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Maine’s Saddleback back: Awakened after five-year slumber

28th December 2020 | Craig Altschul

News Regions: Maine

Resorts in this article: Saddleback Inc.

Saddleback Mountain in Maine opens after 5 year hiatus

Saddleback Mountain in Maine opens after 5 year hiatus

Maine’s Rangeley Lakes region is justifiably famous as the birthplace of modern-day fly fishing. If ever a lake had a great name, it’s most certainly Mooselookmeguntic, one of the six lakes and hundreds of smaller lakes and streams in the area. You can now add Saddleback Mountain, rising above the waters of Rangeley Lake back in again as the “Maine attraction” for skiers and snowboarders.

Saddleback Mountain, with trails named after famous fishing ties like “Grey Ghost,” has been a favorite ski area for families throughout New England and certainly metropolitan Boston since the 1960s. The mountain awoke Dec. 15 after being shut-down and out-of-action since the 2014-15 season. 

Like all of us, Saddleback celebrates its rebirth within the cloud of the pandemic.

“We know there is so much to celebrate, but we also ask people to come prepared to celebrate primarily outside and in a responsible way,” says new General Manager Andy Shepard.

Maine's Saddleback welcomes families re-opening day  - © Fred Beyer/Maine Public

Maine's Saddleback welcomes families re-opening day

Copyright: Fred Beyer/Maine Public

Sweet dreams

If sleeping ski areas could have dreams, Saddleback’s visage of a new life came true when Actaris Impact Investors of Boston completed its purchase of the ski area early in 2020. Actaris purchased the ski area from Bill Berry, a retired University of Maine professor, whose family owned the property since 2003 and could no longer get financing for major upgrades. Reported price tag was $6.5 million for 6,500 acres and the buildings. 

Earlier hopes for resurrection during the shutdown became a nightmare, not a dream, when the Majella Group, an Australian company, made bigtime promises in 2017 to turn Saddleback into a world-class resort, but never closed the deal. Its CEO was arrested for investment fraud a year later, according to Brisbane media.

Actaris is a far different story. They invest in “growth-oriented businesses and community infrastructure projects located in underserved communities.” That makes Saddleback the only ski resort in the U.S. owned by such a firm. The comment on the firm’s portfolio listing on Saddleback reads: “Economic engine for Western Maine – Reopening Maine’s third largest ski area to drive economic development and job creation in the region.”

Skiers celebrate Saddleback's comeback

Skiers celebrate Saddleback's comeback

Ski Maine’s new CEO Dirk Gouwens is pleased with the new ownership. “Saddleback probably wasn’t a target of the large ski resort groups because it’s sort of an outlier in that it’s not particularly close to the major markets like, say Hunter Mt. N.Y. was as a purchase attraction to Vail Resorts,” he told OnTheSnow.com as ski areas in the state were in the midst of a very different holiday week. However, Boyne Resorts, a Michigan-based resort group, owns both Maine’s Sunday River and Sugarloaf resorts.

The acquisition by Actaris is important as it brought the Rangeley Lakes area’s main employer back, Gouwens said. The western part of the state and the Rangeley Lakes region took a hard hit when Saddleback shuttered, but the reality of some 200 full and part-time jobs coming back is easing the pain.

“The new ownership group assures this big mountain with a unique small ski area feel will stay that way and will continue to be run by local leadership,” Gouwens added.

Saddleback is about a four-hour drive from Boston on I-95. For perspective, Sugarloaf is 5.5 hours, while Sunday River is closer at 3.5 hours. It is a 2.5-hour drive from Portland, Maine’s most populous city. 

Actaris spent the spring, summer and fall confirming its early promises to invest heavily in the rebirth. The outdated Rangeley double chairlift, long an irritant to guests, took 11 minutes to get to the top of the mountain. It has been replaced with a $7 million Dopplemayer high-speed quad, cutting the ride time to four minutes and tripling uphill capacity. 

The lodge also has been renovated and reconfigured to be more efficient with expanded seating and touchless bathroom utilities. A number of other changes have been instituted to deal with making it safer during the pandemic. First year investment by Actaris is expected to top out at $20 million looking to $38 million overall.

Actaris brought in Shepard, a Maine sports scene veteran, as general manager. He cut his professional teeth with 15 years in L.L. Bean retail management and was a principal at Harrasocket Consulting when hired by Actaris. Shepard was the founder and President/CEO for Maine’s Outdoor Sports Institute and has helped run several downhill and cross-country operations in the state.

The ‘Saddleback family’

“I have been hearing stories about ‘the Saddleback family’ for years and have always been inspired by the down-to-earth, up-for-anything reputation of the mountain and the people who call it home,” Shepard wrote in an introductory letter. “It has been an honor to become a part of that family, but I’m also counting on that sense of family as we approach what will be a year of so many changes at Saddleback.”

Full usage and enjoyment of the lodge will wait a while during this COVID-impacted winter. Shepard notes “skiers and riders this year will have to boot up in your car, carry a pack to be self-sufficient and think about your car as your lodge.”

Just don’t even think about not wearing a face covering at Saddleback – you will be asked to leave the property. Make reservations in advance for lift tickets, rentals and dining, although touchless transactions for lift tickets can be handled at outdoor ticket windows.

Are skiers and riders happy with the comeback? Here are a couple of social media posts to answer that question: “Thank you for the great communication and bringing your loyal skiers into the challenges you’re facing. We’re with you,” says David Fenderson. “Thrilled that the mountain is back up and running again. Wishing you all much success in the years ahead,” posts Mary Long.

But perhaps Gail Morrisey says it best: “COOOOOOOOOOOL.”

 

 

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