Late Summer Loafing
By Sandy Lang
Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards
Zipping fast, cruising slow, and climbing high around Sugarloaf, Kingfield, and Stratton for other-than-snow-season adventures in the mountains.
Until this late-summer trek, with fall closing in fast, I’d never driven through Carrabassett Valley from Kingfield and not spied even a speck of snow. This time, when we get to that part of Route 27—the “Oh, my God” curve—where the first clear view of Sugarloaf appears in the distance, the ski slopes are as green as meadows in midsummer. We’ve come north to the Bigelow Mountains for the weekend, and temperatures are warm enough that we’ve got the car windows open. What a difference a few months make. Before we get that first peek at Sugarloaf, though, we make a brief detour. A few miles south of Kingfield, we follow the “Wire Bridge” signs in rural New Portland. I’ve got a dream-like memory of driving up to the mid-1800s bridge at dusk on a much colder day a few years ago. Then, as fat snowflakes fell in the light of my car’s high beams, I watched a car approach from the other direction cause the entire wood and steel suspension bridge to create a rolling wave motion under its wheels. The car’s ride looked like a roller coaster, and I’ll never forget it. This time, when we pull up to the Wire Bridge, the scene is entirely different. People are picnicking in the sunshine on the far bank. As I push the gas pedal to drive steadily across the one-lane bridge, the feeling is not like an amusement park ride. But there is a definite fluid motion—each plank gives way for a moment as we cross, above the rocks and rushing water of the Carrabassett River.
The river pulls us along. In nearby Kingfield where the Carrabassett flows past the downtown shops and art galleries, we’re drawn to park the car again for a few minutes. The door of the massive barn housing the Stadler Gallery for Contemporary Art is open, and I walk past the carefully stacked firewood inside—logs themselves make an impressive art installation—to look at the collection of modern paintings and sculpture. Continuing north into Carrabassett Valley, the main road runs parallel to the river’s rock-laden path for several miles. Sugarloaf and the Bigelow Mountains rise ahead, and from the road, we get clear views of the water as it gushes through the riverbed of smooth boulders. Our first stop in the valley is the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center, which in winter is a starting point for people who want to ski the cross-country trails. It’s now midday, and a half dozen cyclists have propped their bikes against the building and are taking a rest outside of the Carrabassett Valley Bike Shop. One rider from Damariscotta tells me that he and the others have just finished the first part of their day’s ride, following the Narrow Gauge Trail along the east bank of the river. The friends take to the trails together most every weekend when the weather’s good, he says. Also at the shop, we meet Joshua Tauses, who helps coordinate trail-building projects in the town of Carrabassett Valley. He tells me the local mountain biking scene has heated up over the past few years, helped along by the fact that visitors can now rent bikes and head out on their own from the Outdoor Center. “Mountain bikers operate on word of mouth,” he tells me. “And I think the word is getting out in Portland and all over New England that we’ve got world-class trails.” In the afternoon, we check into our lodging at the Sugarloaf Mountain Hotel, which has large guest rooms with fluffy white comforters on the beds and handsome tweed-upholstered chairs. Just outside the windows, the chairlifts are empty—hanging in lines up to a green, snowless peak. We’ll have to find a different way to get back on the mountain this time.
Hike and Zip
The hotel has a printed list of area hikes, and I’ve heard that one of the best waterfalls, with a drop of some 20 feet, is at Houston Brook. A Sugarloaf friend tells me that people often swim there on warm days. The next morning, to find the falls, we drive past a few of the A-frame, chalet-style cabins that you see so often around Sugarloaf. After a turn onto rocky Houston Brook Road, we see no other houses past a sign noting that use of the unpaved route is open to the public by the courtesy of the Penobscot Indian Nation. About a mile drive into the woods is a parking area and a short path to the falls. As soon as I see the deep pools and the splashing water, I regret not bringing fly fishing gear or a bathing suit, but we have fun hiking along the banks. The water is chilly, and we follow the streambed for a while, hopping between rocks, checking out the profusion of moss, ferns, and wild strawberry plants growing between the boulders. After the peaceful morning in the woods, I’m ready to make our way back to the mountain to try the zipline tour. Outside the Sugarloaf Sports Outlet, we join a group of about a dozen people, and a tour guide soon instructs us how to don the harness-type contraption and helmets we’ll be wearing. Next, we all walk uphill for several hundred yards on slopes now carpeted in grass, dandelions, and clover, to the first of five launch platforms. The ziplines are strung as much as 30 feet above Gondi Brook—named for the former Sugarloaf Gondola. Because of the automatic braking system Sugarloaf uses, you can ride hands-free if you want—and several people swing their bodies upside down. (Maybe next time!) This mountain pursuit is nothing like skiing or snowboarding, but it’s definitely a good time.
