Friday, 24 March 2017

Skiing Lodge to Lodge in Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness

West Branch Pond Camps by Frédéric Ménagé

As part of my continuing quest to try different hut to hut cross-country ski trips, I turned my attention to the possibilities in the United States. I came across several winter camping and lean-to options, as well as snowshoe-accessible self-serve camps, but the kind of ski-in huts I was seeking seemed few and far between. Curiously, the two best bets I found were in Maine, not far from each other. Maine Huts and Trails, located along the Dead River, operates one set of lodges. Another set of lodges in the 100-Mile Wilderness, south-west of Baxter State Park and the famed Katahdin Peak, are run by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). Both networks involve lodge to lodge cross-country skiing, with more services and trail grooming than I was accustomed to.

After some deliberation, in early March 2017, my husband and I decided to start with the 100-Mile Wilderness, about a 7 hour drive east from Montreal. We crossed the border near Jackman and bumped and lurched our way along the very remote-feeling Old Canada Road.

There are 4 lodges and 32 miles of lodge to lodge trails along this network, as well as numerous side trails. The northern-most lodge, Medawisla, will reopen in summer 2017 after lengthy renovations. We started at West Branch Pond Camps (WBPC), the only privately-owned lodge in the network, run by Erik Stirling. We were able to drive right to WBPC along Frenchtown Road, a dirt road that was in good condition. This proved to be fortunate, as the southern access via AMC’s winter parking (east of Greenville) was apparently in rough shape after a recent thaw.

Courtesy of AMC

We called Erik from Greenville to let him know we were nearby; Greenville is the nearest town with cell reception. Erik greeted us and showed us around the superbly located camp, right on a lake surrounded by hills. The camp consists of a cluster of charmingly old log cabins which house guests, as well as a main dining building. The camp has been in Erik’s family since the early 1900s, and the art of hospitality has clearly been perfected over the generations here. Erik had our wood-stove heated cabin calibrated to a perfectly cozy temperature, complete with water heating in a kettle on the stove. 

Our cabin overlooked the lake, and had rocking chairs, simple beds, packs of hot chocolate mix, and many back-copies of the surprisingly erudite “Appalachia” review of conservation and mountaineering. A generator provided light for a few hours every evening. There is a real bathroom with electricity and water and a shower, a far cry from the raunchy outhouses we are used to during hut to hut trips in Quebec, which have inspired us to concoct horrifying new terms such as “poo-cicle” and “poo-lagmite”.[1]

In winter, all of the lodges are full-serve, meaning that 3 meals are provided. We had been accustomed to carrying and cooking our own food, so we generally bring simple, lightweight fare, devoid of fruits and vegetables. Erik cooked us up a copious, delicious home-cooked meal that included many local and organic ingredients, and fresh-baked biscuits and dessert. While we worried we might have trouble returning to our old simple hut lifestyle, it was such a lovely treat and extremely relaxing (and much less preparation) to just sit back and eat all this wonderful food.

It’s of course quite a bit more expensive than our usual arrangements; a lodge stay costs between $110 and $150 US per person per night depending on the lodge, versus perhaps $35 Canadian each for a night and access fee in a Quebec provincial park (SÉPAQ) hut (plus whatever food one might bring). We booked all our lodges through the AMC. Becoming a member gave us a slight discount, particularly since we stayed a few nights in AMC lodges.

It’s also possible to pay for baggage transfer through a separate company, which is somewhat pricey as well. Since we weren’t carrying food, we opted to lug our bags around. Most of the lodges do not provide linen, so we brought sleeping bags, along with our clothing and the usual safety gear.

Erik describes himself as an “old-school” lodge owner. Along with his uncle Chuck, he takes care of all of the home-made cooking, grocery shopping, cabin maintenance, cleaning, ski trail grooming, shuttling bags to the next lodge, booking and greeting guests and chatting with them about topics ranging from natural history to world politics. The lodge can host groups of 20 people+! When we came through we were the only guests; the season was winding down and the crusty snow conditions had further slowed down reservations.

The next morning we headed out on light backcountry skis with some trepidation because of the truly horrendous snow conditions. A deep freeze after multiple rainfalls during this strange winter had resulted in a solid crust. Fortunately, between Erik’s and the AMC’s grooming efforts, the groomed (but mostly not tracked) trail was fast, but perfectly skiable. There were still at least 2 feet of snow on the ground here. We were grateful for our metal edges. We skied along smaller trails within the WBPC network before arriving on the wider main trail, which is an old logging road. Lodges are between 6 and 9 miles apart each. Typically, there are at least two possible routes to get between lodges. We were the only skiers along this stretch between WBPC and the next lodge, Little Lyford.

