If you love the idea of cross-country skiing or snowshoeing through a snowy forest, stoking a wood stove at midnight, and eating great meals in good company around long wooden tables, then consider a winter adventure in northern Maine.
The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) operates backcountry lodges in the Moosehead Lake region of Maine, near Greenville. In winter, visitors reach the lodges by skiing in, and snowshoeing is also popular on nearby trails. The trip is ideal for those who are moderately athletic, game to test their cross-country or snowshoeing skills, and not averse to extreme winter weather.
If you're sociable by nature, you'll find your fill of community and conversation at the communal dinner tables. If you tend toward the solitary, that too is easily found in the private cabins and big wilderness of Maine.
My companion and I set off for the lodges from Portland, Maine's biggest city, in the midst of a nor'easter. The 240km car trip took five hours due to the storm. We arrived in whiteout conditions at the AMC's winter carpark, where our luggage was picked up by friendly AMC staff on snowmobiles. Guests can have one item per person transported to the lodges this way, so you only need to carry a map and a backpack of basic emergency gear on the trail.
It was -5C and snow was falling heavily as we headed to our first destination, Little Lyford Lodge and Cabins, by cross-country ski. The trail snowed over as fast as workers could groom it. We struggled a bit in the strong winds and blowing snow but slogged on. The 10km trek to the lodge took three hours.
The Little Lyford camps were built in 1874 to house lumbermen who worked the forests around the West Branch of the Pleasant River. "The camps inherited their layout from the logging days; individual cabins cluster around a dining lodge that serves meals, with a pond or river nearby," wrote Sarah Jane Shangraw in the 2005 issue of AMC's Appalachia journal.
And indeed, as we skied down a hill into camp, you could almost imagine the scene 100 years earlier, with the rough log buildings and smoke curling out of the chimneys - until we spied two large solar panels on a south-facing hill.
The Lyford crew was amiable and welcoming. After we were shown where the weather reports were posted and the location of the showers, sauna and composting toilets, we were taken to our little cabin on a hill. It was outfitted with bunks, a wood stove, a dresser and a gas lamp for light (no electricity). Perfect, I thought to myself, as I brought in more wood to stoke the fire.
All meals are included in the lodging rate, and the hearty dinner of warm soup, steak tips, rice and vegetables was served promptly at 6pm. (Vegetarian and other special diets can be accommodated.)
Our dinner companions ranged in age from 12 to 60-something, a mix of couples, families and friends. We talked about our plans, comparing maps and routes. Some were doing a 24km loop between lodges; others were trekking to Gulf Hagas, a gorge also known as the "Grand Canyon of Maine". We chose an ungroomed trail around two ponds. The trail's 46cm of newly fallen snow made a soft landing for the repeated falls I took while getting used to skiing again after a 25-year hiatus. We also skied some of the groomed AMC trails, which are clearly marked and are rated easy, intermediate or difficult. "C2C" markings on the trails mean "Camp to Camp". Some trails also double as routes for snowmobiling, a popular sport in Maine.
The AMC bought Little Lyford in 2003 and since then has conserved nearly 28,000ha and built about 130km of trails.
After two nights at Little Lyford, we headed to the AMC's Gorman Chairback Lodge and Cabins, which another guest described as going "from rustic to deluxe". Unlike Little Lyford, Gorman's four modern cabins have private bathrooms and electricity. Gorman also offers rustic cabins and a bunkhouse. Meals are a bit more sophisticated than at Lyford, and you can buy beer or wine. It would be hard to mistake it for a 19th century logging camp, save for the towering pine trees that surround the older cabins by the lake. But it's charming still and the remote location does offer a retreat.
Our snowshoe trek the next day took us alongside Henderson Brook. We could hear it running under the snow and saw it in open spots in the ice. It was snowing again and the winds blew hard through the high tops of massive pine and hardwood trees on the ridge. The beech leaves still clinging to frozen branches crackled along to the shush-shush of our snowshoes through the deep snow. In a few spots, we used ropes the AMC strung across the brook to move ourselves along.
By our last day, the snow had stopped but the temperature had fallen to -13C and winds were gusting to 70kp/h. To return to the carpark, we chose the longer but more protected 13km Long Pond trail. We arrived at our car tired but happy a few hours later. The North Woods of Maine are a magical place, and well worth the trek to reach them.
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