Maine’s Big Squaw Would Become Moosehead Lake Ski Resort Under New Owners

Improvements would include a new upper mountain quad, expanded terrain and snowmaking, a base village

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And he set sail for Florida on a boat hewn from bootleg timber

If all goes well, the negligent and incompetent owner of Maine’s Big Squaw ski area will soon be exiled to Florida and the mountain transferred to new owners. Its Homestead-era name would give way to the more palatable Moosehead Lake Ski Resort, a new quad would re-open the long-dormant upper mountain, and new snowmaking, lodging, and trails would expand and modernize the whole operation.

This $75 million investment would come courtesy of local developer Perry Williams and Provident Resources Group, a nonprofit out of Louisiana. Why a Baton Rouge-based outfit is involved or even what they would do (their website opaquely states that they “serve our charitable missions by undertaking a broad range of services, activities, and programs”), is unimportant at this time. Money can do amazing things, and $75 million is a lot of money.

What’s important is that James Confalone could soon be gone. He is indisputably the worst ski area owner in New England, and probably on the continent. Despite clear requirements in the 1995 sales contract that he maintain the ski area, he has allowed it to deteriorate. The upper mountain hasn’t been accessible since a 2004 chairlift accident. The ski area sat dormant for years afterward, until a local Friends of the Mountain volunteer group resuscitated the lower mountain. In November, a judge concluded the State of Maine’s four-year lawsuit against Canfalone for tax delinquency, illegal timber harvesting, and negligence by ordering him to restore the place to its mid-90s condition or sell.

Thankfully for all of us, he seems to have chosen to sell. A Facebook comment from the Friends of the Mountain administrator indicates that “the resort is under contract.” Of course, plenty could still go wrong. And not just with the sale. The goal of opening by next winter may be overly optimistic. This is not Saddleback, which had sat dormant for five years but had been showered with tens of millions in upgrades by the Berry family in the decade before that. They upgraded lifts and snowmaking and dramatically expanded the trail network. The bones were there. It’s hard to say what state of osteoporosis Big Squaw’s upper mountain is in.

Still, the potential here is enormous. The restored ski area would tower 1,700 vertical feet, with a developable footprint of up to 1,700 acres. New buildings would anchor a “Mountain Village.” The resort swallows the current trail network, suggesting plenty of room to expand:

On the plus side, the lower mountain has been maintained and the Facebook group’s 10,000-plus followers suggest a dormant passion for an abused asset. On the flip side, the ski area is so remote that it makes Sugarloaf seem like Times Square, and Maine is littered with failed ski areas and failed ski area revitalization efforts. I’m choosing cautious optimism.

Is this like those Buick commercials where they try to convince you that their cars are cool, or is it a model that will save ski media?

As Skiing and Powder magazines shuttered over the past several years, it’s become obvious that ski media needed a new financial model to survive. The discount subscription model – get a year for $12 or whatever - that had sustained the industry for decades did not translate well to digital. Online ad revenue failed to replace lost print dollars. Paid subscriber numbers steadily fell.

In a move to fend off oblivion, Ski Magazine, onetime sister publication to Skiing and the most mainstream of the U.S. snowsports mags, recently launched a $99-per-year subscription product:

… SKI Magazine is offering an exciting new membership program, called Active Pass, that combines everything you’ve come to expect from SKI alongside curated content from your choice of partner brands, including Yoga Journal, Backpacker, Climbing, Clean Eating, Triathlete, Women’s Running, Podium Runner, VeloNews, and more.

Sign up for Active Pass here.

For $99 a year, Active Pass membership gets you a SKI Magazine print subscription, an ad-free website experience, access to the Warren Miller Entertainment film archive (that’s 50-some films, folks) plus a ticket to the 2021 feature film, ski-instruction, and fitness video tutorials, and pro deals and members-only industry discounts. Plus, you’ll be part of a community of people who value an active lifestyle, and crave the next snowstorm just as much as you do.

I’ll start by thanking the branding team for not calling it “ActivePass,” in the insufferable American marketing tradition of attempting to evoke novelty by smashing two words into one.

