Shawnee Peak is a labor of love

Resort owner has spent millions on improvements

Chet Homer, 60, calls himself steward of the mountain. Chet Homer, 60, calls himself steward of the mountain. (Fred Field/For The Globe)
By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / March 10, 2011

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BRIDGTON, Maine — The views are big league from the 1,900-foot summit.

Choose a trail and be treated to a frozen Moose Pond bisected by Route 302 below in Maine’s Lakes Region and rippling western landmarks including New Hampshire’s Mount Washington and Presidential Range.

“When I ski, I think I’m in a pretty cool place,’’ says Shawnee Peak owner Chet Homer. “I don’t think of myself as owning the mountain, but basically being a steward of the mountain and the people.”

The blue-jean wearing Homer, 60, bought Shawnee in 1994 while many of New England’s resorts were being gobbled up during a merger fever between S-K-I and Les Otten. Former executive vice president and director of Tom’s of Maine, Ocean National Bank chairman and co-owner of the AHL Portland Pirates from 1996 to 1998, the sports-loving skier played hockey in his youth at Belmont Hill School and Dartmouth (class of ’73). He holds an MBA from Northeastern and is a University System of New Hampshire Trustee.

“I decided I just wanted to be my own boss and thought it would be interesting to own a sport and recreation type of business,’’ he said.

Originally called Pleasant Mountain, the area opened with a rope tow in 1938. In some 73 years of operation, the mountain with a 1,300-foot vertical drop has survived ownership changes, financial hurdles, bad winters, a name change, and a base lodge fire. Home to Maine’s first T-bar and chairlift both installed in the early 1950s, the slopes were also part of the freestyle skiing movement in the mid-1970s that launched several careers, including that of 1992 Canadian Olympic mogul skier Lee Lee Morrison-Henry and ski movie maker Greg Stump, the man behind the 1988 extreme classic “Blizzard of Aahhh’s.’’

About 2 1/2 hours north of Boston via 95, less than an hour from Portland, Maine, and maybe a half-hour from North Conway, N.H., Shawnee ($56 weekend adult lift tickets and a menu of discounts) largely attracts families from Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.

According to Homer, during vacation weeks, holidays and weekends about 60 percent of skiers and riders are from outside Maine with approximately half from the Bay State.

A night skiing venue, the mountain augments the midweek morning doldrums by catering to afternoon school racing programs and weekly adult recreational race leagues under the lights. Shawnee is folksy and unpretentious like a plaid woolen shirt. With two modest base lodges, the 40 trails served by four fixed grip lifts and a moving carpet progress from a benign and secluded beginner area to large doses of intermediate runs.

There are wide open slopes like Jack Spratt, The Horn and The Main and off-the-beaten paths like Exit 48, Beeline and T-Line, where the T-bar used to run. Glade pockets and a handful of steeps mix it up. Sunset Boulevard, a higher end beginner trail off the summit, opened two years ago and is a pathway to piecing together runs for varying abilities. Freestylers hit the easy-to-spot terrain park outside the base lodge deck and spirited Blizzard’s Pub.

The unhurried Sunnyside Triple serves the under-the-radar East side with its diversity of trails such as Yee Haw, Upper Appalachian, Wizard and Tycoon, and like the main area contains flattish connector trails — snowboarders take note — for traversing.

“The East still has that feeling of being a little more isolated, of having that different feel,’’ says Ed Rock, Shawnee’s general manager since 1982 and one of several long-timers with more than 25 years at the mountain. “People start to gravitate to it at certain times. When we first starting making snow here, everything was centered [around the main area]. Now we like to have the East area open by Christmas.’’

Homer invested millions during his tenure — three fixed grip lifts were replaced, several trails cut, condos and chalets started to appear in 2006, and a surface carpet lift was added in 2005 with another planned next winter. He’s proud of the charity Moonlight Challenge started in 1995 that’s raised more than $500,000 for children with life-threatening illnesses at Camp Sunshine.

Though mundane annual capital expenditures aren’t that exciting to the average skier, frequent little steps over time account for Shawnee’s advancement in snowmaking and grooming.

In December, the ribbon was cut on a new Summit Triple Chair, part of a million dollar investment including more snowmaking.

The lift replaces a slow-moving chair from 1984 that frustrated many skiers and snowboarders. The new ride features a conveyor loading system (another Maine first) where skiers slide onto a moving belt before sitting in the chair. The lift shaves about three minutes off the formerly 11 1/2-minute ride.

Still, it’s no high-speed detachable. Homer says it doesn’t make economic sense to spend $4.5 million on a detachable lift and many season pass-holders told him it would change the character of the mountain.

Like retired actuary Mike McSally of Greenland, N.H., who skis Shawnee with his family, including two children ages 10 and 13. He’s been skiing there longer than Homer’s owned it.

“It’s just not practical for a mountain this size,’’ he said.

Shawnee also doesn’t have snow tubing, a popular ski area sideshow at many family-centric places.

“We don’t have a large space with a flat run-off at the base of the mountain,’’ he said. “Some areas build a snow ramp but we’ve chosen not to worry about that liability.’’

Last week a yurt — a circular nomadic-style tent — went up outside the base lodge, drawing attention to a few upcoming on-mountain yurts scheduled to open Memorial Day with basic furnishings for overnights by hikers and next winter including skiers and snowshoers.

“I think Shawnee is positioned well,’’ said Homer. “I think we’re overlooked by many people but once they get here it’s a better experience than they thought.’’

Spoken like a steward.