CAMDEN — Call it what you will — the death trap, evil torture device, or the ride to the stars — but the Big T at the Camden Snow Bowl holds special significance for everyone who loves to ski Ragged Mountain. It scares the heck out of many snowboarders and beginner skiers, but even more boarders and skiers have loved it for the past 48 years, every bump and hollow along the 10 minute haul to Tower 17.
The Big T is getting dismantled next week, and on Sunday, March 16, there will be a celebration in its honor. Everyone is invited, and complimentary tickets will be available at the ticket desk from 3 to 4 p.m.
“I’ll miss it, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it,” said Snow Bowl Facilities Manager William Fitzcharles (Fitzy). “It’s a sound lift, and it’s pretty basic, with no relay logic or computer.”
The Big T is coming down to make way for a three-person chairlift, all part of the major mountain improvements that, after many years of planning and fundraising, are now coming to fruition.
In November 2013, Camden citizens overwhelmingly agreed to spend $2 million on Snow Bowl upgrades, their contribution to a $6.5 million Ragged Mountain Recreation Area overhaul. Work begins as soon as the Snow Bowl closes, March 16. The next day, forestry equipment is due to begin cutting 15 acres of trees along the 4,083-foot long Big T trail, all in preparation for the installation of a three-person chairlift that will take the T-bar’s place.
Crews want to get the ground work under way while there is still snow and the ground frozen to keep from scarring the hill. Multiple projects within the larger project will be taking place: The Little T Bar will be dismantled, as well as the Big T, and the existing chairlift will be shortened in length and moved over to the area where the Little T now is.
“It’s all a big jigsaw puzzle,” said Fitzy, as a small group of people pored over plans in the lodge office. (See attached PDF for reconfiguration plans)
The goal of the mountain overhaul is to attract more skiers (downhill and Nordic) and boarders — up to 600 skiers per day — and the project includes laying new lift equipment, eventually building a new 8.500-square-foot lodge, and increasing snowmaking capacity for 80 percent coverage of the trails, in the novice area, as well as the top of the mountain.
The Big T has a long and colorful history with the Snow Bowl, whose very essence relies on strong community collaboration and volunteerism. Since 1967, the Big T has been running skiers almost to the summit of Ragged Mountain, where the views of Penobscot Bay, as well as westward toward inland hills, stretch for miles. It’s the view that distinguishes the Camden Snow Bowl from 99.9 percent of other ski areas along the eastern seaboard, being one of the very few that overlooks the ocean (there is a ski area on Cape Breton that also has Atlantic views and is sometimes in operation).
When the Big T is open, it means but one thing for skiers — the top of Ragged Mountain is open for business and the snow is likely to be great. Whether you love it or hate it, the Big T represents some of the best the Snow Bowl has to offer, and this weekend will be bittersweet as skiers will take their last rides on the only Snow Bowl equipment that transported skiers to the highest trails on the hill.
Its fans have loved every lump and hollow on the ride, no matter the conditions. Taking the Big T meant, in the sentiments of one longtime skier, slowing down, while still exercising your ski legs. Riding the T is different from sitting back in a chairlift: There is time to look at the rocks and trees, the way the mountain might curve and descend, and wonder about animal tracks that criss-cross through the snow. And, it’s warmer, especially on those winter days when the pierces through coats and scarves.
And, it is challenging.
Before the Snow Bowl’s grooming equipment grew in sophistication, the Big T could be a nonstop negotiation of the terrain. For those riding with little children between their legs, it was a balancing act that depended on strong thighs and quick reflexes. If you were lucky, you might make it to Tower 5 before sliding off.
“You have to keep your skis straight going up the hill,” said Stuart Young, a longtime employee and friend of the Camden Snow Bowl. “You have to stay awake and pay attention. With a chair, you just sit back and ride.”
For those riding next to little children, it was a constant battle to position the bar behind the knees, and woe to those who tumbled off, for it was imperative to swing skis and bodies quickly out of the way of oncoming traffic. Daring skiers who fell off would ski back down the trail right next to skiers going up the hill, and if ski patrollers saw that, forget it. You were in trouble.
Those who really got in trouble — if they were caught — were the restless souls who could not resist looping their skis wide on the trail, and cause the T-Bar cable to disengage from its track. If the T-bar shut down for an extended period, you knew why: Someone had skied out of the track, broken the T, and maintenance was forced to fix the system.
And as snow-boarding grew in popularity, the Big T became less popular. In order to successfully get up the mountain on a snowboard while riding a T-bar requires skill and agility, as boarders must contort their bodies sideways, and keep a balance. And with boarding representing a large chunk of revenue for all ski areas, T-bars lost more of their relevance.
But in the mid-1960s, the lift met a goal in a major Camden Snow Bowl upgrade, and that was to get skiers high up the hill.
The Big T was purchased in 1966 for $40,000 during a big mountain expansion, and thanks to a $62,500 grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, according to the Jack Williams, who wrote about the mountain’s history in his book, The Camden Snow Bowl, A Historical Document. That grant was combined with a matching $62,500 from local taxpayers, as the Snow Bowl embarked on a $125,000 upgrade project.
The fundraising effort was led by Camden citizens Ken Dickey, Tom Aylward and Orman Goodwin, Jr., and involved residents from others towns, including Rockland, making the drive regional in scope scope.
Hall T-Bar Company of Watertown, N.Y., sold the town the lift, and as work in summer 1966 progressed, bulldozers moved up the mountain while crews dynamited ledge near Tower 13. By fall, the Big T was in place and on Jan. 14, 1967, it ran for the first time, with minimal snow cover and at nine miles an hour, according to Williams.
Stuart Young’s mother, Dorothea, helped to sell tickets at the mountain. In the 1950s, finances were strained at the Snow Bowl and various civic organizations got involved to help it out. Dorothea was a member of the Camden Women’s Club, and for years, she would volunteer there to sell tickets.
March 16, 1969 was “Ken Bailey Day” at the Camden Snow Bowl. According to Jack Williams, in his book, The Camden Snow Bowl, a surprise reception was held that day for Ken, who was leaving the next day for service in the U.S. Army.
Ken was many things to the community, and was Camden’s first ever Parks and Recreation Director, hired for the job in 1986. He took over operations of the Camden Snow Bowl in 1987 and ran the mountain for several years, always an advocate for the Ragged Mountain Recreation Area. Ken died in July 2012.
When the Big T opened, tickets were sold for brief time out the side window of the T-bar shed. But soon after it opened, one of the Ts got caught going around the bottom and ripped right through the small station where the tickets were being sold. Ticket sellers tumbled out of the door, jumping away from the rampaging bar.
“From that day on, all the ticket people put on coats and sat outside selling tickets,” said Stuart.
On Sunday afternoon, skiers will ride the Big T for the last time, and by next December, if all goes as planned, they will be greeted by the new chairlift. The two T-bars are on the market — the Big T for $40,000, the Little T, $20,000 — about the same price for what they were purchased almost 50 years ago.
If there is no interest in buying them by any other mountains, or backyard ski operators, they will be pieced out. In any event, the towers will be leaving Ragged Mountain, and an era will come to a close. But as Stuart Young observed, it’s just change.
“And they say change is good, isn’t it?” he said.
And as one well seasoned skier said, no, he wasn’t going to miss the Big T so much.
“I’m looking forward to the Big Three.”
Editorial Director Lynda Clancy can be reached at email@example.com; 706-6657.