Skiers and snowshoers find adventure and hospitality deep in the central Maine woods.
By Virginia M. Wright
Photographed by Mark Fleming
We hear it first: a thunder rumbling through the snow-laden spruce trees deep in the forest east of Greenville. Then suddenly we are there, standing in awe on the edge of a deep gorge and gazing down at the West Branch of the Pleasant River rushing black between the ravine’s ice-bound walls.
We feel like adventurers. Gulf Hagas, this narrow three-mile slate canyon in the Appalachian Trail’s fabled 100 Mile Wilderness, is a hidden wonder, accessible only on foot. Only a few thousand people visit each year, and fewer still see it in the dead of winter, when the nearest logging road goes unplowed.
My traveling companions and I have come from the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Little Lyford Lodge and Cabins, a two-mile snowshoe alongside the river on a freshly groomed track. Along the way, our guide, AMC senior naturalist Casey Mealey, pointed out landmarks, like rusted wheels and other remnants of the narrow gauge railroad that once hauled logs out of this remote wilderness, and Nelson’s Hole, a bend in the river named for the man who broke through the ice there a few years ago. He regaled us with stories about his encounters with brown bears and grizzlies in Alaska, where he led wilderness trips for a year before Maine beckoned him home. But we were all moved to silence after we stepped onto the Rim Trail and tromped our way to the top of Billings Falls. The sky is a brilliant blue, the temperature is in the upper thirties, five inches of newly fallen snow blanket the forest, and we are soaking up a long, unobstructed view of the canyon.
Coming upon Little Lyford after a two-and-a-half-hour trek into the wilderness is a bit like discovering an enchanted winter village.
A Hallowell native, Casey is pushing thirty, with a full beard and a wiry build. We first met him the day before at the winter parking lot for AMC’s three backcountry lodges, which, along with the newer and still developing Maine Huts & Trails in the western mountains, are turning Maine into one of the country’s premier destinations for hut-to-hut cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. AMC’s lodges, Casey told us, are differentiated in part by the organization’s larger mission of conservation. The camps were acquired as part of AMC’s Maine Woods Initiative, launched ten years ago to protect a large swath of the northern forest that the AMC determined was at risk as lumber companies divested themselves of acreage.
The arrival of a Boston-based conservation and recreation organization intent on purchasing thousands of acres of working forest was not without controversy in Greenville in 2003, but the AMC quickly integrated itself into the local economy and culture. “The Maine Woods Initiative is not just about the lodging,” Casey explained. “It’s multi-faceted: recreation, traditional access, and economic development.” The organization now owns — and pays taxes on — 66,500 acres of Maine forestlands, in which it not only allows year-round recreation, but also a sustainable timber harvesting operation. It hires local people for logging, trail and road maintenance, and construction, and sources food and materials from within a five-hundred-mile radius. A full-time education coordinator develops environmental education programs with Greenville area schools. “You’d be surprised — there are kids here who have never been on snowshoes or in a canoe,” said Casey, who studied adventure education and adventure therapy at Unity College. “I love showing them what I’m passionate about.”
AMC’s wilderness retreats are also distinguished by their history. Two of them are former sporting camps — the modernized and expanded Gorman Chairback Lodge, on Long Pond, dates to the Civil War era, and Medawisla, on Second Roach Pond, to the early 1950s. (Medawisla is closed for renovations and will reopen in 2015.) Little Lyford, the most rustic of the three, is base camp for our two-night stay. Built in the 1870s as a lumbering camp, it later catered to anglers who came to fish for native brook trout in the two Little Lyford Ponds and in the West Branch of the Pleasant River.
Brookies are still a big draw at Little Lyford from spring to fall, when visitors can drive up to the camp. This time of year, though, getting there means a seven-mile ski or snowshoe on the unplowed Katahdin Iron Works Road, which the AMC grooms along with more than one hundred miles of trails. We opted to snowshoe in with Casey, leaving our skis, sleeping bags, and other gear in a shelter at the parking lot, where they were picked up by an AMC staff member and sledded to the cabins ahead of our arrival. It quickly became clear that we could have safely made the trek unguided as most guests do: the road and connecting trails are exceptionally well marked and maintained. “If some of the guests don’t show up by a certain time, we go out looking for them,” Casey told us. “We check the guest register in the parking lot to see what trail they’re on, and we’ll offer them a ride if it’s getting late.”