The AMC developed this lodge-to-lodge ski network fairly recently, acquiring lodges within the past 15 years, and forging a partnership with WBPC. In addition, the AMC arranged an innovative land-management agreement with logging companies in this area: land preservation and recreation happen in sensitive environments such as hilltops and wetlands, whereas logging is reserved for the more resilient valley environments. Interestingly, a number of years ago, the nearby Appalachian Trail was moved up onto the higher ridges and a bit further away from the lodges and valleys. Through-hikers now pass through the protected, fragile alpine-like environments.

It took us about 4 hours to reach Little Lyford. After a long climb, we looked back and were rewarded with views of snow-capped Katahdin. Lunch consisted of sandwiches we made from ingredients laid out at WBPC along with snacks. As we zoomed down the last long hill, we finally started seeing other guests and knew we were approaching Little Lyford.

Little Lyford is clearly a favourite lodge for many. The collection of little cabins and buildings are located in a protected valley, not on a picturesque lake, but away from the wind. There are numerous fun side trips such as a climb up Indian Mountain, or a walk out to Gulf Hagas, a famed series of waterfalls. And there is a wood-fired sauna! All of the many guests staying here had skied in from the winter parking lot, and were making Little Lyford their base camp. Surprisingly, none of the other guests we met during our stay were attempting any kind of lodge to lodge skiing.

Little Lyford. Photo by Dennis Walsh.

Wanting to take advantage of the sunny weather, we dropped off our bags and went for a quick walk out to the first waterfalls of Gulf Hagas, taking care not to slip on the crust. Upon our return, a hearty supper was served at long tables where we chatted with other guests. A small library with couches and nature & outdoor guidebooks upstairs of the dining hall provided the evening’s entertainment.

The next morning we hurried to leave the hut. Overnight flurries had left a precious centimeter or so of fresh snow, but threatened to turn into rain later in the day. We enjoyed the improved skiing all the way to Gorman Chairback Lodge, with only a drop or two of rain after all. Another rather lovely view greeted us: the lodge is right on a lake surrounded by towering old growth pine trees. Many of the cabins of this renovated camp also date back to the early 1900s. A generous donation from L.L. Bean provided linens and much of the furniture. The brand new lodge includes a large dining area, fireplace/library area, sauna and games room. We once again found ourselves the only guests at this large establishment; the poor weather forecast had apparently scared away a group of 16. Before calling it a day, we went for a quick walk across the frozen lake and along the Henderson Brook.

Inside Gorman Chairback Lodge's "library" cabin. Photo by Herb Swanson.

The next morning we lingered by the fireplace reading tales of Antarctic explorers and tree guidebooks until the rain abated around noon. We headed out in the warm weather, our skis gripping well to the softer snow. We took an ungroomed trail, picked our way around some open water holes, and lunched in a yurt-shelter. We returned to Little Lyford that evening, and then back to WBPC for a final night in the network, a last ski in the direction of Medawisla Lodge and a final goodbye to this particular trip.

View of Mount Kahtadin while skiing towards Medawisla Lodge. Photo by Frédéric Ménagé.

I’m left with the pleasant images of rolling hills and mixed forest landscapes of the Maine wilderness, feeling more rested than after any other vacation. I’m grateful for the diligent grooming, enabling us to ski every day despite non-ideal conditions, and for the incredible hospitality and service we received, among the best I’ve ever experienced. Personally, I can’t decide which lodge is my favourite.  And there are many more trails still to explore in this network.

Practical Information:

West Branch Pond Camps: http://westbranchpondcamps.com/
Little Lyford Lodge and Cabins (and winter trail map): https://www.outdoors.org/lodging-camping/lodges/lyford/
Appalachian Mountain Club Maine Woods office in Greenville: 207-695-3085
AMC lodge reservations: 603-466-2727

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[1] I apologize for the overly graphic reference, but it occurs to me that I’ve been secretly hoping to be able to use those two words in an article for some time now. I also realized during this trip that another of my life-long dreams is to operate a cross-country ski groomer. That will be a project for another winter. 

2 comments:

  1. A little different experience from last spring's trip in our back yard: Alaska' White Mountains. Thinking of you, Shirley, and Fred as we head out on a 4-day trip to Colorado Creek and Caribou Bluff cabins with skis and dogs. Karen, with 14 year old Riley dog will be providing snowmachine support. Cheers!

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    1. Oh lucky you! That was such a fun trip. This Maine trip was definitely different - less remote and more luxurious - but both were lots of fun and a great way to experience a new place! Hope you have an amazing time!

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