This Must Be The Place: Mt. Abram, Maine

Bigger isn't necessarily better

The Way Back Machine. PHOTO: RYAN DUNFEE

This old double chair, like most fixed doubles, has soul. It's the only way to the top, and should you happen to be in the singles line, there's almost no way you could avoid conversating with your new lift partner unless you were a very focused and deliberate recluse. The chair is called The Way Back Machine. Maybe it's this venue for forced interaction that lends Maine's Mt. Abram, only twenty minutes from the giant of Sunday River, a real sense of community, and dare I say twice in the same paragraph, soul. The rest of our day here during a quiet, snowy Sunday at the end of Massachusetts vacation week confirms our initial suspicions.

This modest hill near Bethel where rumor has it every single skier in the state of Maine learned to ski is where my mom got her introduction to the sport. My grandfather owned an eerie, 200-acre backwoods farm about thirty minutes from here, and my mom spent brutally freezing days on the hill, the coagulating grease from the lift cable ruining her new ski parka. A separate double chair, with exceptionally long, moderate pitches and its own lodge, still services scores of beginners without discouraging their families with the overwhelming infrastructure of a full-on resort, outrageous prices, or a long enough walk from the car for the kids to start complaining. Day tickets haven't budged from their $49 cost for five seasons, and a bevy of creative ticket deals, like $75 carload Fridays, bring the price down further.

When we pull in, 2013 outerwear and skis in tow, it's hard to imagine much has changed here. A 1971 double chair still provides access to most of the mountain, and getting from the back of the parking lot to the ski rack to the ticket office to the base lodge to the lift is a four hundred foot walk, total. It doesn't take long to find a spot in the lodge, a 21st-century tent built as a temporary structure when the old lodge burnt down, which has scores of Crockpots roasting along the walls for the families and college kids in town for a GS race.

Amenities aside, what surprises me most is that the word "small" never crosses my mind today. Despite the single lift accessing most of the terrain and the one patrol shack casually projecting oldies and inviting cold patrons inside for warmth by the pellet-fueled stove, in five hours we almost never take the same route twice. Mt. Abram has a boundary-to-boundary policy. It even lets people come up in the summer to thin their own glades (with some consideration for habitat), and mellow cuts poke through the woods here and there. None of them are particularly long, but that's OK. With lap time down to twenty minutes and no one in much of a hurry to ski off all the good snow, it's stress-free meadow skipping all day long. A few weeks ago it wouldn't have been the same picture, as New England's brutal fog/thaw had cut the trail count down to 3 in only 36 hours, leading to some serious nail-biting decisions about snowmaking, which the mountain has to rent equipment for

Timing is everything in skiing, and we hit it good. Any and all cliffs and drops are open to hit, and so is the T-bar line when the lift isn't running. The fall line has a good pitch to it, while the greens and blues oscillate to the sides of the hill, they all lead you back to the double chair line with nary another soul in line.

Fans of Vermont's Magic Mountain will find themselves right at home here. There is the same modest infrastructure, community feel, open terrain, and yes, one double chair that runs the whole show. Much the same as Magic Mountain's co-op model, Mt. Abram has been exploring the potential of a more community focused business model with the help of Mountain Riders' Alliance. A few West Coast transplants have called this section of deep woods Maine home for the winter, getting a feel for how a ski area actually operates while exploring the potential for it to be a leader in environmental sustainability and community-focused success.

At the end of the day, we saddle up at the bar alongside a relaxed local crowd and slosh down a few pints of absolutely delicious Mt. Abram Ale, a creamy smooth amber/red ale brewed in Portland. A gentle hulk of a man, Rick, delivers a crisp plate of nachos that we devour with home-made chili. We leave nothing less than satisfied.

Mt. Abram is a 90-minute drive from Portland, Maine off Route 26 in Greenwood, Maine. Mt. Abram is open Thursday-Sundays and all major holidays. 2013/2014 season passes are currently on sale from $98 for midweek passes and $490 for adult full season passes, with free skiing for the rest of the 2013 season for those who buy now.