my last extended snow ride of the season. It turned out to be one of the best of the season.

Winter is dead. Long live winter!

Of course, winter isn’t quite done yet in these parts. Overnight it had returned under cover of darkness with a fresh glaze of snow over the roads making my trek from Portland out to Western Maine a hellaciously slippery affair. This time of year Maine DOT prefers to let sunshine clear its roads so the predawn drive was a skating rink. Luckily the sun chose to make an entrance and melt the roads a bit before I got checked into the boards (snowbanks) at high speed or wrapped myself around a tree.
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Then there was light

In spring you’re always just around the corner to the light of day.

If you’re up early in the morning and outside this time of year you know that there is change right around the corner. The earth exudes it. The birds are singing with a purpose other than just to stay warm.  The trees no longer shiver rigidly in the wind, they sway to the pulse of sap rising through their limbs. Heck, even the squirrels are all smiles as they hop around uncovering long forgotten treats hidden beneath the receding snowpack. Although I think the moose remain rather nonplussed by the whole deal, there is no denying that spring is not just a season, it’s a feeling.

Meanwhile in the Carrabasset Valley, the perfect crust conditions had the fat bikers rejoicing as well as they pedaled up the Narrow Gauge trail – well at least one of them was. He had his camera with him. He leaned his bike against things. He had the trail to himself. I’m pretty sure he was smiling as he spun through the greeting card diorama.
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Riding up the Carrabassett River on the Narrow Gauge Trail

With temperatures in the 20’s combined with a little fresh snow over the hardpacked groomed trails it was fat biking at its finest. I can say this with all honesty as when I first started fat biking (if you’re following along at home this is the “back in my day” part of the story) pushing your bike was an accepted part of the game. We trained for it. Unless you were riding snowmobile trails you either packed your own trails or forged ahead by pushing your steed at times. It was fun, or so we told ourselves.

Side note: my first snow bike race (the Togwotee Classic in Wyoming) I pushed my “fat” tired (I was running 2.4’s that day!) Karate Monkey almost 25 miles through unconsolidated snow. Most “fun” I’ve ever had. While the course was a loop, I’m pretty sure it was uphill all the time too. So much fun.

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Riverside machine-packed wholesome goodness

Luckily, there are now wonderfully groomed trail systems like in the Carrabassett Valley of Maine where a coalition of organizations have seen the light and maintain a system of groomed trails for human powered recreation. The Carrabassett Region NEMBA and the Maine Huts and Trails provide ample opportunity to get people out and enjoying the trails in winter. I’ve dreamed about it for years but still haven’t strung together a multiday ride on the entire system but nest year for sure!

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On the climb up to Stratton Brook hut

So not only can one climb up to Stratton Brook Hut on the aptly named “Newton’s Revenge”, but after gaining your gravity points you can point the fat bike downhill for a fun blast before hooking up with the machine-packed singletrack that winds its way along the Carrabassett River. If you want you can continue further afield and stay at a hut overnight. Seriously, this stuff is top notch especially on a perfect late-winter (yes, I know the calendar says “spring”) day like this past Sunday.

While I explored I took a few pics then gave in to the allure of just ripping this luge run of a trail, clipping trees with abandon as I sought gold and Bode Millered my way along the rolling terrain of the riverbed. The tighter turns were bermed with the occasional jump to add to the pure enjoyment. I’ve ridden these trails in the summer and enjoyed them immensely, but there is something so paper-boy fun as weaving through the trees on a balloon tired bike. Everyone I encountered, whether skier, fat biker or hiker (and their happy dogs) was just stoked to be out enjoying this incredible day.

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Fat bike nirvana

So I guess there is something to this newfangled fat bike phenomenon. Almost makes you want to put your skis away and just ride your bike all the time in winter doesn’t it? Who needs ski areas anyway?

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Snowy Loops Trail with Sugarloaf in the distance

Of course I’m kidding. There’s still plenty of opportunity to pack both into one season and the Carrabassett Valley is the perfect place to do so. Maybe all I need to do is move to the area so I can do it all the time. Anyone hiring in the Valley?

Long live the fat bike!