Living to Loaf

Why go West when you can ski bum in Sugarloaf, Maine?

The top station of Sugarloaf’s ancient gondola has all the character of a meat locker. On one hoarfrosted, snow-splotched wall, a sign reads: If you go through this gate, you need to know: This terrain is unlike anything you have skied in the East.

The landscape outside is filled with stubby, snowcaked trees, stumps, branches, sharp rocks, and patches of blue ice. It is a different world, a world left virtually treeless by glaciers that scraped the mountaintop down to bare rock ages ago. Only the hardiest vegetation grows here. Only the hardiest skiers ski here, on Sugarloaf’s Snowfields–the mountain’s crowning glory and quintessential ski experience.

Sugarloaf Ski BummingThe view from the top is a 360-degree panorama of Mount Katahdin, the state’s highest peak; New Hampshire’s Mount Washington; the 4,000-foot peaks of the Longfellow Range; and a patchwork of logging clear-cuts in endless acres of Maine woods.

But we don’t linger; we’re on a mission. Local ski bum Greg Caruso and I cut across the wind-scoured front face, our edges making the sound of a knife cutting Styrofoam. Little balls of snow skitter across frozen ripples like shattered glass across ice. We traverse to the edge, where we peek over the back side. It looks more unskiable than what we’ve just crossed. The only option is down the nearly bald face, which is so steep it drops out of sight below our ski tips.

It’s my fourth day at the Loaf, and I’ve started to figure out why it has such a loyal following. Why so many skiers and riders spend winter after winter here. And why they don’t go West. The Snowfields are one reason, but it cuts deeper than that.

Greg, a 26-year-old from Millinocket, Maine, works the two-to-10 shift behind the bar, serving beer and slinging pizzas, at the on-slope Sugartree health club. After three years on lifts¿he worked his way up to foreman, at $6.75 an hour¿he’s landed one of the more coveted ski-bum jobs.

As often happens, he just fell into this good fortune. For six summers, he’s been a raft guide on the Penobscot River. Fellow raft guides skied the Loaf and worked at the health club in the winter. Now he does, too. He shares a $400-a-month log cabin in the woods with another raft guide, and by ski-bum standards, it’s considered plush.

Steve Pierce is a Sugarloaf institution. He’s a bartender who actually lists “ski bum” under occupation on his tax return. A bearlike mountain man with a big, bushy beard and curly brown hair, Steve has skied all over New England. But he tells me nothing can compare to Sugarloaf. “When I come around that mountain … the view captures me every day.”

What he’s talking about is called “Ohmygosh Corner.” About four miles south of Sugarloaf, there’s a big bend in Route 27, and when you come around it, the mountain comes suddenly and unexpectedly into view. And it is huge. A single, hulking, bald-topped massif. “One Big Mother of a Mountain,” the brochure copy reads. From the 4,237-foot summit, the ski area stretches 2,820 feet to the base, starting out wicked steep up top and gradually lessening in pitch until it spreads out in a gentle apron at the bottom. When that fills your windshield, it’s impressive.

Steve started as a night auditor at the Sugarloaf Inn in the early ’70s, with the midnight to 8 a.m. shift. He lived in an old wooden A-frame with no running water. It cost $50 a month, which he split with another guy. They’d sneak showers at the Inn and fill up plastic containers with water from the spigot at the general store.

Now, at 47, Steve’s got more responsibility. He helped form the town of Carrabassett Valley in 1972 and has been active in town politics ever since. Sugarloaf doesn’t have a mayor, but if it did, it would be Steve. Still, being a bartender at Gepetto’s in the base village gives him the flexibility to schedule his day around skiing.

We take the SuperQuad to King’s Landing, a winding blue run with an even pitch, and I follow Steve, who’s makinng short, zippy turns down the fall line. Then he breaks rhythm and speeds off in great swooping arcs through the soft corduroy. Steve’s already around the next bend; I’m just following contrails. We take a run down Narrow Gauge, part of the FIS downhill course. It starts with a series of big cruising turns, then dumps into a steep headwall. We are humming. Mach schnell.

On the next run, we hook up with Kip Files, another Gepetto’s bartender. He’s sporting a grungy gray jacket, a long wool scarf, old Atomic race skis, and a shiny new Boeri helmet. Typical Sugarloaf. Also typical is the speed at which he skis. Maybe it’s the steep, wide-open, immaculately groomed runs. Maybe it’s the confidence that comes from years of skiing on boilerplate. “I used to think I was fast,” Kip says, “but when I came to Sugarloaf, I met people who could time me with a calendar.” Not surprisingly, helmets have come into vogue on the mountain. When I ask Kip about his, he starts talking about open-casket funerals and squirrel fodder (chunks of brain left on the hill by helmetless skiers).

