Maine's Western Mountains | Winter's Soul
But it’s not all woods and water up here. Rangeley’s downtown is peppered with shops carrying a mind-boggling assortment of moosey merchandise, plus a movie theater, a bowling alley, and a handful of inns and restaurants. I’d be remiss if I didn’t dish on my favorite lunch spot, Thai Blossom Express, owned by Sam Sriweawnetr, a genuine hero. As a chef for U.S. embassy staffers in Iran in 1979, he hid five Americans in a house in Tehran until Canadian officials could arrive to smuggle them to freedom; he himself then spent more than a year in hiding, eventually escaping to the United States. He opened an acclaimed restaurant in Boston, then came to Maine.
Small-town kindness and camaraderie are pervasive here. It’s exemplified by the free loaner skates available at Ecopelagicon for use on adjacent Haley Pond, and by the winter sporting events and wingdings brightening the seasonal calendar. “In little towns like Rangeley, the community’s soul is in the school, and Class D high-school basketball games are more heated than any Class A game,” says Rob Welch, owner of the Pleasant Street Inn. One of his favorite events is the annual New England Pond Hockey Festival (set for February 3-5 this season; details at newenglandpondhockey.com). “We have opening ceremonies, and retired Boston Bruins have even played in it,” Welch explains. Another is “Diva Night,” a midwinter cabin-fever reliever of a talent show (January 27-28 this season, at Moose Alley, a downtown bowling and entertainment center; there’s a regular summer show, also). “When ‘Patsy Cline’ shows up in a red dress and sings,” he says, “mouths hit the floor–you’re ready to say, ‘Oh my God, it is Patsy Cline.'”
Rangeley’s heritage is peppered with sports and rusticators, anglers and hunters: names such as Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby, the state’s first licensed Maine Guide; taxidermist and fly-tier Herb Welch; and Carrie Stevens, who earned national renown for her fishing prowess and original fly patterns. Even in winter, there’s no escaping it. The trails etching Saddleback’s face are named for famous fishing flies, such as “Grey Ghost,” “Green Weaver,” and “Blue Devil.”
Once touted as the “Vail of the East,” Saddleback Maine languished during an extended battle over development. For 20 years, this spectacular chunk of real estate, just east of Rangeley, went virtually untouched. Now it’s slowly modernizing, replacing T-bars with chairlifts, updating base facilities, and selectively cutting massive glades, while preserving its sinewy trails, edge-of-the-wilderness experience, and head-swiveling views over the frozen expanse of the Rangeley Lakes to New Hampshire’s distant Presidential Range. Those vistas slay me every time I come here, especially on one of those days after a storm, when the sun’s brilliance makes me squint; when evergreen branches are laden with snow and the runty summit trees are rimed with ice.
When shadows fall long, most folks retire to the warmth of woodstove or fireplace, content to swap tales, swig beer, and watch the rosy shades of dusk surrender to the inky nightfall. But if it’s clear, I prefer to bundle up, head into the hushed darkness, and gaze beyond the starlight canopy into the soul of a New England winter’s night.
For a slide show of additional photos of Maine’s western mountain region, visit: YankeeMagazine.com/more