On a post-zip lark, we decide to return to the Kingfield end of the valley and follow signs we’d seen earlier toward the “Scenic Views and Overlook” on Ira Mountain. I love an odd roadside attraction, and this diversion delivers. About a mile up the mountain-ascending road, we reach a large clearing and parking area. Couples and families are walking around, exploring a temple-like configuration of rocks that includes walls, stairs, towers, and picnic tables. Signs encourage visitors to clap their hands to hear echoes, and we find out later that all of this is being built to make use of rocks moved during timbering at the direction of the landowner. After wandering around the spectacle that some have deemed to be spiritual space—and clapping—we follow the road for another mile or so until it ends at a windy, mountaintop view. It’s a dramatic overlook—nearby signs note that adjoining home lots are for sale. But at that moment, we don’t have to spend a dime for a terrific, sweeping look at the valley. It’s almost sunset by the time we make our way back to Sugarloaf and decide to stop along the way at the Sugarloaf Golf Club. Word is, even if you’re not a golfer the view from the 10th hole tee is worth seeing. Employee Tom Butler greets us near the clubhouse and doesn’t seem surprised when I explain that we’re looking for views and not a golf game. He offers the use of a golf cart and shows us to the tee that overlooks the 10th hole—deep in a valley bathed in the late afternoon light. Surrounded by Bigelow peaks, the long, wide green is a stunning sight. Before we go, Butler gives us the tip that the morning views from the driving range are worth waking up early to see. He’s lived in Carrabassett since the 1980s—he works at the ski school in the winter—and says he still takes time for the views himself. That night we have reservations for one of the monthly Locavore Dinners that chef Tony Rossi and bartender Heidi Donovan have been hosting in the summer and fall for years at the Sugarloaf Inn. The meals are centered around Maine-produced wine and fresh ingredients gathered within a 100-mile radius. One of the things I love most about this state is the variety of locally-sourced food. I’m excited to get to the table. We arrive at the Sugarloaf Inn shortly before nightfall, and soon find seats by the slope-facing windows. The staff is pouring glasses of wine from Oyster River Winegrowers in Thomaston and Savage Oakes in Union, and we quickly realize that the 20 other guests at the dinner are all local residents. Conversation flows easily; we’re all interested in food and drink. I’m seated across from a young Kingfield couple who tell me they’ve been learning how to brew beer at home. The woman next to me owns a farm in Stratton and brought heirloom tomatoes for the chef to use in the night’s meal. During the leisurely dinner, we’re served seared native hake (my new favorite fish), pork ravioli with a tangy tomato sauce, and spring rolls made with Maine shrimp. I’m happily surprised by the bowl of southern-style grits served with bits of bacon and topped with a creamy corn sauce. At some point during the delicious six courses, another dinner guest invites us to meet him the next morning for a ride on Flagstaff Lake on his pontoon boat.
From the Lake
We make the 15-minute drive to the village of Stratton just after breakfast the next day, passing several hikers with packs near the Appalachian Trail markers on the backside of Sugarloaf. As planned, we meet our new friend Jeff Brickley in front of the Stratton Plaza and Traitor Lounge. Dressed like a lumberjack and sporting a ponytail, he says he has owned the inn for a decade and that future plans include developing a marina and campground out back on Flagstaff Lake. We follow him to the shore and slide onto one of the cushioned seats of his pontoon boat. For the next hour and a half, he shows us around a section of the large lake, including some of his favorite camping and picnicking spots. At the halfway point in the trip, we hop off the boat and wander a remote landing where Brickley says there are rusted remnants of cars and tractors in the woods—leftovers from the 1950 damming of the Dead River that left the nearby town of Flagstaff submerged. Until this day, I hadn’t been on a boat on Flagstaff Lake, and I find the man-made body of water intriguing and beautiful. The shoreline is surprisingly undeveloped, and the views of the Bigelow Mountains are unobstructed. From certain vantage points, you can see Sugarloaf’s vertical treelines and open slopes about a dozen miles away. As we motor along in the sunlight, I look for the famous peak and recall the mountainside dinner we had there last night, along with our weekend’s other fine adventures—even without the snow. That can come later.