Sunday River: Heart, Soul & Snow
FEATURE – November 2013
by Heather Burke | Photography C.A. Smith Photography
Maine’s most visited ski resort isn’t just swift lifts and manicured snow across eight mountain peaks. There is a passion that runs deep at the River. Sunday River has an allegiance of friendly alpine skiers and riders who come for first tracks, big vertical stats, and last dance.
I call it alpine anticipation. Plowing through my work week, I imagine first tracks on perfect threads of corduroy that sparkle with last night’s dusting. When Friday afternoon finally arrives, we head for our fix via Route 26, the skiers’ corridor to Sunday River.
Arriving in Bethel, my husband and I beeline to the Matterhorn Ski Bar. Blame it on the carved bear waving us in like old ski buddies. Familiar faces, ski coaches and locals are gathered around the bar, which is laden with ski memorabilia up to the rafters where the legendary mug club beer steins hang. Manager Jamie Patenaude stops by our table to say hello. “I don’t like to brag, but the Matterhorn is the place to go for après- ski. We see everyone in here: Bob Marley, Simon Dumont, Dan Egan.”
Wood-fired pizza and a microbrew kick off our weekend before we head up Sunday River Road to our slopeside digs. Falling asleep to the low growl of the groomers and distant din of snowmaking aids my dreams of sweet ski tracks in the morn.
The sun is up, streaming through our Grand Summit Hotel window, so we roll out for first tracks. Lifts load at 8 a.m. on weekends at Sunday River, the earliest ski access in Maine. Grabbing our skis from the valet in the ski check room, we click into our bindings, inhale that first blast of frosty winter air, and glide down to the lift, past the outdoor heated pool that promises a steamy soak later.
A dozen eager skiers and riders gather with us for the liftiees’ morning salutations and the official drop of the rope for first chair. But the groomers have been out all night – as evidenced by white carpet paths in all directions as we ascend the mountain surrounded by pink skies.
From Tempest, we tackle Cascade’s delicious corduroy, then carve up buttery conditions on Barker’s classics Sunday Punch, Monday Mourning, and Right Stuff. We are riding laps on the high-speed quad, getting the goods while most skiers are still snoozing.
On Spruce Peak, Risky Business has a windswept blanket of talcum powder snow on the trailside that’s just creamy. Next run we charge American Express (pun) to the North Peak Lodge, justifying a hot cocoa break with 10 runs by 10 a.m. We are in the know that mountainous cinnamon rolls will be fresh and gooey from the oven. It’s a Sunday River tradition, and it’s pretty typical to see ski moguls like Les Otten in the Lodge on the same cycle.
With five more mountain peaks to explore, we point our boards down Quantum Leap to Aurora, Oz, and my personal favorite, Jordan Bowl. Rogue Angel and Excalibur are among the best trails of the entire resort—long and undulating, with majestic views of the Mahoosucs.
Our chatty chairlift neighbor Michael Eng of Portland concurs, “I love Jordan—these top to bottom trails are gems, consistently awesome. The snow is always fantastic, the best anywhere. I grew up skiing Sunday River when it was just Barker. It has improved so much. There is so much great terrain and reliable snow here and so rarely a lift line.”
With distant views of Mount Washington from atop Jordan Bowl, our leisurely run on Lollapalooza turns into a mini-adventure as we veer into the beautifully spaced birch glades of Blind Ambition. Next we tuck Kansas, James Bond style, back to the heart of the resort. After skiing North Peak’s delightful Dream Maker and edgier 3D, we dip down Escapade to Barker. Ecstasy to Jibe delivers us to the White Cap Lodge where a juicy bleu cheese burger at the Shipyard Brew Haus is calling my name, with a view of the slopes. It’s not yet noon on a Saturday, and the lifts will be open another eight hours.
I meet Kate Crenshaw from London in the lodge when she inquires where she might find the “ladies’” in her cheery British accent. As we clomp in our ski boots to the powder room, I ask how she’s enjoying the River. “We are delighted to have discovered Sunday River. The people are so genuine and friendly and the snow is just gorgeous, so soft and perfectly groomed,” she said. “It’s a bit overwhelming at first. There are so many peaks and the way you can ski from one to the next is like the Alps in Europe.”
Sunday River stretches three miles from west to east, and it takes a few visits to get the lay of the snow-covered land. The uninitiated tend to gravitate to lift number 1, the Barker Quad, or number 2, South Ridge, and don’t make it out to White Cap or they completely skip over Oz—at 3,150 feet the highest peak and a wizardly winter playground of steep glades and punchy pitches.
