By Sandy Lang
Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards
The snowstorm was a whopper on those last days of February, covering Maine in yards-deep drifts. But we had the winter itch to ski.
Our cabin is 28 steps downhill from the road, and from the top I see a snow squall blowing across the lake, moving fast. Before I get to the bottom step, a complete whiteout is whipping through the trees. I duck into the cabin, closing the door against a horizontal wind that blows snow across the lakeside windows. The phone is ringing inside, a return call from Bruce Miles, executive director of the Ski Museum of Maine in Kingfield. “We’re expecting 10 inches tonight,” he says. “But if you can get here, tomorrow will be phenomenal!” We will pass by the museum sometime over the next few days on the way to the backcountry skiing trails near Carrabassett Valley. That is, if we can get there.
My new (to me) skis are already in the car, red Fischers purchased from the rental department at Epic Sports in Bangor. It’s the first pair of cross-country skis I’ve ever owned, and within hours I’m taking a few warm-up runs on the lake, making wide loops around the ice-fishing shacks. The glide feels good. I don’t have as much Nordic skiing experience as downhill experience, but in recent years I’ve gone on a couple of great trips with friends to a cross-country ski lodge in northern Minnesota. This year, instead of traveling to the middle of the country to slide through the woods, I wanted a Maine trek. I had heard of the good skiing along routes devised by Maine Huts and Trails, and I make reservations for two of the three lodges they’ve opened since 2008 along some 30 miles of trails in western Maine. The morning of the squall, photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I load skis, poles, and backpacks into the car, and we hit the snow-caked roadways. The storm is expected to continue all day.
Somewhere between Hermon and Newport, an accident ahead has completely tied up I-95, forcing us onto barely plowed, two-lane routes. It’s slow going. Passing drift-covered farms, we inch our way from the midcoast cabin up to Carrabassett Valley. The trip takes three hours longer than expected, and we arrive just before dark. Other skiers might have put on headlamps and skied into the wild that evening, but with the waning daylight and late start for two people (us) who are unfamiliar with the trail, I quickly hatch another plan. Remembering a snug stay at the Nestlewood Inn near Sugarloaf last year, I give the inn a call. They’ve got a room available, so we check in and get settled. It feels good to stretch our legs and pad about in our socks (everyone leaves their boots at the door). I alleviate my disappointment about missing an afternoon of skiing by playing fetch with Sadie, the innkeeper’s friendly Australian shepherd. Peter Frank and I have no interest in driving any more that night, so for dinner we trudge through the soft snow back toward Route 27 and the beaconlike lights of Hug’s Italian Cuisine, which is located in a small building that looks like a cross between a farm shed and low-slung alpine chalet. According to locals, the property housed the Sugarloaf Sauna in the 1960s, but the public steam sessions have long been replaced by Italian cooking. We slide into one of the booths and say “yes” when the waitress asks if we would like to start with a basket of hot pesto bread and a salad. I use the scissorlike tongs to dish the lettuce, dressing, and shaved Parmesan cheese into pressed-wood serving bowls that look vintage 1980s. Come to think of it, most of the decor in Hug’s looks vintage 1980s. With a woodstove going and smells of sage and browned butter wafting through the restaurant, it’s a good place to be on a cold, snowy night. We order a bottle of Sicilian red wine and two plates of pasta—butternut-squash ravioli and linguini with sausage. The small dining rooms and four-stool bar are half-filled with other customers, and we don’t hurry through dinner. Instead, we eat and talk of what the day might hold when we finally get out on the trails.
After a hot breakfast at Nestlewood (bacon!) and mugs of Carrabassett Coffee, a local roast, we drive a few miles to the Gauge Road trailhead that will take us to the Poplar Stream Falls Hut. We hope we’ve packed well. When you ski to the huts, you need to bring items like toiletries, extra clothing, a sleeping bag (if you’re staying overnight), and water and snacks for the trail. The weight in our packs adds up quickly, especially with Peter Frank carrying a couple of cameras and gear. The snowfall stopped sometime overnight and we start the 2.5-mile ski in brisk sunshine. The woods are beautiful in the icy air. While the relatively short length of the trail sounds easy enough, the elevation rises about 450 feet along the way. At one point, just when my backpack is starting to feel heavy, I look through the quiet forest of sparkling snow and spy the chairlifts churning up the mountain at Sugarloaf. The easy life! I imagine those skiers and snowboarders popping into the lodge for a hot cocoa after their next run. Meanwhile, it’s been more than an hour and we’re still alone in the woods, chugging up the trail, without a building or fellow skier in sight. Up ahead, however, I spot a small sign and follow the track of ski grooves in the snow. The last 300 yards or so are uphill. I take big duck-foot-style steps—making Vs with my skis—to manage the incline without sliding backward. The first hut comes into view.
I had seen pictures online, but the Poplar Stream Falls Hut is definitely bigger and more like a lodge than I had imagined. We click off our skis outside, pull off our boots in the entry hall, and step inside a wood-walled room with huge windows rising to the rafters at one end. A fire burns in the large woodstove, and the smells of something baking (brownies?) fill the space. Can this be real? It’s like a happy mirage.