Not every run here is groomed, though. Upper Double Bitter is a double black and one of several trails that’s designated as a “Wild Thing” area: no grooming, no snowmaking. It’s skiing like Mother Nature, not Father Otten, meant it to be. The afternoon sun breaks through the trees, casting zebra stripes on the slope. With a thick blanket of new snow on top, it’s like skiing on velvet. But under that plush layer is raw mountain: bumps and banks, sharp curves and steep drop-offs. It’s a roller-coaster ride that has us grinning uncontrollably. The trail spits us out onto the Alpine Park, where grooming machines have sculpted manmade snow to resemble, well, Upper Double Bitter.

Living in the Loaf presents certain convenience challenges. The place is remote. For some, a doctor visit can mean a two-hour drive. The movies and a Big Mac are nearly an hour away in The Big City (Farmington, population 7,500), with not a single stoplight in between. “You plan for all your chores,” Steve says. And you do a lot of catalog shopping. For out-of-towners, it’s a four-hour drive from Boston, eight from New York City. I chose to fly in, which took about two and a half hours, two planes, and $360. Then it was an hour and 45 minutes from Augusta on a twisty road. Probably would’ve been less if I hadn’t been stuck behind one of the big logging trucks that rumble down Route 27.

But the ride along the Carrabassett River was worth it. And somehow the effort of the journey made the arrival more worthwhile–the way hiking to ski somehow makes the turns sweeter. “It’s remote and rugged and beautiful,” Steve says. “It’s the kind of place you leave your door unlocked.” It’s also the kind of place, I found, that obsesses about the weather. The local TV news spends more time on meteorology than Denver stations spend on the JonBenet Ramsey case. “Strengthening clouds, embedded thunderstorms, cold fronts, silent winds, warm air, 16 degrees in Bangor, nine on the top of Mount Washington…”

Okay, so some people groove on the remote factor, and there’s the Snowfields, but I still couldn’t help wondering, Why not go West to ski bum? The more people I met, the clearer the answer became. There’s something in the water. Kip grew up on a lake outside Bangor and in the summers he captains the Victory Chimes, a century-old three-masted schooner, sailing the Maine coast. Nearly every ski bum I met in Sugarloaf has some connection to water.


Peter “Pablo” Bevins is a chef at Gepetto’s and a crusty 33-year-old snowboarder from Ogunquit, a small beach community on the southern coast of Maine. Over a beer, he tells me that he used to be a “diehard redneck skier who hated snowboarders,” but friends convinced him to try riding and now he’s hooked. It’s Pablo’s fourth season at Sugarloaf, and he’s got it dialed. He started as the pizza guy, but has worked his way up to kitchen manager. He also scored a $250 season pass and the upstairs apartment. “I don’t do roomies,” he says with a clenched jaw. And on powder days, he adds, “I need to be first in line.”

The next day is not a powder day, but I plan to meet Pablo early anyway. First, though, I stop for a steaming cappuccino and freshly baked muffin at Java Joe’s in the Sugarloaf village. Young guys are talking about sweet rides, bitchy waitresses, and washing dishes. The village is pretty much self-contained. There are dozens of shops and bars and restaurants. I’m staying in one of the 800 condos sprinkled through the woods below the base, but there’s also the 120-room Sugarloaf Grand Summit Hotel, right at the village center. In either case, most people drive to the ski area, but find that, between proximity and the shuttle system, they don’t end up driving again until they leave.

Pablo and I ride up the SuperQuad, which whisks us a mile and a half and 1,800 vertical feet in about seven minutes. Wearing a blue helmet, reflective blue Revo goggles, and a shiny silver fireman’s jacket, Pablo looks like Robocop wrapped in tinfoil. We take a warmup run on Hayburner, which is groomed, but long and steep (call it Thighburner). Like the others, Pablo rides fast, and I find myself chasing him, barely glimpsing bits of silver in clouds of powder. We take the Spillway double chair, a.k.a. Chillway, to the highest point on the mountain you can get to without taking the gondola.

From Spillway X-Cut, we stare down into a snarl of trees so thick I can’t imagine it’s skiable. Pablo pulls an old, ratty pair of goggles from his fanny pack. “Beater goggles,” he explains, “for the woods.” He disappears into the trees, and I jump in behind him. The glade is so tight it’s like skiing a slalom on 225s. Lower down, still spitting out chunks of bark, I follow Pablo into the Rookie River glade, a big treed bowl with a river running through it. We follow the riverbed as it snakes over boulders and around trees. We use the banks like bobsledders, going faster and faster, trees whizzing by, then suddenly we pop out of the woods, back into the groomed world.

