Down East contributor Adrienne Perron on Big Moose Mountain

This Classic Maine Mountain Should Be a Skiers’ Paradise

Instead, years of ownership issues, deteriorating infrastructure, and unrealized ambitions have reduced Big Moose to a shadow of its former self. Can anyone give the old resort a much-needed lift?

By Adrienne Perron
Photos by Dave Waddell
From our February 2024 issue

Climbing Big Moose Mountain on backcountry skis, tromping through fresh snow toward the 3,150-foot summit, the sensation of solitude was as wonderful as it was strange. Weekend skiing typically means packed lodges, lift lines, and crowded slopes. Here, the absence of all that commotion felt almost eerie. Big Moose boasts the fourth-most vertical drop of any Maine ski area, behind only Sugarloaf, Sunday River, and Saddleback. Farther north than any of the major New England ski resorts, it gets reliable drops of snow. And it yields expansive views of nearby Moosehead Lake, vast swaths of evergreen forest, and the distant white colossus of Katahdin. So where is everybody?

Situated between the lakefront towns of Greenville and Rockwood, the ski area debuted in late December of 1963 to a degree of fanfare, with Governor John Reed attending the dedication ceremony at what was then called Big Squaw. (The state changed the mountain’s name to Big Moose in 2000, due to a history of derogatory uses of the word “squaw,” and though the resort’s owner hasn’t updated the name of his property accordingly, Down East follows the state’s example.) Initially, a lone T-bar serviced only a handful of runs that traversed the lower half of the mountain, but the resort soon outgrew its original footprint. In 1967, a new chairlift started carrying skiers to the summit, and a new hotel and a lodge for the upper mountain followed shortly behind. But the upstart operation lost momentum over the ensuing decades, churning through multiple owners, none of whom could figure out how to turn a profit. In 2004, the summit chairlift stopped running. Ever since, lift access has been limited to the lower mountain.

Now, from the top of the lower lift, more than 1,000 vertical feet of leg-burning climbing are required to reach the summit. In terms of elevation gain, that’s roughly the equivalent of driving up Acadia National Park’s Cadillac Mountain auto road. Consequently, the area around the peak has become quasi backcountry for people who like to earn their turns (on the long hoof up, I only passed two other skiers on their way down). But it’s not just these upper reaches that feel deserted. Even down at the bottom, lift attendants send lots of empty chairs up the mountain.

Anyone who spent days at Big Moose back in the ’80s and ’90s will remember bustling slopes — the mountain is only a few minutes more of a drive from Portland than Sugarloaf is, and at just over an hour from the Quebec border, it also used to catch lots of French Canadian visitors. This relatively recent quiet that has set in on the mountain can seem downright blissful when you’re carving a path through untracked snow, but the quiet isn’t sustainable. The ski area relies on tourism, and so does the surrounding region. For years, there have been rumblings about new investors developing a four-season resort, but plans seem to have a way of falling apart. Locals, meanwhile, have been left wondering if Big Moose can regain its old stature — or at least manage to keep hobbling along.

The ownership shuffle at Big Moose began in 1970, when the original proprietors sold the 1,200-acre property to Scott Paper Company. After a few years — and a reported hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses — Scott repaid government-backed loans by transferring ownership of Big Moose to the state, which then leased the resort to private operators. In the mid-’80s, the state offloaded the mountain to a private group that proceeded to file for bankruptcy a few years later. Eventually, it wound up back with the state. The constant changing of hands meant that no long-term vision was ever implemented, and investment in existing operations was scant. In 1995, James Confalone bought the resort from the state for $550,000. Terms of the deal stipulated that his company would invest in physical improvements and maintain existing trails and lifts for the public to enjoy.

a chair from Big Moose Mountain's defunct upper lift
A chair from the defunct upper lift

Confalone had been an Eastern Air Lines pilot, but he turned himself into something of a serial entrepreneur. He lived in New Hampshire and south Florida, and in the latter, he has owned six car dealerships, a car wash, an aviation-fuel provider, and a small airline, Chalk’s Ocean Airways, that flew between Florida and the Bahamas. Up at Big Moose, Confalone proved unwilling or unable to put money into maintenance, let alone upgrades. In 2001, the upper lodge and the hotel, already dilapidated, shuttered for good. In 2004, the summit lift closed. The reason: four people were injured when one of the chairs slid backward along the cable, crashed into the trailing chair, then fell 15 feet to the ground.

A year later, another accident at one of Confalone’s businesses had tragic consequences. A Chalk’s Ocean Airways flight had just taken off when one of the plane’s wings ripped away. In the resulting crash, just off Miami Beach, all 18 passengers and two crew members died. The company settled with families of the victims for $51 million, and an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board identified a preventable maintenance failure — stress cracks in the metal had either been missed or ignored — as the cause of the crash. Chalk’s flew its last flight in 2007. Three years later, Confalone shuttered Big Moose.

