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Sunday River remains a gem – Boston Herald

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In the mid to late 1970s, when snowmaking was in its infancy, I was a weekend skier based out of Jackson, New Hampshire.

Those were the days (at the risk of sounding like we walked to the ski trail barefoot) when we’d all ski days with mud patches and grass sticking through and declare it a great day, with all sincerity. Perspective made us see perfect days in less than perfection back then.

But even with that kind of acceptance of challenging conditions, and as high an elevation as that town sits, back in that era, when Mother Nature was sometimes a bit rude (like she’s been acting this season), it wasn’t unusual to find no trails to ski anywhere.

Except one magical spot. Back then, when things looked grim on our home slopes, my dad knew just what to do: We’d pack the gear in the car, point the car north and take the 45-minute or so trip to the one place we could almost always count on finding snow: Sunday River (www.sunday river.com).

Back then, the River was just a baby: Barker Mountain was very new (it debuted in 1971 with one chair), nothing like the seven-peak expanse of trail choices it is today.

But it had the new cool thing: snowmaking. Sunday River was the first ski area in Maine to install it and has, since then, been both a pioneer and innovator in snowmaking.

I didn’t think much about snowmaking back then: I just knew on the rough ski days, we could almost always find our happy place (in skiable snow) at the River.

This winter, with the goal of heading up to check out the brand new Jordan 8 bubble chair, I rolled into Maine thinking: Why am I coming here? It had been raining; the temperature and humidity hadn’t been optimal for snowmaking at most spots.

Would I even be able to ski? I checked into the Jordan Grand, met up with friends I’d be spending those ski days with and savored a great dinner, thinking at least I’ll have that.

I woke up the next morning to a surprise: The rain had shifted to snow and the world outside my window was blanketed in white. But as a lifelong skier, I knew the truth: even a surprise storm of 8 inches of snow wasn’t going to make things better without a solid base. My friends and I agreed: We’d take a run and if it was terrible, we’d enjoy spa time, dining and just hanging out.

First turns on the first run, it all came back to me: Sunday River is the place you can almost always count on great snow.

True, the trail count was limited, but that’s by design. Sunday River has chosen to focus on some fun ways down on each of their peaks and built up a solid, dependable base on those trails, making it the perfect landing spot for all that fresh snow.

Since it was a weekday, there were no big crowds on the limited trails. We whooped and laughed, shocked and thrilled at the lovely, soft and forgiving snow below our skis.

“It’s science and art all in one!” I said to my friends at the end of our first lovely run.

We stuck to blues – it can be a little tougher to make top quality snow on more advanced terrain, but as we cruised the amazing conditions where we could ski, I noticed plenty of snow blowing on the steeper spots. They’ll be open soon, I thought.

The River has made some smart improvements in recent years too. First, that new lift, an innovation that both lures skiers to access some of the lesser used terrain in Oz and Jordan Bowl Peaks (now known at the “Western Reserve”) and also makes your ski day more comfy.

They lay claim to it being – in their words –  “one of the most advanced chairlifts in the world, and the fastest 8-person chairlift in North America” with ergonomic heated seats, weather blocking bubbles (you pull them down when you want them; leave them up on those goggle tan days) and all in the bright Sunday River themed red.

They also improved the one thing that irked me about today’s River: The Kansas Trail. A must-use for accessing much of the resort, it was long a challenge because of flatness, particularly for snowboarders. The River team invested in regrading it. Now, you cruise along like it’s nothing. Game changer.

We cruised along, enjoying trails like Excalibur and Lollapalooza; nothing we’d ever spin out of speed on, but trails steep enough and lovely enough to make a ski day great.

The next morning, we didn’t have to worry: We knew a great ski day – even in this time of Mother Nature rudeness – was waiting for us.

Could it have been worse on a busy weekend? Of course; less crowds mean less skiing off potential. But thanks to good timing and the Sunday River finesse, we skied those days with joy.

What was true in the 1970s is still true today. While most other ski areas now have snowmaking, there’s some magic in the air at Sunday River. Next time I’m worried, I’ll follow my dad’s lead and point that car toward Bethel and its centerpiece: Sunday River.

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