Family-friendly Shawnee Peak offers challenge community close to home.
On a sunny Saturday in early March, the drive from my home in Yarmouth to Shawnee Peak takes just over an hour, a leisurely and scenic cruise through Western Maine that skirts several of the region’s large lakes. From the quaint town of Bridgton, the route continues for a few bucolic miles, finally crossing over Moose Pond, where Pleasant Mountain and Shawnee’s snow-covered trails come into view. The sight may not be quite as dramatic as Sugarloaf ’s “oh my gosh” corner on Route 27. But with a 1,300-foot vertical drop, 40 trails, seven glades, and three terrain parks, Shawnee Peak offers plenty of challenging skiing much closer to Greater Portland—just one reason its loyal fans claim it as their hometown ski mountain.
“It’s so easy to have a great day of skiing without upending your entire weekend,” says Colby Wallace, who has been coming to Shawnee with his wife, Katy, and their sons, William and Carter, for six years. “We’ll try other mountains throughout the winter, but we really like Shawnee,” says Katy, who along with her husband is an attorney with Bernstein Shur in Portland. “We even come up in the summer and hike the trails that we ski in the winter.”
Arriving at the mountain to meet the Wallaces and two other families who gather there most Sundays during ski season, one of the first skiers I see is a young boy, pole-less, gliding confidently down the trail with a green stuffed toy tucked under his arm. It’s eight-year-old Carter Wallace and his companion is Elliott the dragon from the Disney film Pete’s Dragon. That their son can ski so comfortably solo is one of several factors that keep the Wallaces coming back to Shawnee. “Letting our kids have safe freedom is the best; they don’t get enough of that these days,” says Colby.
Carter and his older brother, William, are one- third of a pack of young skiers that includes Addison and Samara Lanoue, and Risa and Zak Sanders. Their parents all connected at the mountain through the kids, although two of the dads, Chris Lanoue and Patrick Sanders, knew each other from their work as emergency room physicians. “Now the kids look forward to every weekend seeing these friends they don’t really see much through the rest of the year,” says Katy. “Winter is their season, and their time to enjoy each other.”
The three families meet at Shawnee Peak early on Sunday mornings—the Wallaces from South Portland, the Lanoue and Sanders families from Scarborough—claiming a couple of tables in the cozy base lodge with coolers and backpacks. The parents and the older children ski while some of the younger ones take ski lessons until midday. The group then gathers in the lodge for a communal lunch before hitting the slopes again for the afternoon. Raw veggies, almonds, granola, Pringles chips, and fruit are set out for all to share. Liz Lanoue makes a version of the Amato’s Italian—a longstanding tradition in her family. “Every Saturday night I slice the meat, line up the bread and make the sandwiches— it’s a Maine thing,” she says. “If we ski all day and don’t complain we can occasionally get a treat from the snackbar or donut shack,” says 14-year-old Risa Sanders.
Chatting with the kids as they eat lunch, I learn that they all have nicknames. Risa, a snowboarder, is Goofyside, or Funny Cide (the name of the horse that won the Kentucky Derby the year she was born). Her brother, 11-year-old Zak, is Mogul Moose, Human Maps (for his knowledge of the ski trails), or Biebs (because he dyed his hair blond, like Justin Bieber). Samara Lanoue, 9, is Dimples; left-handed Addison, 13, is Southpaw; William, 11, is Braveheart; and Carter is Puppy, “because I love dogs,” he says. Having grown up together at Shawnee Peak, the group is close knit, and any teasing is good-natured. After lunch, they’ll “ski in a giant pack,” says Chris Lanoue. While Shawnee includes the smaller East Lodge on the other side of the mountain, a mile down the road from the main entrance—the resort’s compact size makes it hard to get lost. “It’s a small enough mountain that the kids have independence, yet we are close enough to see and watch them,” says Patrick Sanders. There is also enough challenge and variety among the terrain to keep the experts in the group happy. “The runs are enjoyable even when you’ve done them thousands of times,” says Sanders, the only one of the adults who snowboards instead of skis.
All three sets of parents praise Shawnee Peak for the resort’s commitment to and support of families. “The mountain has given us what we wanted in terms of our kids learning to ski,” says Liz Lanoue, a former ski instructor. “It gives us protected time with our kids; it gives us adult time in the morning. The kids have a lot of autonomy, and it’s enhanced how we spend our winter weekends as a family.” The parents also point out how well the resort is maintained and updated. Over the past three seasons, the base lodge has been renovated and expanded and the rental shop received a complete overhaul with all new equipment. This year, updates include the purchase of a new winch-cat snowgroomer and adding a second surface lift. “Every summer, they seem to do some gigantic capital improvement—a new chairlift, new snow guns,” says Colby Wallace, who also touts the skills of Shawnee’s groomers.
“We invest back into the mountain every year,” says Geoff Homer, showing me around the base lodge. The Homer family bought Shawnee Peak in 1994, and the ski resort celebrates its eightieth anniversary in 2018. “I can count five in New England that are family-owned,” says Homer with obvious pride. “My father, Chet, and I are here every weekend, in the lift lines talking with people. We’re on a first-name basis with most of our season pass-holders, and what’s unique is that from a decision-making standpoint, we can solve problems as they happen.” For example, when Chris Lanoue injured his knee shortly before ski season in 2014, he was able to roll over the pass he had already purchased to the next year. “When you call them with a problem, they respond in a very commonsense way,” Lanoue says. “They are small and nimble enough to make those things possible.”
Shawnee Peak also has the distinction of the largest night-skiing operations in New England, keeping 19 lighted trails open Mondays through Saturdays and holiday Sundays. On Wednesday and Thursday nights, teams of adult skiers compete in the Racing with the Moon corporate race league, followed by aprés-ski festivities in Shawnee’s Blizzard’s Pub. Among the season-pass options are a night pass and a Sunday-only pass. “Sunday sometimes feels like a weekday because the lift lines are not that long,” says Chris Lanoue. “It’s primarily a daytrip mountain,” says Geoff Homer. “But what we’ve seen in the past five to eight years is that some families who have nearby lake houses have converted them to year-round so they can use them during ski season.” In an effort to draw more people to Shawnee Peak in the summertime, Homer launched a series of mountaintop lobster bakes in 2016. “It’s gorgeous up there. You can see Portland, the ocean, and the sunset,” he says.
It is winter, however, that remains primetime at Shawnee Peak for the Lanoue, Sanders, and Wallace families. “Shawnee is our second home,” says Julie Sanders. “Our kids have grown up on the mountain and we’ve made some really great friendships along the way.” This year, her family and the Lanoues will spend February school vacation skiing in Utah, exploring new and unfamiliar terrain, but for the rest of the ski season, they’ll spend Sundays at Shawnee Peak on trails they know by heart, close to home.