It was the quiet that was alarming, a stillness that almost bred unease. The ride up the lift had been an exercise in solitude, and now, skiing my way down the mountain, I came to a stop, enveloped by noiselessness.
Had I wandered off the designated trail? Was I out of bounds? Where, then, to turn next?
My friends who ski exclusively in the Western mountains of North America like to regale me with stories of backcountry experiences during which they lose track of time and place. The accounts always end with a boast that there is nowhere in the Eastern part of the continent where such isolation and serenity can be found.
And yet, here I was. Not, in fact, out of bounds or lost, just alone on a distant patch of Sugarloaf Mountain in northern Maine, knee-deep in snow with a hundred choices through the trees to consider.
The silence was a surprise I happily got used to. It was the subdued, inaudible calling card of Maine’s vast, unspoiled winter playground. It is one of the best-kept secrets in snow country.
It is hard to explain why Maine is not more crowded with skiers and snowboarders in the winter. The state has some of the biggest mountains and most reliable snowfall in New England. Sugarloaf is the largest ski area in the eastern United States and has the East’s only Western-style, above-the-tree-line snowfield skiing.
Another Maine resort, Sunday River, has eight interconnected peaks with eight distinct terrain parks and trail systems, creating a three-mile-long network of choices that make it the East’s third largest ski area. (Killington in Vermont is second.)
And yet, except for devoted in-state residents – and some wandering Bostonians – Maine’s ski areas are underpopulated and overlooked. Sugarloaf, for example, has 154 trails and draws about 350,000 skiers and snowboarders a year. Sunday River, with 132 trails, draws about 525,000. Killington, meanwhile, with 140 trails, has historically drawn around 750,000.
What you’ll find
Maine has big mountains that offer an unapologetic test for all skill levels, mixed with a homespun simplicity and a rare sense of untarnished exploration in a landscape that is still more than 90 percent woodland. There are comfy family areas (Shawnee Peak) and rugged taxing ones (Saddleback Mountain), grand views, fast lifts and cozy old New England inns with crackling fireplaces.
Maine has 17 Alpine/downhill areas and 18 Nordic/cross-country ones spread across a land mass that is more than three times the size of any other New England state. And most notable, at every turn is an intrinsic come-as-you-are vibe.
Late last winter, I decided to reacquaint myself with the state’s winter gifts.
I started with Sugarloaf, deep in the Carrabassett Valley. Sugarloaf has managed to remain authentic and unfussy despite helping to groom the inaugural Olympic gold medal winner in snowboard cross, Seth Wescott, as well as the Alpine Olympic gold medalist Bode Miller.
The trails here, some left natural and fluffy while others are steep and manicured, serve as a training ground for the U.S. ski team.
With a recent 655-acre expansion of backcountry-style glades, Sugarloaf has surpassed Killington in size. It does not, however, have Killington’s mile-long access road filled with bars and clubs. The lodge is not stylish, and the choices at the cafeteria are limited.
None of which vexes Sugarloaf’s fanatically independent following. They know their place is not for everybody. That is exactly what keeps them coming back.
On a visit to Sunday River, I rode the Jordan Bowl quad at the resort’s isolated west end by myself. There was not another person on the lift whom I could see. The trails beneath me appeared all but deserted.
At the top, it was possible to take a panoramic, unhurried look across at New Hampshire, Canada and the Atlantic Ocean. To the right was Sunday River’s Oz Peak, a delightful choice for expert skiers because of its steep, narrow double-black-diamond trails: Tin Woodsman, Emerald City and Ruby Palace.
Remoteness may be a calling card for the Maine ski scene but it does not necessarily mean primitiveness. At Sunday River, for instance, are two major on-mountain hotels, about 700 condominiums for lodging and an expanding set of dining choices in the lodges, including a Korean and Japanese restaurant with a sushi and noodle bar.
But there is not an abundant, boisterous night life. There won’t be anywhere to go for a 3 a.m. dessert. Aspen it is not.
At resorts nationwide, getting access to the mountain just after dawn before anyone has cruised through the powder or the freshly groomed snow is a skier’s dream.
At Saddleback, the people who run it instead decided to make first tracks an opportunity to ski with the resort’s management on Sunday mornings. It is open to anyone with a regular lift ticket.
“People ask questions or just enjoy the scene,” said Chris Farmer, the Saddleback general manager.
On a powder day, there will be 100 people awaiting Farmer for the 7:30 a.m. first tracks departure. Most days, it is more like 30 people.
“One Sunday morning, it was 15 below zero at 7:30,” Farmer said. “I wondered how that might affect the turnout. I showed up at the lift, and there were still 15 people there. That’s Maine skiing. They didn’t care.”