RANGELEY, Maine — With just ten days before Christmas and the fate of the Saddleback ski area still unknown, some Rangeley Lakes business owners' hopes are fading that there will be a robust winter tourist season this year. Compounding their worries is the warm weather and lack of ice and snow.
Both challenges have cast a pall over Maine's western mountains.
Winter can sometimes be a little fickle in December and even January. Connie Russell can remember times when Rangeley Lake hasn't been frozen solid in time for the local Snodeo.
So far this year, only a few local ponds have any ice on them. There's no snow on the ground. And Russell's vacation rental business is off to a slow start.
"It's too warm," she says. "I mean 33 degrees on my car coming in this morning. Obviously, it's late for the big late to be starting to freeze over and snowmobilers look for that because it's like a highway from Rangeley to Oquossoc on this lake."
Russell says snowmobilers — and skiers — make up a big part of her business and Rangeley's winter economy, which typically hums in this town of about 1,600. But because the Saddleback ski area is apparently in negotiations with a possible buyer and has yet to announce that it will open for the season, Russell has only managed to rent one condo to a ski family so far. Normally, by now, she says she'd have rented at least 20.
"I've got two messages this morning from people wanting to come up and saying, 'Have you heard anything about Saddleback? We'd like to come up for a week in February,'" she says. "You know, it's affecting my business but it's affecting the way the whole town appears to the outsiders who love to come up here and love the area."
Just up the street, at the Alpine Shop, Sandy McDavitt says she put the brakes on winter orders and even let some staff go when she found out that Saddleback's future was up in the air. McDavitt sells winter apparel, jewelry and other gifts.
"In August, when I went to the ski shows the vendors told me, you know, they were giving me their condolences — 'I'm really sorry to hear about Saddleback,'" she says. "And I said, 'Well, what do you know?' And they said, 'Well, Saddleback didn't place any orders with us.' I said, 'OK, that's all I need to know.'"
McDavitt, who just took over the business from her father-in-law in June, says she's prepared to do some belt tightening and make the most of a season without Saddleback if the resort doesn't open. In the meantime, she says what the Rangeley Lakes Region really needs is a deep freeze.
"I guess, like everybody, I'm sort of happy that I'm not putting on my down parka everyday and you know, I can keep the heat from turning on all the time, but we really need snow to survive and we need cold weather," she says. "If we don't get snow, at least if it's really cold, then we'll get ice and ice will freeze the lakes, the ponds will freeze. We'll have other activities to do. We really need some cold."
"It's gonna be cold and then we're gonna have snow. But right now, it's late," says Karen Ogulnick, executive director of the Rangeley Lakes Chamber of Commerce. She says she'd rather not be looking out the window and seeing puddles in the parking lot and open water on the lake just beyond it.
But she says she's optimistic. Of the two challenges confronting this tourist-dependent region, Ogulnick is more concerned about the weather than whether Saddleback will open for the season.
"I still believe that, you know, there will be a mountain with skiing this winter," she says. "Here."
The general manager of Saddleback says he also expects to have some positive news in a couple of days. But McDavitt remains skeptical that a new owner could manage to get the mountain up and running for the season, given the lack of snow. She says if someone does pull that off, it would be the best Christmas present ever.