The arrival of March comes with mixed emotions. The high sun and higher temperatures give us skiing with better light, and the heavy parkas can be left at home

But that same high sun will be eating away at the snow, signaling that while we have weeks to ski, the season is more than half over. Of course, this season got off to such a slow start that mid season was a lot later than normal. It could be that we have more skiing ahead than behind us. March can be a big snow month, and the manmade base built up during those extra cold days can last well into April in the higher mountains.

Although more than a month of great snowmaking weather preceded the February vacation, it was that one big Valentine’s Day snowstorm that set the stage for a record holiday period. My survey was totally unscientific. I visited the Balsams, Mt. Abram and Shawnee Peak, along with calls to Lost Valley, Sunday River, Sugarloaf and Saddleback, where I learned that the long weekend was one of the best. It was the first time in several years I had seen the parking lot at Mt. Abram completely filled, and Shawnee Peak had their biggest weekend ever. Nearly everyone beat last season when the weather wasn’t as good.

As great as the vacation was, most areas need a busy March to make up for the warm November and December, but there is one notable exception.

Saddleback changes

When I got the e-mail from Saddleback that touted a 66 percent increase in ticket sales for the three-day weekend over a year ago, I had to call Tom McAllister. The 66 percent was only part of it. The resort was up 33 percent in ticket sales season to date over a year ago. Part of the explanation was that after a number of years in limbo waiting for a sale, Saddleback’s skier visits has hit a low.

Then Bill Berry and his family came along. In a few short years, changes have included a newly paved access road, a base lodge more than tripled in size, a 44 percent increase in trails, a new beginner lift and a huge boost in snowmaking. The effects of these changes took some time to show, but a year ago, skiing conditions really picked up, and the word is finally getting out.

A lot of former Saddleback skiers have come back, and with them a lot of first-timers. Spokesperson Joanne Taylor told me that her informal surveys of these newcomers show a positive response. Part of the attraction is a $40 lift ticket, the least expensive for any mountain of this size (2,000 feet of vertical).

Tom McAllister explained that their snowmaking started as planned in early December, and except for a few days, had continued almost nonstop. The skiing has improved and business has been ahead of last year right along.

That the word is finally getting out is great news for the new owners and everyone who works at Saddleback, but there is more good news. McAllister said LURC has accepted the resort’s 10-year plan. The final decision will come after a public hearing which is expected to be set at the commission’s meeting next week. If it’s set in April, some of the permits could allow projects to begin this summer.

Already lodging projects are underway. Eight condos have been built with seven complete, and the South Branch 12 unit development has six complete with three sold. A timeshare project totaling 96 units is under construction, with three buildings containing 18 units scheduled for next summer. Infrastructure is being developed for the housing.

On the mountain this year, more snowmaking was added rather than new trails. New lifts and trails are in the 10-year master plan, but one lift will go in as soon as one can be located. The Kennbago T-bar (Upper access lift) will be replaced by a used chair lift. The resort had leads on a couple, but an off year last season and the slow start this year resulted in putting off some of these lift changes.

Just how fast Saddleback’s plan progresses will depend on permits and demand by skiers. The Berry family has had only a few years to make changes and convince skiers to give the ski resort another try.

Saddleback has a bunch of events coming in March, including the second annual Ski Patrol reunion next weekend. At last year’s event, one family had three generations of patrollers. Don Emerson was their with his son, Don, and grandson, Jared, who is the director of the current patrol. For more happenings, check www.saddlebackmaine.com.

Honorable event

One of our favorite events will take place next Saturday in the Mount Washington Valley. The annual Meister Cup, named to honor Hannes Schneider, brings together veterans of the 10th Mountain Division from World War II and current members of the Army’s mountain warfare troops to race at Cranmore. They will be joined by racers of all levels, one group on antique equipment. There will also be folks dressed in vintage skiwear and ceremonies befitting such a gathering. The event is sponsored by Mount Cranmore and the New England Ski Museum. For details, check www.skimuseum.org/hsmcr.html

Dave Irons is a freelance writer who lives in Westbrook.


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