Whatever they call it, some version of this subscription model is likely the cornerstone to ski media’s long-term survival. It taps into several long-term trends: bundling of different-but-related assets, consumers’ willingness to commit to renewable subscriptions, and information as a constantly updated flow rather than a curated object that you receive in intervals. A $49 tier (currently on sale for $41.65), gets the print mag, ad-free site, and exclusive Ski-specific content. The full subscription is currently on sale for $84.15.

Whether skiers will find the full offering compelling will depend upon their particular interests and access to other content sources. The Warren Miller library, for instance, is already available on Prime Video. The ticket to the next Warren Miller show – presuming live events return by late summer – is a nice add-on, as attendees typically receive several free or discounted lift tickets (at least in the Northeast). Whether content about yoga, running, climbing, or whatever else is of interest to Ski subscribers will obviously vary widely, though there is probably a lot of crossover there in general. Meal plans, recipes, and training plans (highlighted on the subscription page), are ubiquitous enough that their inclusion here doesn’t set the site apart.

This is just a start, and I imagine the offering will evolve considerably. I think there’s an opportunity here to tap Ski’s deep history. The magazine has published since 1936 – why not digitize those archives and grant premium subscribers access? The New York Times has a similar feature for subscribers that I use often. How about some kind of insider’s price on an Epic, Ikon, or even Indy Pass? Or discounted lift tickets?

But what will ultimately sell this is great content. Ski long had a milquetoast reputation among the U.S. ski magazines. It was, an editor who worked there in the 90s told me, bland on purpose, to appeal to the widest possible audience. That seems to be changing. This year’s four-issue run has been the best in years. The third issue included a full-page photograph of Eli Bucher gap-jumping upside-down over a moving locomotive. That isn’t content that says, “buy me seven-day-a-year-skier-who-works-in-an-office-park-outside-of-Pittsburgh.” And the hiring of former Powder editor-in-chief Sierra Shafer to fill the same role at Ski suggests that the magazine is reorienting itself to appeal to the kind of ski-obsessed consumer who would pay $99 a year for really great skiing content (they also hired Micah Abrams, who ran content strategy for Powder and its sister publications under A360 media).

Skiing needs high-quality content, rooted in journalistic standards and created by people who know the sport intimately. For that to exist, skiers need to be willing to pay for it. This is a model worth watching.

Chairlifts are hard

The more I learn about running a ski area, the more relieved I am that I don’t run a ski area. Nowhere is this truer than on the subject of chairlifts, which are complicated, expensive, and, in most cases, the most essential piece of the experience after snow. Before starting the podcast, I figured you could rig one up in your backyard with some two-by-fours and a lawnmower engine in half a day. Turns out it’s a bit more complicated.

The consequences of a lift fail are on display right now at Bousquet, where the new owners demolished the ancient summit double to make room for a 35-year-old triple moved down from Vermont’s Hermitage Club. The lift is not yet running, due to “engineering issues outside of our control.” At some mountains, this wouldn’t make much difference - Magic, which is closing in on year three of its attempted black chair installation, already has a lift going to essentially the same terminal. At Bousquet, this means that a full third of the ski area is inaccessible.

The mountain is compensating skiers by either granting full refunds or converting their season passes to a more expensive Berkshire Summit Pass at no charge. From a pure skiing point of view, this is a great deal, as the pass’ other two mountains – Berkshire East and Catamount – are larger and have far better terrain. For many Pittsfield locals, however, who counted on skiing a few minutes from home and are now looking at a 45-minute drive north or south to get their turns, this is undoubtedly disappointing.

Looking long-term, a disappointing debut season is probably collateral damage rather than a harbinger of doom. Prior to its offseason renovation, the 83-year-old ski area looked and felt very, very tired. It needed bold and drastic changes. The summit lift replacement was a gamble, as the Schaefer family, who owns the Summit Pass’ other two mountains and advise on operations at Bousquet, no doubt knew. And while a new chairlift wasn’t an absolutely necessary immediate upgrade, the project signaled a commitment to overhauling and updating the mountain for the long-term. It will be a better mountain in the end, even if it takes another offseason to push it there.

We’ll ski until the snow melts

Ski areas in France are unlikely to open at all this season. Italy’s lifts are on hold until at least Feb. 15. Ontario’s ski areas remain closed at least until February.

