My old friend was right there still when I pulled into the parking lot at Camden Snow Bowl earlier this month. The venerable A-frame base lodge that is, which has stood on the site for, well, a long time. It’s been a couple of ski seasons since I’d visited Camden, and I was glad to see the building still in use, what with the big redevelopment plan in full swing.
My skis and poles set in the racks, I stepped inside. The ticket counter in the corner is gone, moved next door to a temporary building. But everything else looked just right. The long tables and benches, the snack bar, the fireplace, the stairs down to the restrooms and lockers. There were just a few people milling about on this morning, but I knew the place would fill soon enough with plenty of local kids and adults who simply love this homey place.
El Nino has not been kind to New England skiers this winter, at least not up until that point. If we’d had a foot total of natural snow by the first week of February I think it would’ve been a lot. No matter, Camden Snow Bowl, like nearly every other Maine ski area small, medium or large save just a couple, lives and dies on snowmaking. And out there on the slopes, two top to bottom runs awaited.
I took my first ride on the new triple chair, which last season replaced the old T-bar. To the top I went, skiddered off, and turned down Clipper, joined Windjammer, and voila, my first run at CSB was in the can. And you know what? It was good skiing.
Next up, Mussel Ridge to Half Hitch. Again, very good. No matter that the slopes to either side were brown and the summits on the Mt. Megunticook ridgeline across the way looked green and spring-like. I had winter underfoot, cold, firm and white. Modern technology, yeah! And for the remainder of the visit that afternoon, with a group of good friends in tow, I enjoyed the wonderful skiing.
The big thing I noticed straight away while making turns down the slopes? The ocean. Indeed, the ocean is in view big as life, from pretty much everywhere on the hill now. Before the trails here were widened, it wasn’t always easy to get the prized view, over on Lookout and a small window here and there. But now, Mother Atlantic gets to shine, and nowhere else in the East can you downhill ski in sight of the ocean. Ski the Sea here at Camden Snow Bowl. Oh yes you can. All 1,000 vertical feet of it.
CAMDEN: IT’S A FOUR SEASON PLACE TO BE
Karen Brace is the Town of Camden’s community development director, while Landon Fake is the Camden Snow Bowl’s general manager. Both folks had a lot to say while I was there about the effort in this pretty little town on the west shore of Penobscot Bay. Like how strong the support for the mountain is from the town, which owns and operates the area year-round; the Ragged Mountain Recreation Foundation, which raises the capital $$ for the improvements; and the ski club, which funds kids programs and more. And we know kids are at the heart of skiing, they are the future of skiing, the keystone to every ski mountain. Gold. And let’s not forget the locals and everyone else from near and far who come to Camden for some quality ski time.
The goal of the big redevelopment project is to turn Camden Snow Bowl into a true 4-season recreation facility, and with that, turn Camden into even more of a thriving 4-season destination town, to drive that winter economy. You can see it happening for sure. Summer and fall, the harbor and downtown, the state park, the roads and highways are jammed with visitors. And why not, it’s fabulously beautiful. The Maine coast defined.
Make some improvements (about $8 million when all the phases are complete) at the ski area and you’ve really got something. Double the snowmaking capacity. Check. Add a lot more lighting for expanded night skiing. Check. Rebuild the double chair. Check. Add a carpet lift. Check. Add a new summit triple chair. Check. Rebuild the base parking lot. Check. Expand the ski trails acreage from 45 acres to 60 acres by adding two trails and widening the others (remember that big ocean view thing, yeah). Check.
Next in line is the new base lodge. That’s going to take a little more time and some additional fundraising. But these folks are on it, they’re going to make it happen. Pretty much like the rendering of the new lodge says it will be like, a few doors down from the A-frame lodge (which will remain and be used for something, I forgot to ask what). The new lodge will be a 4-season public facility, a community center, a ski lodge in winter, a space for functions, weddings and such. A revenue generator (Camden Snow Bowl as it is generates $3 million for the town annually, and that would surely increase with a bigger, better ski area, and ski & stay and other such winter recreation packages for visitors). A cool place to hang out winter or summer. You, me, the locals, the kids, everyone who adores this mountain.
