SANDY RIVER PLANTATION — From the slopes of Saddleback Maine ski resort to the scenery that surrounds it, this is how high school skiers picture a winter day at one of their favorite venues.

The drive through the mountains to Saddleback features seemingly endless pine trees covered in snow. On Wednesday afternoon, the mountain was once again bustling with high school skiers, who participated in a scrimmage-style competition after a delayed start to the season.

“It’s been absolutely horrible,” said Gardiner senior Corinne Vasvary. “For our team specifically, for us to get on the mountain, we have to do it ourselves and come to bigger mountains like Saddleback or Sugarloaf. This year, you do that, and there’s no snow, or we had trouble getting there with the flooding we had.”

Wednesday was supposed to be the first Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Alpine ski meet of the 2023-24 season, but plans changed after a Dec. 18 storm brought widespread power outages, massive flooding and destruction to parts of the state.

Furthermore, a lack of considerable snowfall hasn’t helped the high school ski season, either — at least in central Maine. With a few exceptions in the mountains, Christmas was by and large a green one as no snow fell following the pre-Christmas storm that brought considerable rain and wind.

That storm also caused some damage at Saddleback and Sugarloaf, which had to close for multiple days to repair trails and wait for roads leading to the areas to be fixed. Elsewhere in Maine, Lonesome Pine Trails in Fort Kent has hosted two Aroostook County Alpine ski races. Nordic skiers also have had a slow start, although they were able to compete at the annual Billy Chenard Memorial Scholarship Race at Sugarloaf on Dec. 16.


High school skiers turn though gates on a slalom course at Saddleback ski area Wednesday in Rangeley. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“For us, the hill that we normally practice at just hasn’t had the ability to make snow, so after that storm, this is really our first time seeing gates,” said Gardiner assistant coach Dakota Lively. “I’ve only skied seven or eight days this season because that storm just wiped everything out; it wasn’t safe.”

On Wednesday, skiers from several schools, including Skowhegan, Mt. Blue and Maranacook, got an opportunity to shake off some proverbial rust.

“I would say this was the majority of my kids’ first day on the snow,” said Skowhegan head coach Billy Finley. “Typically, we’re on snow as a team the week before Christmas, and we usually get 5-10 days in before our first race, so it’s been discouraging, but we’re a sport that relies on Mother Nature.”

Maranacook senior Sage Whitehead was fortunate in that she was able to ski in Colorado during a family vacation last month. Otherwise, she admitted, her time on the slopes thus far this winter would have been far more limited back home.

Whitehead has tried to stay optimistic about the conditions, recalling that her team wasn’t on real snow until the second week of January last year. That optimism was rewarded Wednesday as the exhibition session, though not the competition originally planned, made for a great opportunity.

“Our coach was super excited; he set up two courses for us to run, and it was definitely something we’ve been looking forward to,” Whitehead said. “We’re trying to get as many runs as we possibly can in because I don’t think a lot of the teams have had any competition prep — I know it’s my first time this year.”


Maranacook ski coach Ronn Gifford, right, offers tips to skier Thatcher Riley, center, and others at Saddleback ski area Wednesday in Rangeley. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Coaches have tried their best to keep their skiers motivated through the early season difficulties. Gardiner’s Hilary Belanger, Vasvary said, has helped keep the team upbeat amid the challenges. Finley has encouraged his Skowhegan team to do what it can on the snow in any way possible.

“Most of them have passes to Sugarloaf or Saddleback, so I’ve just been telling them, ‘Look, if you can go, go,’” Finley said. “Really, if they can get to a hill, I just want them to go ski; it doesn’t really matter if they do gates. It’s been tough so far, so really, you just want to see them be able to get out and get on the snow.”

Although January is only a few days old, the month has already been filled with optimism. Seeing the snow-capped mountains and sights of the slopes on the drive in, Vasvary said, made her the most hopeful she’s been all season. Finley said the first event of the year, a giant slalom event Friday at Black Mountain, is still on as scheduled.

Maranacook’s Anna Albert just wants to hit the slopes. She admits it’s been disappointing that the Black Bears haven’t had the one or two competitions they’d been scheduled to have thus far, but conditions such as those Wednesday at Saddleback have her hopeful about the rest of the winter.

“For me, considering this is the first day I’ve been in gates, I’m hoping we can get to some races,” Albert said. “The conditions haven’t been great — it’s really bad — but I’m grateful we could be here today, and hopefully, we can get in some more days like this.”

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