Skiers hit Maine slopes in 2020-2021 season as pandemic pushed people to get outside

Kathryn Skelton, Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine
·7 min read

Mar. 16—GREENWOOD — Greg Luetje had 70-year-olds in Mt. Abram's learn to ski program this winter.

"Part of it is COVID, for sure," Luetje, the mountain's general manager, said. "People feeling like they need to get outside and want to get outside." When he heard about the first-time senior skiers, "It's like, wow, that is amazing."

It's been a wow winter.

Despite having to plan around pandemic restrictions, then being deluged with Christmas rain, ski resort officials across Western Maine said Monday that the season has been better than expected, and for many, remarkably, even better than last year.

Luetje said skier visits are up close to 10%. Ron Jacques, club president at Spruce Mountain Ski Slope in Jay, said it looks close to a 20% to 25% increase there, driven in part by students who would otherwise be active in school sports, if it weren't for COVID-19.

Lost Valley in Auburn and Black Mountain of Maine in Rumford are also up, though haven't tallied year-over-year numbers yet, according to officials there.

Saddleback Mountain reopened after five winters offline and has so far beat first-year projections, General Manager Andy Shepard said.

"There were a lot of layers of complexity coming at us, but in spite of all of that, I'm just incredibly proud at how well the team has functioned, how uniformly pleased the Saddleback family is with the work that we're doing," he said. For those worried the resort's culture would change under new owners, "I think we demonstrated pretty decisively that's not the case."

Maine averages 1.3 million skier visits a year, according to Dirk Gouwens, executive director of the Ski Maine Association.

To accommodate all those skiers in unprecedented conditions, they had to be ready.

Mt. Abram put up Clam Shack tents and built three enclosed A-frames for private dining.

Lost Valley channeled more ticket sales online and added two warming huts on the mountain.

"You would hear people outside talking, 'I haven't skied in 15 years,'" spokesman Travis Dow said. "It really brought people back to the sport and brought new people to the sport."

Season pass and daily ticket sales were up, lesson programs were up and its Maine Family Snow Tube Park sold out nearly every weekend — historically, something that's only happened during February break.

Shawnee Peak added a food truck and modified a doughnut shack to offer more outdoor eating options.

"Visit-wise we have been down because of the travel restrictions — we knew that was going to happen — but the thing that we have been seeing, our skiers, the ones that have been coming, have been coming much more frequently than usual," Rachael Wilkinson, marketing director, said. "The skiers have really turned into dedicated skiers this year."

Spokeswoman Karolyn Castaldo at Sunday River Ski Resort in Newry said visits have been "down a bit," but by design.

"We started limiting ticket sales just before the Christmas holiday period just as a way of ensuring that the slopes didn't get too crowded and giving preferential access for our pass holders," she said.

That resort added more food trucks this winter and a new takeout window to South Ridge Lodge, as well as a contact-less ticket pickup kiosk. With no bag storage allowed at the lodge this year, skiers have been encouraged to gear up at their cars, which they have.

"I'm thrilled with how the season has gone," Castaldo said. "There was a lot of uncertainty going into the year, not only in will we be able to operate but can we staff up sufficiently to be able to (maintain all of the COVID-19 guidelines), will people want to come skiing. They've shown that yes, they want to come skiing, yes, they want to do it safely, so that's been a big relief for all of us here."

Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley has similarly limited ticket sales on some days to thin crowds and lower the chairlift wait times, spokesman Ethan Austin said.

"There have been challenges here and there, but broadly speaking, it's been a really good season so far," he said.

That resort opened Village To Go, exclusively for takeout, and added two new outdoor bars at its Bullwinkle's restaurant.

As at the other Western Maine mountains, Austin said skiers have been great at taking pandemic protocols in stride.

"People have been really good about wearing masks," he said. "People really wanted to ski. They didn't want this to be one of the things the pandemic took away from them. The vast majority were happy to do whatever it took to keep skiing all winter."

Shepard said the pandemic broke out one month after Saddleback Mountain started planning its lodge redesign.

"We dove in with a real, sincere desire to make this the safest ski lodge in the country," he said.

That includes an HVAC system turning air over three times faster than in the past. Plume-less and touch-less toilets.

Across all resorts, 382 people took a COVID-19 Readiness training born from a partnership between Central Maine Community College's Center for Workforce and Professional Development and the Ski Maine Association.

Gouwens said he expects statewide skier numbers to be down at the close of the season, but not all due to COVID-19.

With the deluge of December rain, "a lot of the ski areas lost Christmas week, which in general can be as much as 20% of the season," he said. "I think overall we'll have an OK season because demand after that picked up pretty quickly."

He's hearing that early season pass sales for next winter are up, with skiers feeling optimistic.

Depending upon the resort, there are still two to six weeks left before this season is in the books.

Mt. Abram is shooting for at least March 28, Luetje said. Once the season ends, they'll work on expanding the bike park, which has a six-year plan.

Shawnee Peak in Bridgton is tentatively skiing through April 4, which would give the resort more skiing days than average, "so that's kind of amazing," Wilkinson said. This summer that resort will invest in its snowmaking system.

Lost Valley will tentatively have its last day March 28. This summer, the resort will upgrade its tubing park to a conveyor system, Dow said.

Saddleback in Sandy River Plantation is targeting April 11 or later, weather depending. This summer, it will move ahead with one to two new chairlifts, Shepard said, new trails and a new mid-mountain lodge featuring an almost entirely glass enclosure and a sod roof with native low-bush blueberries for "one of the more iconic dining experiences on the East Coast."

The resort is working with the Maine Audubon to lower the risk of bird strikes, he said.

Sunday River is open daily for skiing through April 24. It will also work on a new lift this summer, Castaldo said, near its Merrill Hill housing lots, which are more than 50% reserved since that project was announced in February 2020.

Black Mountain of Maine will stay open as long as it can, according to Marketing Manager Deanna Kersey.

Jacques would like to see Spruce Mountain make it to April 1, but has doubts the snow can stick around long enough. This summer, that mountain will use some of its extra revenue and relight the hill will LED lights.

Sugarloaf similarly doesn't have a date but is looking at late April or early May, Austin said. This summer it will resume work on Sugarloaf 2030, temporarily waylaid by the pandemic, and secure permits for future work.

"I think if somebody had offered us these results (from this ski season) last June, we would have taken it," Austin said. "Not just for us, but for everybody. There was just so much unknown last spring and summer. I think it's gone about as well as we hoped it would."