Greg Sweetser, the big dog at the Ski Maine Association and a good friend of mine, was around to ski with us. Greg has a soft spot for Maine’s community ski areas. He knows they’re the generator, the feeder for future skiers, the kids that will grow up and move on to skiing the big resorts, plus the adults who learn the ropes on the small hills and move up too. But having had such a good local experience, they never forget, and so they loyally support the effort in their town, in their region. It’s part of what keeps Maine’s 18 Alpine areas going, a really important part. And those big resorts, they support the little guys, love them, nurture them in so many helpful ways. They get it. Oh, and then there’re the recent investments in snowmaking. Did I mention snowmaking. Yes, snowmaking. Goodness, where would we be in 2016 without it. Yikes.
There’s energy, buzz, vibe around the redevelopment project at Camden Snow Bowl, Brace told me with a big smile. You can feel it, you know it when a plan like this is working and lots of good people are behind it. Success, a winner. Something really good. Makes you want to be in on it. And you do. So load up the ski gear and get on out this way and see and ski for yourself. All good. El Nino and whatever named storm or crazy weather pattern be damned. As my friend and legend in the ski industry, Bernie Wiechsel, says, “We’re hardy New Englanders. We love winter!” Yes.
Not into downhill skiing? CSB has snowshoe rentals and some nice winter trails to use them on right there at Ragged Mountain. Nordic skiers can jump on a fun network of trails, trails that are great for fat biking too. Rentals for the latter can be had from local shops. Up for a toboggan run? Bring your own or rent one and take an exciting ride (or two) down the icy chute.
EAT, DRINK, STAY AND BE VERY MERRY IN CAMDEN
While you’re here in Camden, besides skiing, do what I did. Check out Camden and the rest of the local coastal area, where there are an impressive number of really good restaurants and watering holes. In the neighborhood of 25-30, which makes the place quite the foodie spot. I’ve made a habit at of stopping into Cappy’s Chowder House over the years, almost always for a burger and a pint. Maybe some wings. But on this trip to Camden, my friends and I, we branched out a little, getting a pretty look at the understated dining and pub scene.
For starters, the fried shrimp platter at the Waterfront Restaurant was the best I’ve ever eaten, while the wine and appetizer’s at Natalie’s at the Camden Harbour Inn were a delightful treat. I loved the flat bread pizza and steamed mussels at 40 Paper Bistro & Bar, and the beer at the very Scottish (and maybe Irish and English too, it had that great pub feel) Drouthy Bear Pub was, well, good enough for a second pint indeed and some great conversation, just as it should be in a traditional pub. Slainte!
For a couple of oh so cozy nights I tucked into the Lord Camden Inn right there on Main Street in Camden, close to everything mentioned above and more. It had been some time since I’d last stayed at this Camden lodging staple, and it was as good as I remembered. Maybe it was all the skiing, the socializing, the good eats, the good beer, but I melted into the downy warmth of my bed both nights, and woke to a most excellent breakfast spread on the second floor of the inn both mornings. You name it, they had it. Starting with good coffee, it was all nicely prepared and presented and tasted delish.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MAKES
The forecast for my last day in Camden originally said 1-3 inches of snow. I slept on that figure. By first light, snapping on my TV, I saw that the prediction was upped to 5-6. Then 8-10. Oh my. Outside the flakes were coming down alright. Breakfast, check out, brush off the car, off to the Snow Bowl. And it’s really coming down as I pull in. It doesn’t at all look like a good driving day (I live 90 minutes away), but I’m here, winter’s been a bit of a bust to date, and the white stuff is piling up. Out I go.
Run after glorious run, the snow came down. An inch an hour anyway, probably more. I could hardly see the lodge at times as I skied down to the base. Powder snow, lots of it. I couldn’t have had a better time, me and the dozen or so other skiers who had braved the storm and ignored the fact that the snow was set to intensify. It did. And finally a modicum of sense filtered into my brain, and I reluctantly packed it in after ten runs through many good inches of fluffy flakes.
Was it worth the five-hour drive home, white knuckling it the entire time? Well, I got home OK. So, yes!
IF YOU GO
Camden Snow Bowl, 207-236-3438.
Where to stay, eat and drink, what to do in Camden, 800-562-2529.