There aren’t many ski resorts with such speedy lifts and wall-to-wall white carpet, allowing you to bag over 30,000 feet of vertical (as we do, according to my husband’s vertical tracker) in a day with ease, given an early start. We meet Lindsay Clukie of Portland and she says, “I know Sugarloafers say they have more vertical but at Sunday River you get more vertical.”
Continuing our downhill assault in the afternoon, White Heat is in our sights. The legendary trail was added by Les Otten in 1988. Otten managed and grew Sunday River dramatically starting in 1972, installing quads and movie-themed trails, always with the first priority of snow. “It’s the snow, stupid” was the mantra as the trail map exploded to North Peak, White Heat, Aurora, then Jordan and finally Oz in 1995. White Heat made headlines as the steepest, longest, widest trail in the East. It remains NFT (no fall terrain) given its precipitous 27-degree pitch, but neighboring Shock Wave is equally exciting with more dips, drops, and rollers.
My Twitter lights up that former Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek is learning to ski on the magic carpet, then hitting up the Foggy Goggle for après-ski. A live band, a beefy plate of Foggy’s famous nachos, and a beverage sound like heaven to me, with a bonus of fireworks and a view of the night skiing. We make more fall-line friends at the Goggle, where people are moving to the music in their ski boots next to others in stocking feet – an interesting, potentially toe-crushing, dance-floor mishmash.
Mark and Kathleen Casey, of Brockton, Massachusetts, have been coming to Sunday River for 25 years. “We have seen the River grow from three peaks to eight, but they haven’t developed an attitude like some resorts. The people are great, the lifties are dancing. And nothing beats the huge outdoor hot tub at the Grand Summit with a view of White Heat. This is definitely our happy place.”
After 27 ski runs, après-ski libations, and much laughter, my happy place is a pillow.
Sunday morning comes quickly, and the cold, crisp snow creaks under our skis. Our chair crests the summit as the sun lights up our first turns on winter’s sweetness. It’s downright spiritual, I think, as I imagine others making their way to church. No one does seamless ribbons of soft snow like Sunday River’s pro groomers. The average tenure amongst Sunday River’s grooming team is 19 years according to General Manager Dana Bullen who shares a chair with us. He’s out for early runs and his own product inspection. He politely excuses himself to radio his team about an unacceptable ridge to be smoothed out, complimenting them on their otherwise terrific work.
Bullen arrived at Sunday River in 2004, after 17 years in Sugarloaf and American Skiing Company management. “It has always been about the snow at Sunday River, and it always will be, but it’s so much more than that now. Guests want a friendly welcome, delicious food, a special candlelit dinner at the Peak with a Chondola ride, ziplining with the kids, even a dogsled ride. These are unique experiences that we offer in addition to the exceptional skiing and riding,” says Bullen. Taking a few runs with Bullen, who skis with the strength and fluidity of a first-rate leader, I notice he greets each team member (his terminology) by name and with a big smile. It is no coincidence that morale and friendliness have improved at Sunday River amid his genuine respect.
There is an unassuming vibe about the River. You can wear your Bogner or your Boston sports jersey. You see Red Sox brass in the lift corrals, bigwigs from Boston sharing a gondi with kids excitedly looking for Eddy the Yeti, Sunday River’s abominable mascot. People come to ski and to share drinks, the dance floor, and a decadent hot-tub soak. Everyone is getting more than their share of chairs and big, sweeping turns on plentiful snow.
We share our next quad with Erik Peterson of Hollis, who comments on the lack of people out on the slopes and the perfect snow on this sunny Sunday. “You rarely see a lift line; there is so much terrain spread across the different peaks, so you can always find a place to yourself. And because Sunday River has amazing snow management, you can be assured of great skiing here from November through mid-April.”
At the close of our ski weekend, we pull off our ski boots, pack the skis into our SUV, and hit the road back to reality. It feels satisfying, even sumptuous, to sit in our sun-baked car seats, like a bonus heat massage for my burning thighs after accumulating more than 70,000 vertical feet in a weekend—but who’s counting? That would be my husband, Greg, who swears by his altimeter watch that we get more ski runs at Sunday River than anywhere else. As we drive away, the eight peaks loom large in our rearview window in late afternoon shadows. Then that alpine anticipation of our next vertical visit begins to mount again