CARRABASSETT VALLEY — With a tree here and a branch there, ski resorts in Maine are literally cutting new niches for their industry.
Over the last two winters, resorts have added more than 400 acres of terrain to their slopes largely the old-fashioned way: Workers with survey ribbon and chain saws hiking the mountains; cutting space between trees.
It's a cost-effective way to reduce the number of skiers on the main slopes and corduroy groomers while offering more natural and challenging terrain to those who want it, resort officials said.
Common knowledge may suggest fast-moving people and trees don't mix, but the number of accidents and serious injuries coming from these newer and wilder slopes are remarkably low.
Roddy Ehrlenbach, the assistant Ski Patrol director at Sugarloaf and the summertime supervisor of the crew that just thinned some 270 acres of forest on the resort's eastern border near Burnt Mountain, said his advice for tree skiers is simple.
"Don't ski any faster than you are willing to hit a tree at."
He's heard the analogy that some are drawn to the trees because they figure their odds are at least as good as on an open but crowded slope.
An overcrowded ski slope can be a lot like rush-hour traffic, and it can be hard to guess when and where somebody will turn below you, he said.
"But at least you always know what the trees are going to do next," Ehrlenbach said. "They are going to be right where they were the last time and the next time."
All kidding aside, Ehrlenbach said the glades typically attract the most highly skilled skiers and riders and that alone reduces the number of accidents and injuries in the woods.
Since it opened earlier this winter, the Brackett Basin glade has produced only one injury of note, which was not a serious one, Ehrlenbach said.
Sugarloaf is in the midst of a three-phase thinning project that will ultimately add nearly 1,000 acres of wooded terrain to the slopes of Maine's tallest ski mountain.
That effort, an on-steroids version of a tree-skiing expansion at the Saddleback Ski Area in nearby Dallas Plantation, allows Sugarloaf to market itself as the largest ski area east of the Rocky Mountains.
In 2009 Saddleback led the latest push for more wooded terrain when it unveiled its Casablanca glade, a 55-acre effort high on the side of the 4,120-foot mountain.
Two years into manicuring the glades of Casablanca, Saddleback's Patrol Director Jared Emerson said the response from resort guests has been overwhelming.
"They're ecstatic," Emerson said. "They are just amazed at the size of it and the scope of it."
The first day the glade opened in 2010 Emerson said he watched nearly every skier and rider on each chair of the resort's high lift head for the trees. The traffic hasn't stopped and neither have the stories, he said.
"From riding the chair that day to the bar that night to every day since, we hear about it every single day," Emerson said. "Even our season pass holders who've been here a very long time, they talk about Casablanca every day. Somebody is always talking about it — people just don't stop talking about it."
While not as big as the massive undertaking Sugarloaf has launched, Casablanca offers a more in-bounds experience. Sugarloaf's expansion is pushing the resort's boundaries eastward, while Casablanca is an island forest bordered by Saddleback's boundary trail Muleskinner on one side and the black diamond Black Beauty trail on the other.
Skiers really need not fear becoming lost in Casablanca, provided they head downhill and either left or right. But still discoveries continue daily, Emerson said. "My whole goal out of all this stuff is to keep it interesting so that there's always something new to explore and something new to find."
Emerson also guides the cutting efforts in the summer, and he said each season Casablanca becomes more refined and more of an aesthetically pleasing forest.
Because skiers in the woods are more meandering and adventuring, it's a new way for resorts to add fun and open space without additional costs of giant new infrastructure projects. The process capitalizes on what a lot of Maine resorts have in abundance — forest land.
"As you look at glading, you are not cutting and picking stumps out and putting snow-making in and using excavators to do that," Dana Bullen, president and general manager of Sunday River in Newry, said. "So it is a relatively inexpensive way to open up a lot more terrain to folks."
In the 1990s Sunday River made push for more glade skiing in its Oz development and Bullen said a recent addition of an in-bounds gladed type of terrain park known as, "the Sticks" is a new local favorite. On the resort's 5,000 acres Bullen says there's potential for future glade expansions.
But even the recent advent and growth of "glade skiing" is far from a revolutionary phenomenon for many mountain locals who have always ventured from the groomed and sometimes beaten trail to find their own stashes of untracked snow or solitude in the trees, Dave Pecunies, a longtime Sunday River skier, said.
For years a number of hard-core Sunday River skiers took to the mountain in the summer. Using hand lopers and bucksaws, they carved their own "secret routes" through the woods, Pecunies said.
Some, but not all of those secret routes became less and less secret and eventually have been incorporated into many of the forest routes used by skiers and riders today, he said.
"When we didn't have boundary-to-boundary skiing, I think the mountain (management) knew we were out there and doing it, but it wasn't really condoned," Pecunies said. "You know it was kind of a 'don't ask, don't tell' kind of thing."
The allure of the glades for skiers has always been the challenge, Pecunies said, and while the creation of new glades serves the resorts, the demand for more glades is definitely market driven, Pecunies said.
"People want the glades," he said. Advancement in ski technology, with shorter and easier to turn skis, is also likely driving some of that demand, Pecunies said. Either way there's a new allure to it. "There's a bit of a natural aspect to skiing in the trees as compared to skiing on a manicured run."
Greg Sweetser, the executive director of the ski industry association, Ski Maine, said glade skiing has always been a staple of New England skiing and the new growth of it in Maine is actually a giant nod back to the state's earliest ski area development.
"Glade skiing has been around the industry since the first skiers slid down a hillside," Sweetser wrote in an e-mail message. "The first trails cut on Maine mountains, Sugarloaf and Bigelow, allowed skiers to get to the base from the more open, gladed summits. As skiing increased in popularity, more trails were cut to allow more options for skiers in Maine’s thick, forest-covered mountains."
Over time, wider and more open trails became vogue, but as skiers from the East traveled and experienced forest skiing in the western U.S., the demand for tree skiing back home mounted, according to Sweetser.
Of the state's 18 ski resorts, almost all offer some version of glade skiing, Sweetser said.
"The amount of skiable terrain has expanded because of the popularity of skiing and riding through the trees," Sweetser wrote. "I see nothing but continued growth of glade skiing in Maine and all of New England."
There's more online
To see video of glade skiing and riding in Sugarloaf's Brackett Basin online go to www.sunjournal.com