I look over the chalkboard menu: squash and onion soup, cornbread, chili, Geary’s beer, and bottles of wine. Two staff members greet us, and I get a lunch order going before we wander around the warm, indoor space—a big gathering and dining room downstairs adjacent to the kitchen, and an upstairs library filled with books and board games, including Monopoly, Scrabble, and Trivial Pursuit. The bunkhouses are separate from the main building. The sturdy design of the hut and furnishings is a mix of classic and modern camp styles. A major feature is the huge array of solar panels tilting toward the sky. One of the resident staff members, Paul Curtis, explains that the off-the-grid building is situated about 1,400 feet above sea level and operates on power generated by the sun and a mini hydroelectric turbine in Poplar Stream. We’re miles from a power line, but this “hut” has everything we need. In a few minutes, three other people ski up and walk inside. “I thought we were going to a warming hut,” I hear one of the men say while he scans the room. “Hot soup and a good malbec…this is more than I have in my own home.” I ask Curtis the secret to the delicious chili. “Wild blueberries,” he says, smiling.
We have a couple of choices for getting to the next hut, which is on the shore of Flagstaff Lake: ski 11.2 miles (staff will take excess gear by shuttle) or ski back down the 2.5 miles to Gauge Road and drive to the nearest trailhead about 23 miles north of North New Portland on Long Falls Dam Road. From there, the ski to the Flagstaff Hut is 1.8 miles. We opt for the driving scheme because I want to stop in at the Ski Museum of Maine along the way. It’s located on Main Street in Kingfield, above the rooms and racks of ski gear for sale at the Sugarloaf Sports Outlet. We find the stairwell and walk up to a space that looks to be an old meeting hall—a large room lined with wooden skis, pennants, photographs, books, and maps. We’re the only visitors that afternoon. I’m fascinated by the cumbersome, early-twentieth-century ski boots and gear from the “ski touring” era when cross-country and downhill were a combined pursuit in Maine—by necessity. “There were no lifts,” explains executive director Bruce Miles.
Back downstairs, we stop at the counter and a Sugarloaf Sports employee draws a map to the Flagstaff Hut trailhead for us. We’re ready for more skiing before sunset. The sun is already casting late-day, pinkish-gold light across the trail as we trek for an hour past trees that aren’t as tall as those on the way to Poplar Stream Falls. The lake-edging trail also has far less elevation change, and its own beauty. We take our time skiing to the handsome, shingle-sided Flagstaff Hut.
That night, over a family-style dinner at a single long table, I decide that cross-country skiing draws a very interesting crowd. As we pass the ham baked with maple syrup, the mashed potatoes, and the bottles of wine and beer, I learn that the other overnight guests at Flagstaff include two college students on a break from Northwestern University, two professional singer-actors from New York City, and most of the members of the Smutty Prose Book Club from Damariscotta and Newcastle. We’ve all got a good flush of color from skiing and great appetites, and the conversation is lively. Chandler Blodgett from Scarborough explains how he brought along a small propane stove that he’s been carrying in his backpack so that he can stop on the trail to melt snow and make a hot cup of tea. Susan Powell, who lives in New York but regularly gets to Maine in summertime, says she booked the trip after reading in a fitness magazine about the hut-to-hut skiing possibilities. She describes the trails as a “cross-country paradise with world-class scenery.” I speak also with Stephen Dixon, one of the group of book-club friends whom I would later see playing bridge that night and skiing the lake trails early the next morning. Dixon tells me the members often gather on Isle au Haut in summer and take ski trips in winter. At 64, he’s the youngest in the group. “We’re all seasoned skiers,” he says. Throughout the stay, I see the group’s joy in life and in each other. It’s inspiring.
Eventually, the convivial table starts to break up one-by-one and two-by-two, as people wander off to read, sleep in the bunkrooms, or use their shower tokens (everyone gets a token for a five-minute hot shower). Like the Poplar Stream Falls Hut, off-the-grid conservation measures are in use at Flagstaff. The accommodations are very comfortable, though, down to the radiant in-floor heat provided by a system of wood gasification boilers. The staff gives tours of the innovative hut systems, including a peek at the bin of compost collected from the toilets. (No foul odors, I swear!)
We sleep well in our simple bunks—I recommend doubling up the thin mattresses—and join everyone again in the morning for a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and blueberry pancakes. Snow is piled outside the windows, as if we’re wrapped in an igloo. Near the woodstove, I talk with one of the staff, the baritone-voiced, 25-year-old Skylar Purdy from Isleboro. He says he found work at the huts after cooking at a lodge in New Zealand and hiking along the Appalachian Trail. We talk of the food—he helped develop the standard recipes for the three huts—and he says the beef, eggs, honey, turkey, maple syrup, and other ingredients come from nearby farmers whenever possible. Later that morning we pack up and begin our ski back to the car. The singers and students are skiing on to the Grand Falls Hut, another 11.5 miles north. The book clubbers are skiing off to explore the lake and stay another night at Flagstaff. Peter Frank and I need to ski back to the car and to the realities of work and everyday life. I make the most of those last few miles on the trails. I take in Maine’s winter air and white-tufted scenery. I see a woodpecker high in a tree. And I glide.