We saw no one else in the trees. It seems mostly the locals know the lines. Pablo looks at me with piercing blue eyes and says mysteriously, “Those that know, know.” Not that you can’t go in the trees. In fact, Sugarloaf boasts a boundary-to-boundary policy, which means you can ski anywhere you want within the area’s 1,400 acres, including a dozen cut glades.

By afternoon, a storm moves in. The wind blows mercilessly in every direction, and the temperature dives. As I ski down, a fierce wind blasts uphill. The effect is like dry ice in a horror flick, snow boiling up around my boots. It tricks me into thinking I’m not skiing on a firm surface. Time to quit.

The storm has blanketed the mountain with six inches of heavy snow. I run into Abby Serina, 22, another snowboarder in her fourth season at the Loaf. A born-and-bred Mainer, she works in a little cubby in the condo check-in building from noon until eight, and the job comes with a pass.

We get freshies in the trees off Winter’s Way, then cut over to the gondola line. It’s an awesome plunge straight down the fall line with great potential for a slide for life. Next run, Abby takes me into Broccoli Garden, a tree shot off Buckboard indicated by a stick stuck in the snow. I can’t find it on the trail map, but the trees, with stubby bunches of branches on top and thick trunks, do look like broccoli. George Bush wod be freaking. It’s not too steep, and the trees are generously spaced. We get enough momentum to cut through the frostinglike new snow, Abby’s long red pony tail bobbing in the air.

Abby spent last summer sailing with her brother off the coast of New Jersey, and she’s making plans for sailing school. “Every year, I think about leaving, but then I get sucked in.” Her life is simple. “I see people with a cloud around them like Pig Pen: kids, cell phone, beeper. They have lots of stuff.” Abby has no credit cards, no health insurance, no car registration. “I bought a snowboard instead,” she explains.

In the afternoon the clouds clear out, turning the day into a postcard of bright white trees against an electric blue sky. Abby has taken off for work, and I’m skiing with Greg in King Pine Bowl at the eastern end of the mountain. He sports a goatee and wears a basic red coat and beat-up black ski pants. (Facial hair seems to be a local’s prerequisite, and red, blue, and black are the only clothing colors I see for a week.)

We struggle down Ripsaw, a long, steep dogleg left covered with bumps and junk snow–it’s another Wild Thing trail. We take a run on Misery Whip, an old T-bar line turned trail. With new snow piled up on the sides, it’s a straight-down-the-fall-line luge run.

The wind dies down, and the gondola opens. Miracle. Built in 1965, the gondola was a marvel in its day. Today it’s an antique. The four-person cars look like gigantic M&Ms, colored in red, yellow, and blue. The lifties lock us in with a key, then manhandle the car out of the loading dock. The ride is scary. Since my trip, the gondola has been replaced.

We ski the top of White Nitro, at 43 degrees, the steepest slope in the East. Today it’s a perfectly groomed swath through the above-tree-line, untrammeled world of the Snowfields. We slice perfect arcs down it, feeling the weightlessness of momentary free fall between turns. At the tree line, Greg cuts over to Powder Keg, where the snow is Rockies-style soft but tricky, the slope decidedly ungroomed. We abruptly shift into survival mode.

Finally, we cut over to Bubblecuffer, a narrow, curvy run with huge bumps. It’s named for loggers who would walk on logs floating in the river to prevent jams, the water bubbling up around their pant cuffs. We need to use fancy footwork, too, to stay on top of the moguls that bubble up around our ears. I’m sweating by the time we get back to the gondola.

February is a little early in the season for Snowfield skiing, but Greg and I decide to chance it. We take the inhospitable traverse through the stunted trees, over the Styrofoam snow, to the edge of the front face. At the bottom is a very definitive, very immovable row of trees. We prepare for 20 white-knuckle turns down the no-fall steep. But the sun has baked the crust to soft corn, and the turns are memorable, the run exhilarating. Below, we hit a runout that wraps around the bottom of the Snowfields, bringing us back to the top of King Pine Bowl. It’s time for Greg’s shift at the health club, but it doesn’t take much to convince him to make one more run in the Snowfields.

At dusk, I drive south toward the Augusta airport. The Carrabassett river is crammed with snow-covered boulders, and soft lights glow from A-frames alongside the road. I notice a sign I passed on the way into the Carrabassett Valley: From here on in, your life will never be the same. That’s certainly true for those who live to Loaf. They’ve been transfixed by this massive, remote ski mountain that draws them back season after season. And in a state with 3,000 miles of shoreline, when the frozen stuff melts, the lakes, rivers, and ocean call Sugarloaf’s bums to other parts of Maine. And so the seasonal migration goes.

This article first appeared in Skiing Magazine in March 1998