AUBURN — Chain saws buzzed and smoke from the burning of cleared trees at Lost Valley could be seen as far away as the Auburn Mall on Sunday afternoon following two days of volunteers sprucing up the grounds ahead of the winter season.
“We’ve got a great crew — everyone’s chipping in and going 90 mph,” Co-owner of Lost Valley Connie King said, looking out at the steel-gray sky and softly floating white flakes.
It may have been ash from the giant bonfire in front of the lodge but these folks had snow on their minds.
“Everyone has different departments they’re working in,” King said. Some were cutting down trees, while others cleared away limbs and brush and weed-whacked the grounds.
In the lodge, King and some others were installing new lights, “They’re all brand-new lights we got from Efficiency Maine,” King said. “Efficiency Maine has a program and they’re helping us redo all our lighting.”
King said the lodge has embraced new compact fluorescent lamp lightbulbs that will reduce energy consumption from 65 watts each to 8.9 watts each.
“We’re going to have amazing savings —we’re doing it throughout the whole place and when we get done, we’re going to go outside and start working on lighting on the hill,” King said.
Things weren’t always so cheery on the hill and King said prospects for opening at all were looking bleak. “We were getting to the point where we really didn’t know if we were going to make it open this year,” she said. “(Supporters) stepped up and said, ‘listen, we can’t let this happen’ so they formed a group and called it Friends of Lost Valley.”
The Friends of Lost Valley group began an online Crowdrise account, raising a little over $26,000 but that wasn’t all, according to King, who said local businesses like Mac’s Grill started their own fundraising, adding another $400.
With sponsorships, fundraising and volunteer work, King was nearly speechless as she watched it all coming together around her.
“They’re all here on their time,” she said, “they’re volunteering and getting all the work done — doing not only what we would have had to pay people — maintenance people to do but things that would not have gotten done. All these cutting of the trees and the trimming and all that would not have gotten done.
“One of our big fundraisers is this coming Saturday, Nov. 1,” King said. “We’re having a Halloween party — costume party and silent auction.”
Adult volunteers strung lights and spinning bats from the rafters of the lodge while kids ran around.
When asked if recent hardships with the business have changed their approach, King was focused.
“Absolutely,” she said, “one of the big changes has been working with Efficiency Maine and becoming more efficient — that’s been our problem — we’re just not efficient.”
King also said they would no longer be open on Mondays except for school vacations and holidays, saving the business about $5,000. She said she’s working on a lot of little things that could add up.
As for equipment, King said she hasn’t gone through all the checks yet but, “We’re definitely going to get the color chair(lift) open this year and now we’re working to raise funds to get the silver chair(lift) open.
“The next step is replacing all the old snowmaking guns and that’ll save us a lot between diesel fuel and electricity,” King said.
The Lost Valley tradition of holding Special Olympics events will continue as well.
“Absolutely, this is the home of Special Olympics and this meant so much to them that we could get open,” King said.
Around the lodge, pickup trucks acted as skidders, hauling trees across the yard toward the fire. Once there, tractors pushed the tall spruces into the fire.
John Herrick of Auburn was there with his wife, son and daughter.
“We’re a family of skiers. My wife doesn’t ski though,” he said hesitantly, “she stays in the lodge — how do we say this — she’s a lodge bunny.”
Herrick said regardless of his wife’s lodge lounging, it’s all a family event and winter is their favorite season.
“We go to the big areas but we always love coming home to Lost Valley,” Herrick said.
“There’s a lot of racing development going on here,” Herrick said. “It is a small hill but the benefit to this hill is when the racers are out here training, they get quick runs and then a quick ride back in the chairlift.
“So, the coaches can hyper-focus on certain aspects where they need to correct,” Herrick said. “On the big mountains, you get a half hour ride and there’s a chance you’ll forget or you’ll lose focus on what you’re supposed to work on.
“It works out well as a training center for Edward Little and all the other high school teams that come here,” he said. “Middle of the week, there’s bus loads of kids coming through here,” because of early release on most Wednesdays.
“They offer lessons for kids at half day,” Herrick said, “lots of the schools shut down and bus loads of kids show up and they storm the hill.”
A member of Friends of Lost Valley, Herrick said, “It took about 45 days to raise enough money to get the place started to be open. Again this — this cleanup day — I don’t know how much money Lost Valley would have to spend in diesel fuel just to run tractors, to mow the place and all the weed whacking but, you know, these volunteers have taken care of on their own.”
Back at the fire, Sun Journal photographer Daryn Slover snapped pictures as his wife, Gretchen, and two sons, Ellis, 8, and Orin, 6, hauled logs to feed the fire. Gretchen is the Nordic ski coach at Auburn Middle School.