Now that the ski season is truly underway, we can review the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftereffects to see how it might affect the current season.

Most of the restrictions have gone away. One of the things we learned from last season, while putting up with various limits and restrictions, was that the safest place to be was outdoors, and skiing provided the perfect way to enjoy being outside and social distancing comes naturally.

Dave Irons, Ski Columnist

Last season was not only a good one for business, but some areas, Lost Valley for one, reported a record for skier visits.

I checked in with a few ski areas, and it became obvious that most, while following required state government restrictions, are putting the pandemic in the past. They recommend checking their websites, under safety requirements, for this year’s guidelines. Expect to see employees wearing masks indoors, and masks are recommended indoors for skiers and guests.

For the most part, lifts will be running at capacity, and spacing in lift lines is provided by the length of the skis.

One holdover guideline from last year is the limiting of storage in base lodges. Most areas are not allowing skiers to simply tuck their boots or bags in the cubby holes. Where available, skiers will have to use bag checks. At some areas, once booted up, skiers will have to return items to their vehicles for storage.

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Of course, booting up in the car is still possible, and not too bad if you have a van. I do know one skier who bought a van for that purpose a year ago, but that’s not in my budget, and while I often change my golf shoes at the car, it won’t work with today’s ski boots. My advice is to arrive early enough to secure a parking space close to the base lodge.

As for masks, check those websites. Some areas recommend them indoors but others require them. Carry one with you so you can handle it, either way.

AREA UPGRADES

As always, Maine’s ski areas invested heavily in the offseason.

Certainly, Sunday River’s new eight-passenger heated chair lift led the charge with its multimillion dollar expense, but other areas made important investments, the most common were related to snowmaking.

It seems as if this is an annual expense as every ski area strives to make this vital part of the operation as efficient as possible. Making snow is costly and the idea is to get as much snow on the trails as possible for every dollar spent.

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Those giant fan guns and tower guns are super efficient. They also allow snow to be made at higher temperatures, important for early opening and for recovery after a thaw.

• I talked to Ralph Lewis, the general manager at Shawnee Peak, and he told me he was looking out on three new tower guns going full blast on the Main Slope. He noted that these guns were part of owner Chet Homer’s ongoing program to improve snowmaking before he decided to sell the area to Boyne.

Lewis pointed out that skiers will see little difference in operation of the slopes and lifts under the new ownership. Boyne, which operates Sugarloaf and Sunday River in Maine, and Loon in New Hampshire — along with their resorts in Michigan, Big Sky in Montana, Brighton in Utah and Crystal in Washington — has plenty of experience in ski area operations of all sizes. One benefit for employees will be the expanded number of areas they can ski with their employee passes on days off. Add Loon, Sunday River and Sugarloaf. A pretty good employee benefit.

Lost Valley has been changing in recent years, especially in the base lodge. The lounge area was rebuilt a few years ago as the area worked to make the pub and restaurant more attractive to non-skiers for an evening out. Skiers have benefitted with a much better apres ski environment.

Outside, Lost Valley continued beefing up snowmaking to ensure an earlier opening and the ability to maintain the slopes, regardless of the weather.

Although few would think it was needed, the area added lighting. A new groomer was added to enhance surface maintenance on the trails.

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Saddleback, which reopened last year after being closed for several seasons, continues to invest.

After the big expense of replacing the double chair with a new quad, about $2 million went toward more mundane items such as snowmaking upgrades and new groomers.

Lifts will be loaded to capacity this season, allowing skiers to move up the mountain more quickly.

• Snowmaking was the focus at Mt. Abram, with 1,000 yards of new pipe added to improve capacity in an area that had problems getting enough coverage.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

As expected, Sunday River and Sugarloaf have been open since earlier this month, and this weekend was the target for several other areas.

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As always, “weather permitting” is the operative phrase. While today’s modern snowmaking systems can make snow at barely freezing temperatures, they are helpless when it hits 40-50 degrees, so it forces us as skiers to call ahead.

That advice is often good in the early season, and with the ongoing pandemic, calling ahead or checking the websites is even more important.

See you on the slopes.

 

Dave Irons is a freelance writer and columnist who hails from Westbrook. He has been contributing to the Sun Journal for many years and is among the most respected ski writers in the Northeast. He also is a member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. Write to him at [email protected] 

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