Coming upon Little Lyford after a two-and-a-half-hour trek into the wilderness is a bit like discovering an enchanted winter village. Burrowed in pillows of snow are several small log cabins, icicles dripping from the eaves, smoke rising from the chimneys, wood stacked neatly on front porches. My cabin is one of a handful in a neat row on a knoll at the edge of the clearing. It is simply furnished with a double bed and a bunk bed, a dresser, a braided rug, vintage pictures of fishing scenes on the walls, and a copy of the anniversary edition of Leon Leonwood Bean’s classic outdoors guide, Hunting, Fishing and Camping, on the nightstand (Bean’s heirs, the Gorman family, have been major contributors to the Maine Woods Initiative, and it’s their name that has been attached to Gorman Chairback Lodge and Cabins). A line for wet clothes stretches from one wall to the other. A woodstove keeps the room toasty, and there are two gas lanterns for light. A shoveled path leads to a row of outhouses in the trees out back. The nearest cell phone signal is one-and-a-half miles away, on the summit of 2,341-foot Indian Mountain.
Even though its inhabitants change daily, Little Lyford hums with the conviviality of a close-knit community, particularly in the main lodge at mealtime, which is very much on our minds (and stomachs) as we head back from our spectacular eight-mile Gulf Hagas tramp. It’s a little early for dinner, so after a hot shower in the modern bathhouse, where I also find flush toilets and — joy of joys — a sauna (Little Lyford is off the grid, but solar panels power the lodge and bathhouse), I settle into the lodge’s library, which is tucked in a small loft overlooking the dining room. The nook is sprinkled with curiosities — a basket of animal bones and skulls found in the forest by guests and a shelf full of games, books, and magazines, including a 1935 National Geographic featuring an article about “Maine, the Outpost State.”
Soon I’m chatting with Tawn MacDonald, who skied the eight miles from Gorman Chairback to Little Lyford two nights ago. Traveling solo, MacDonald, thirty-nine, liked Gorman, with its three-year-old super-energy-efficient lodge and well-appointed cabins (all twelve supply bedding and towels, a gift from L.L. Bean, and four new cabins have private bathrooms), but she prefers the rusticity of Little Lyford, where she is staying in the twenty-four-bed bunkhouse. “At Gorman, the people were a little more inclined to want to be taken care of,” the avid winter camper observes. “There were some women there who hadn’t been out in the woods in ten years, but when their husbands showed them pictures of the cabins, they said they’d go. How cool is that? That’s what I like about the hut system — it gets more people out.”
“Each of the huts has its own characteristics and personality,” agrees Richard Boucher, who joins us several minutes later at one of the four dinner tables downstairs. Boucher, a Massachusetts resident, has been making getaways to the AMC lodges for ten years. Last winter, he stayed at Gorman and skied on a trail pocked with moose tracks to Third Mountain, where he saw a rare black-backed woodpecker. Like MacDonald, he has a soft spot for Little Lyford, where he always makes a point of summiting Indian Mountain. “We ski part way up, then switch to snowshoes because the trail gets narrow and the snow gets deep. You have two views — east to Katahdin and west to the 100 Mile Wilderness. It’s the quiet that makes the magic.”
We relish the magic of the quiet.
The family-style meals alone are almost worth the trip, MacDonald and Boucher agree, and indeed breakfast and dinner prove hearty, delicious, and surprisingly creative. Last night, we dined on barbequed chicken, roasted Brussels sprouts in a balsamic vinegar reduction, roasted beets, fried polenta with crème fraîche, and baked chocolate mousse with raspberries. Tonight, sixteen of us feast on eggplant soup, pork chops, roasted potatoes, and roasted mixed vegetables. Dessert is warm bread pudding made with homemade whole-grain bread, cranberry bread, and pumpkin bread and topped with caramel sauce. A few people have brought bottles of wine to share. The conversation is easy, and the company is mixed, ranging in age from mid-twenties to well into the seventies (families with children pack the place during school vacation weeks).
Little Lyford cook Peggy Smith credits the good food to a friendly competition for skiers’ hearts between the huts’ kitchen crews. “It can be challenging to create meals in winter because you’re limited by what can be brought in by snowmobile,” she says. Like Casey and others on the Little Lyford crew, Smith is passionate about the outdoors; she works here half the year, and spends the rest of it hiking. She adopted the trail name Bone Lady — she makes animal bone jewelry and sports a skeleton tattoo on the inside of one arm — on the Appalachian Trail in 2008 and has since gone on to hike the Highline Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail. Earlier in the day, I saw her ski up to the lodge wearing a peasant skirt. “Working here has been a wonderful opportunity to do a lot of hiking and skiing,” she says. “Yesterday I went up White Cap. In some places the snow was waist deep — it was horrible and it was wonderful!”
With full bellies and tired muscles, we head back to our cabins for a well-earned slumber. Tomorrow we’re skiing out, back to a world with cars, Facebook, and cell phones. For now, though, we relish the magic of the quiet.