In 2010, Amy Lane was out to dinner in Rockwood on New Year’s Eve when she overheard other locals talking about the mountain. The owner was tapped out, they said, and Big Moose wasn’t going to reopen. Lane, though, was immediately struck by an idea. She and her husband, Steve, had been leading a nonprofit snowmobile club for a decade, keeping the area’s trails cut and cleared in the off-season and grooming them in the winter. Why couldn’t a similar nonprofit model work for the ski mountain?

Lane, a fourth-generation resident of the Moosehead region, has been skiing at Big Moose since she was a kid — she was 35 years old when the mountain shut down, and until then, she had never skied anywhere else. “If you grew up here, this mountain is part of you,” she says. Now, she’s president of the nonprofit Friends of the Mountain, which reestablished the ski area’s state operating license, cut back overgrown trails on the lower mountain, and restored heat and electricity to the base lodge before reopening the lower mountain in 2013.

For the past decade, Lane’s group has leased Big Moose from Confalone for $1 per year. In that time, thousands of volunteers and donors have assisted with various projects, from putting in a beginner lift to adding snowmaking equipment to installing a $100,000 chairlift drive system to keep the lower lift working. Last year, Friends of the Mountain cleared four trails on the top half of the mountain so that skiers could, for a fee, be driven up by a snowcat. Lane, who otherwise keeps plenty busy as the owner of Rockwood’s Gray Ghost Camps, never expected the nonprofit organization would have to sustain the mountain for so long. “Our group would be happy to step aside if a real buyer came in,” she says. “But until then, nobody will do this if it’s not us.”

The first time Perry Williams visited Big Moose, in May of 2018, he was immediately struck by the potential for a four-season resort. A real-estate developer who lives on the midcoast, Williams had previously undertaken a few other hospitality projects: a condo development at Sugarloaf, plus a sporting camp and a collection of lakefront rental cabins in Rangeley. After the slopes at the Rangeley area’s Saddleback Mountain closed, in 2015, he worked as a consultant for an Australian investment group that attempted, unsuccessfully, to buy the mountain. (Later, police in Australia arrested the group’s CEO on fraud charges.) Two months after he first laid eyes on Big Moose, Williams and a business partner, Steve Malcolm, formed Big Lake Development Co. to purchase it.

For Confalone, the ski area had meanwhile grown into an even bigger headache. In 2016, the state filed a lawsuit alleging that his company, Moosehead Mountain Resort Inc., had failed to abide by the requirement that it maintain and improve the ski area for public use and that Confalone had illegally harvested timber on the property to help repay more than $4 million in loans. (It’s not the first time he’s been accused of illegal deforestation — in the 1980s, he was cited in Florida for downing 160 protected mangroves.) In 2020, the Maine Superior Court ordered Confalone to restore the mountain to the condition it was in prior to his purchase of it. In 2022, the court ordered he deposit $3.8 million into an escrow account to pay for the work. Confalone appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, and as of press time, a ruling had not yet been reached. Asked to answer questions for this story, Confalone said that he felt it would be inappropriate to comment before the court comes to a decision.

Williams’s effort to purchase Big Moose instilled a sense of hope in the community, and until late 2022, news outlets around the state were reporting that Big Lake Development Co. was on track to pull off a deal. At the time, Williams’s plans for year-round recreation included a new summit lift, upgraded snowmaking, a new hotel and base lodge, hiking and biking trails, nearly 500 condo units, a brewpub, a zipline, and a marina. Confalone had agreed to sell for about $4 million, according to Williams. Then, Big Lake Development abruptly withdrew from the agreement. Williams blames his group’s decision on high rates of inflation — he says the rising cost of steel, for instance, pushed the price tag for a new summit chairlift from $6 million to $10 million. He didn’t want to abandon the plans entirely, but he needed to scale back his ambitions.

From left: warming up by a firepit outside the base lodge; the hotel at Big Moose has fallen into deep disrepair in the more than 20 years since it closed.

The marina, zipline, brewpub, and other projects have been put on hold, in favor of focusing on elements more immediately essential to operating the ski area, such as the summit lift, high-speed internet, and new septic and water-supply systems. Building condos, too, remains part of the plan. Selling them would provide an important source of revenue. “You can’t pay for the cost of a chairlift just with lift tickets,” Williams says.

