RANGELEY — Saddleback Maine is preparing for their second ski season since the acquisition of the ski resort by Arctaris Impact Fund.
Over the last 18 months, Saddleback has invested $3 million into upgrading the snow making equipment on the mountain. $2 million of that was this summer, with a focus on adding more snow guns and increasing the pump capacity. Now, they will be able to move twice as much water up the mountain, allowing more snow guns to operate at a time, General Manager Andy Shepard said.
In keeping with their goals of operating a sustainable and eco-friendly mountain, Saddleback added two new eco-diesel groomers to the fleet. These groomers use about 20% less fuel, while laying down an excellent skiing surface.
Work on the mid-mountain lodge began in August 2021. Construction was delayed until after the breeding season for Bicknell’s thrush, a vulnerable species of thrush that nests in very specific habitats—including Saddleback Mountain. While the plan was to work on the lodge through the early winter and have it completed in mid-January, there were long delays on the kitchen equipment caused by supply chain issues. In light of that, they relaxed the schedule for construction. Work will resume next spring and they anticipate the lodge opening in the fall of 2022.
Three new lifts were added, with the Cupsuptic T-bar making a return. Cupsuptic increases the skier capacity of the mountain and means that lifts can operate and skiing can occur even on days when conditions may otherwise require a wind hold. Cupsuptic also allows skiers to remain in the intermediate area if they wish, and ski loops through those trails.
A portable rope tow was added at the terrain park. This will be available for people using the terrain park, and also provide a way to reach the Cupsuptic without going up the Rangeley lift.
Shepard said the additional lifts will allow an estimated 50% more people on the mountain without much waiting in lines.
The final lift is a moving carpet at the bottom of the South Branch lift. This lift—named the Molly Chunkamunk—is part of the ski school.
Ski school is returning this year, and with no COVID-19 restrictions on outdoor activities, Saddleback will be offering both private lessons and group lessons. In keeping with the fly fishing theme at the mountain, the vests for ski school kids are designed to look like fly fishing vests with cute graphics printed on them.
Real estate development continues with a series of A-frame residences under construction, ranging from one to three bedrooms. Eight are planned for this winter with 14 more in the works for next summer. Next summer, work is expected to begin on employee housing. That construction will house up to 100 employees on the mountain near fat tire bike trails, nordic ski trails, mountain bike trails, and ski lifts.
Affordable housing is one of the three major goals for Saddleback Maine. Childcare solutions are another, and support for seasonal employees is the third. Saddleback is working to develop a plan that will allow them to offer year-round benefits to seasonal employees, allowing them peace of mind and security. Saddleback will also be opening a staffing agency that will work with employers in the Rangeley region to find off-season work for Saddleback’s seasonal employees. The agency will offer needed support for seasonal employees and, hopefully, help with staff retention.
Looking ahead to the 2021-2022 ski season, Shepard said that they anticipate ‘pre-pandemic’ operations outdoors. There were no recorded instances of COVID-19 transmission outdoors at ski resorts in the last season, and he anticipates outdoor operation to proceed as normal for this ski season.
Saddleback will continue to foster and model the “life is better outside” principle that they began last winter with the opening of the Fat Tire Mountain Bar. There is ample outdoor seating around the lodge with picnic tables and benches available, and the Fat Tire Mountain Bar will be open for service again.
Indoor operations will continue to be informed by the best scientific advice and by the CDC guidelines. Shepard says that they will likely recommend masking indoors, although that may change as the season progresses. Saddlebackers should be prepared for potential shifts in the guidelines and should keep an eye on the website so they know what to expect.
Continuing the practice from last year, no bags will be allowed to be left on or under tables in the lodge. This will allow full capacity and an efficient rotation through tables. There will be cubby spaces available throughout the lodge where bags may be placed, but if the cubbies are full, bags will have to be left on the deck or in the car. Shepard said that this is a change from ‘laying claim’ to a table for the whole day, but believes it will provide a better experience for everyone.
Saddleback will continue to run the school program in partnership with Rangeley Lakes Regional School.
Currently, Saddleback does not have an opening date. Weather conditions and snowmaking operations inform the opening date, and Saddleback is committed to providing a mid-winter condition ski trail on opening day. Once they begin snowmaking on a trail, they don’t move on until the trail is fully ready for skiing without the choppy effect and rough going that results from insufficient snowpack.
“We don’t want a trail to ski good until 4 o’clock,” Shepard said. “We want it to ski good until April.”