Yes, children, there was once a time when we relied on Mother Nature, and Mother Nature alone, to provide snow from the skies to cover the slopes and trails of Maine’s ski mountains.

And she was a most unreliable provider, to say the least.

Growing up in Camden, I can remember many years, before man-made snow was nothing more than a figment of a few dreamers’ imaginations, when our days on the slopes at the Snow Bowl were sometimes little more than the lower double digits for the whole season. And we might be able to hike up and ski the Slope Trail on Mt. Megunticook only half a dozen days at best.

When I began to take racing seriously as a member of the Bowdoin ski team in the late 1950s, my fellow team members and I spent every Christmas vacation for four years riding a couple T-Bars, jumping on a 40-meter trestle and cruising some cross-country trails in Lac Beauport, Quebec, because that was the only place we could expect to reliably find enough cover to train on in December.

Until the 1960s, those of us who were skiing had to rely exclusively on natural snow to dump enough on the trails of Maine to create skiable conditions. But all of that began to change, building on the pioneering efforts of one of my heroes, and mentors (and for whom I ran Mt. Snow in Vermont in the late 1960s and early 1970s) Walt Schoenknect, who had conducted a widely publicized snowmaking effort in 1949 using crushed ice and prototype snow guns at his Mohawk Mountain in Connecticut. As the story goes, the guns produced high decibel sounds that were only discernible by canine constituents in the town of Cornwall, where the constabulary issued cease and desist orders as the residents were unable to sleep because of the howling dogs.

In 1956, a rudimentary mechanism combining compressed air and water was installed at Mt. Ascutney in Vermont, and it is recognized by the industry as the nation’s first viable snowmaking system, as skiers there enjoyed dependable man-made snow for the first time during the 1958-59 season.

But it didn’t take long for an engineering genius from Maine, Otto Wallingford, who had opened Lost Valley in Auburn to create, install and fire up Maine’s first system, of his own design, in 1962. It produced more ice than snow that first year, but he persevered by coming up with a unique invention that dried the air and enabled the production of much more natural snow. This innovation removed water droplets from the lines, improving substantially the quality of the snow.

He then directed his attention to the snow guns themselves by designing and manufacturing his own, and then he patented his unique Pole Gun, mounted 20 feet high on poles that had lights for night skiing and on trees along the sides of the trails. Some 40 years later, the tower guns we see at every Maine area that makes snow owe their existence to Wallingford’s innovative genius.

Next came his large fan gun, three snow guns mounted on a huge fan that could be hauled around the base area, covering it entirely in a fraction of the time smaller guns required. Then there was his “Otto-matic,” not only multiple guns mounted on a giant fan, but an automatic oscillator that allowed open slopes to be covered with a minimum of gun movement required.

It was nearly a decade later when Sunday River had its first system up and running for the 1970-71 season on some beginner terrain, and there was a similar modest network installed on the Wheeler Slope at Saddleback, which proved to be most fortuitous for the area during the 1972-73 season.

I have a special memory of that, as I had bought Saddleback in the fall of 1972, and December was one of the brownest in years. Sugarloaf was especially hard hit, as the snowmaking bullet had not yet been bitten by the conservative operators of the area. Losing Christmas vacation week makes it virtually impossible to turn a profit for the year. As we then used to say in the industry, “No white, no black, just red!”

Gardner Defoe moved his entire Sugarloafer Ski Camp by bus every morning from Kingfield to Rangeley to train on a couple hundred feet of vertical, on what we then called artificial snow. That boost to my business, along with a growing reputation for areas that could guarantee at least some skiing (of which Sunday River became a nationally recognized leader under Les Otten) helped me survive my early ownership years there.

Sugarloaf installed its first pipes, compressors, pumps and guns the next year, and a year after that Sonny Goodwin engineered a system at Camden Snow Bowl that he dug out of the ground at shuttered Bald Mountain in Dedham, and Maine had thus seriously entered the snowmaking era.

John Christie is a former ski racer and ski area manager and owner, a ski historian and member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. He and his son, Josh, write columns on alternating weeks. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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