This time around, he adds, Big Lake Development has more of its ducks in a row. Requisite wildlife- and wetland-impact studies are done, and the company received its development permit from the state’s Land Use Planning Commission. With that permit in hand, Williams thinks he’ll have better luck attracting additional investors, which he hopes could help to accomplish more of his vision faster. No part of the plan, he says, is expendable. Collectively, each element adds up to a financially viable future for the mountain. “We don’t want it to be Disneyland,” he adds. “We just want it to be Big Moose.”

Not everyone is a believer. John Willard owns The Birches Resort, in Rockwood, and helps lead the Moosehead Region Futures Committee, a citizen group advocating for development that’s friendly to outdoor recreation and tourism. He wasn’t surprised when Big Lake Development stepped away from the Big Moose deal. “The developer was using smoke and mirrors,” Willard says. “He didn’t have the money and we had many unanswered questions.” Workforce housing was a particular point of concern among his group’s members. The popularity of Airbnb and other short-term rental services has already cut into the stock of affordable housing, and Big Moose would need 150 to 200 year-round employees. (Presently, Williams says, building workforce housing at the mountain is a long-term goal.)

Margarita Contreni, president of the Moosehead Lake Region Economic Development Corporation, which advises prospective business owners and investors in the area, worries whether local infrastructure is ready to absorb more visitors if Big Moose starts drawing larger crowds. “An influx of people impacts things like water and sewer and parking in town,” she says. “You need to coordinate with the community to offset any challenges.”

But in the big picture, Contreni believes a revived Big Moose would be a boon. In addition to skiing bringing more tourism dollars, she hopes the expanded employment base would stabilize or even grow the population and attract younger families — since the 1980s, Greenville’s population has fallen from about 1,900 to 1,400 and K–12 school enrollment has dropped from more than 450 to fewer than 200 students. Despite the skepticism and concerns circulating in the community, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone opposed to seeing new life breathed into Big Moose. “Kind of like Saddleback,” Willard says. “They got their act together and it helped the town of Rangeley.”

Saddleback, though it’s two and a half hours away, has become something of a buzzword around Greenville and Rockwood. The Saddleback ski area closed in 2015 after its owners couldn’t pull together funding for a lift replacement, and the local economy muddled through quiet winter after quiet winter. Then, in 2020, a Boston-based investment group purchased the resort and hired Andy Shepard, who had spearheaded the redevelopment of several other downhill and Nordic ski areas around Maine, to oversee the reopening. In less than a year, Saddleback was up and running, with a new lift and a renovated base lodge. Since then, it has added two new lifts, a mid-mountain lodge, and slopeside housing for up to 70 employees. The project has cost about $30 million so far, Shepard says, and additional infrastructure and residential development will probably cost another $30 million.

Shepard, who retired from his role as Saddleback CEO in 2022 and remains involved at the resort part-time, thinks Big Moose has the potential for similar success, but he’s dubious about the approach. For starters, the estimated cost of the scaled-back project stands at $130 million, more than double what’s projected at Saddleback. Plus, he sees the lack of workforce housing as a potentially fatal flaw. “Greenville doesn’t have the population to service the scale of the resort that they are talking about,” Shepard says. “They need to make sure employees are part of the business model too.”

Then, the other challenge — one he’s faced with past projects — is gaining the public’s trust that the ski area won’t up and close again, especially after Big Lake Development already pulled out of the previous deal. “With things like condos and season passes,” Shepard says, “will people make those investments if they don’t trust that this is going to work?”

I’ve been skiing at Big Moose almost every winter since I was eight. Childhood photos of me on the snowy mountain, backdropped by Moosehead Lake, line the walls of my family’s camp, in Rockwood. My parents remember the days, before my time, when the mountain was lively. For them, the contrast with the present is stark.

a family on the ski lift

On my final afternoon at Big Moose last season, Amy Lane rode the chairlift with me. She greeted the lift operators and some ski patrollers, and she pointed out that the father and daughter on the chair in front of us were locals and avid Big Moose skiers. Having her as a companion amplified the already-strong small-town vibe. The thought that this type of operation isn’t sustainable in the long run was more than a little saddening. But then again, the mountain feels too beautiful not to be shared with more people.

As of late last year, Big Lake Development was still working to secure more funding, according to Williams. He hasn’t publicly promoted the effort as much this time around, so as not to disappoint people if the plans fall through again. “I won’t know until the money is in the bank,” he says.

After one more run down the Rip Gorge Trail, a nice, long cruiser under the lift, a small part of me was fearful that Big Moose wouldn’t be there to ski next winter. But then, by early December, snow was accumulating on the slopes, passes were for sale, and the lower lift was going through its annual inspection. Over the intervening months, my last view of Big Moose had been etched in my mind: the mountain getting smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror until it was gone. Now, though, there was once again a reason to keep looking forward.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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