Here in the rootin’ tootin’ U.S. of A., the largest Covid-related skiing consequence to date has been Schweitzer’s voluntary shutdown of twilight skiing over MLK weekend to foil the local caucus of cantankerous Freedom Bros who couldn’t stop challenging requests to mask up. Meanwhile more than 3,000 Americans continue to drop dead every day from a disease that has been so catastrophically mismanaged that the richest nation in the world leads the planet in both total cases and total deaths. Go team.

No matter how bad the numbers have gotten, there have been no serious talks (outside of an early-season shutdown in New Mexico), of once again turning off America’s ski lifts. Skiing will not shut down again in America. A number of dumdums whose brains have been stir-fried in a cocktail of Fox News, low-rent social media rants, and far-right talk radio have apocalyptically assured me that a President Biden would shut the country down and destroy the economy on day one. No chance. It’s January. We’ve been skiing for months. Vaccine distribution is ongoing. Infections are ticking downward. We’ll be skiing until the resorts turn the lifts off. Voluntarily this time.

Elsewhere

Ski profiles Sugarbush. A scary fall at Tuckerman Ravine. New York Ski Blog at Greek Peak, Magic, and Snow Ridge. Sutner on “skimo.” I’ve been forgetting to link out to pods so here are some good recent ones: Wintry Mix 88, Out of Bounds, Low Pressure, Ski Bums skiing in (no kidding) Tennessee. And you really ought to listen to my interview with Bolton Valley President Lindsay DesLauriers.

This week in skiing

I miss Vermont. It’s always seemed surreal that I could wake up amid above-freezing temperatures in New York City and four or five hours later be swimming in a snowstorm on a 2,000-vertical foot mountain. This year I can’t do that. New York, of course, has abundant skiing, but a mental block had previously prevented me from really exploring north of the Catskills outside of the obvious sprawling kingdoms of Gore and Whiteface. The four to five hours it took to reach these hills, most of them with less than 700 feet of vert, was hard to justify when I could reach Stratton or Magic with the same drive.

This year I have different priorities. Mostly avoiding crowds and lines. After that, finding as much untracked snow as possible. That guided my ski journeying over the past week:

Sunday, Jan. 17: Maple Ski Ridge

If you haven’t heard of Maple Ski Ridge, it’s because nobody living more than five miles outside of Schenectady has. And that’s because it’s a 270-vertical-foot bump with two chairlifts, two ropetows, and no terrain to speak of. It also had no liftlines on a holiday Sunday and a $39 rack-rate lift ticket. All of which made it perfect for a ski day with my 12-year-old daughter, who’s as burned out on liftlines and crowds as I am. Full write-up coming soon on New York Ski Blog.

Monday, Jan. 18: Snow Ridge

Here is 500 vertical feet fed by lake effect piling off Ontario and served by a fleet of ancient Hall doubles. A warren of glades and narrow empty ungroomed trails dumping off the North Chair resemble the rambling off-piste Narnias of Northern Vermont, with big bumps and sudden drops and interesting little pockets of woods. On the far side of the ski area the Pocket T-bar opened for the first time all season and I crushed untracked S-turns until after 1 p.m. on a broad powder field sitting in plain view of the lift. I skied alone and I skied 34 runs and I skied until last chair.

Friday, Jan. 22: Oak Mountain

Oak, an hour off the New York Thruway in the town of Speculator, had been closed all week as lake effect had filled in its trails and glades. Like at Snow Ridge, grooming was minimal. I skied untracked run after untracked run, fresh powder all day long. When I entered the TLP glades for the first time at 1 p.m. I was the first one in all day. Glorious powder fields. Little drops lined the black diamonds dumping off the summit quad and I skied these over and over. It’s not a steep mountain or an intimidating mountain but it’s an interesting one and an affordable one, with a $42 lift ticket and no crowds until the after-school crews showed up around 3.

Friday, Jan. 22: Dynamite Hill

I detoured on my way home and drove along New York highway 8, past signs pointing toward Gore, and stopped at Dynamite Hill, a ropetow operation on a 100 vertical feet just outside the town of Chestertown. I walked up to the small gift shop to buy a lift ticket and the woman stationed at the snack bar said it was free so I made a small donation and booted up and skied maybe half a dozen runs and I was the only one skiing. A half dozen families lapped the sled hill on the other side of the slope. The place is run by the local Chamber of Commerce and how great would it be if every town in New York and New England had a little community tow to give kids an unintimidating and accessible place to learn to love skiing?