The Best Winter Escape is on Skis and off the Grid

With miles of Nordic trails and backcountry huts only accessible by ski or snowshoe, Carter’s XC Center in Bethel is the perfect winter getaway.

Carter’s XC Ski Center

The Best Winter Escape is on Skis and off the Grid

With miles of Nordic trails and backcountry huts only accessible by ski or snowshoe, Carter’s XC Center in Bethel is the perfect winter getaway.

By Sandy Lang
Photography by Peter Frank Edwards

Issue: November/December 2021

Charlie, a dog with fur in patches of charcoal and cream, bounds from the A-frame lodge and ski shop. His wide-set jaw draws his mouth into a spunky smile like he’s ready to play, and I understand. On the drive to Bethel and Carter’s XC Ski Center, the scenery increasingly looks like a snow globe that you want to jump into.

It’s February, and we’ve arrived for skiing’s high season—western Maine is winter white. A nor’easter blew in a few days ago, and it’s been a week of subzero lows with high temperatures in the teens and 20s. The wind whips up swirls of sparkling snowflakes along the Androscoggin River.

Arriving first in Bethel, with mountains in near view, we warm up with a stop for coffees and chocolate chip cookies at DiCocoa’s Bakery and Cafe on Main Street (a landmark shop that has since closed) and then drive on for a loop through town, noticing a few Nordic skiers gliding past across snow-blanketed sports fields on the Gould Academy campus. This is a ski town. Downhill types head to Sunday River just up the road in Newry, ski racks on their SUVs.

We’re not going up the ski mountain on this trip, though. Instead, we make our way a few miles from the center of Bethel in a different direction, following Intervale Road into a woodsy countryside of barns, houses, and snow-drifted pastures. The skiing we’ve come for is cross-country: Nordic style. I’ve wanted to go to Carter’s for years, after first seeing their sign with a drawing of a raccoon skiing. That sense of fun is what we’re looking for on this midweek, midwinter getaway.

A legacy of ski gear inside at Carter’s XC Ski Center, where three generations of the Carter family have worked.
A legacy of ski gear inside at Carter’s XC Ski Center, where three generations of the Carter family have worked.

Frozen Night to Sunlight

The only threat to our ski escape is the super chill that’s set in. Temperatures are forecast to dip to zero or below overnight, and we’re booked to stay at Carter’s in a backcountry, hillside cabin without electricity. There will be no roadway to drive the final mile or so, but a trail passes within a few yards of the cabin door. It will take a ski or snowshoe trek to get there.

Stopping at the Ski Center’s shop in a building named Willowbrook Lodge, we meet one of the Carter family, Jessica “Jes” Carter, who helps us check in and pick up snowshoe rentals and a pulk (a Nordic-style, low-slung sled) to more easily tote our food and gear to the cabin. She explains that a staff member skied up to the cabin in the morning to set a good fire in the cabin’s woodstove. I have a pair of old cross-country skis to start with, and I plan to rent a pair tomorrow to compare. My steadfast partner in such travel adventures, photographer Peter Frank Edwards, has his ski gear, too.

Before the sun sets on the biting cold afternoon, we put our two-wheel-drive station wagon to the test and gun it up a steep hill to the remote parking lot on a ridge that will get us a little closer to the cabin. We pile bags onto the pulk and click the snowshoes on. Soon we’re making our way to the trail leg that leads to the cabin, and we arrive in less than 15 minutes, even with stopping to look at trail maps, the fresh corduroy grooming of the trail, and the snow-drifted scenery of the woods.

Named Camp Fern, the cabin is a handsome two-story structure, and once inside, we pull off our boots and check out the digs. Downstairs is a wood-stove, kitchen, benches, and a dining table beside a wide window, with a tray of candles arranged in the center. We’ll make good use of those after sunset. Upstairs are two beds and bunk beds, wool blankets, quilts, and a seating area near another mountain-view-facing window. Binoculars and a telescope are kept by the window, and the peaks of Sunday River, Grafton Notch State Park, and the White Mountain National Forest are somewhere out there in the distance. Just outside the cabin there is a woodshed with an impressive stack of logs, in one direction and an outhouse across the trail in the other.

We ski out for a little reconnaissance to get our bearings on the hilltop. Carter’s offers another cabin rental a few minutes’ ski farther along the trail, but no guests are staying there tonight. It looks like we’ll have true solitude. Returning to the cabin, we add a few logs to the fire in the stove box and start getting settled in before the early winter nightfall. We put a frozen eggplant parmesan casserole in the oven, and by the time it’s ready there’s a blue-black night sky outside. All’s quiet except the occasional crackle of cold. Is that an icicle forming or breaking? Later, when I walk to the outhouse at midnight, I hear the sound of something rustling in a tree. A bird?

We brought flannel sheets and a down comforter to layer atop the bed. The next night we will keep the hot oven and cast-iron skillet in play as long as possible by roasting lamb, potatoes, and beets from Middle Intervale Farm, just down the road. Some of the warmth will creep upstairs. Tucked in after a last dash to the frosty outhouse, all I can think is that it’s lovely to be snug under blankets on nights like these.

The farmstand at nearby Middle Intervale Farm, owned by a Carter cousin of Carter’s XC Ski Center.
The farmstand at nearby Middle Intervale Farm, owned by a Carter cousin.

XC Family

In the bright cold of morning after coffee and toast, we tromp out through a foot or more of snow to the big thermometer by the woodpile, which is pointing to about two degrees below zero. To keep moving, we don our skis and head back out on the trail, where the sun is glinting through the trees. For more than an hour, the only other people we see are when we come upon the grooming machine and then two men working on the trails, high on the ridge. These are the intermediate and difficult ski trails of Carter’s XC Ski Center, with some heart-pumping inclines on wooded trails.

All of this is part of the dreams and plans of Dave and Anne Carter, who began Carter’s on a farm with a 200-year-old barn in Oxford in 1985, when Jes and her two sisters were kids. That location is now home to Oxbow Beer Garden, which keeps the trail network open. By 1992 the property in Bethel became the second and primary location; it represents a return to the family farmland where Dave grew up. Anne recently completed construction of a house on the property, and a Carter cousin is a seventh-generation farmer on the adjoining acres at Middle Intervale Farm. After his death in 2014, Dave was inducted in the Maine Ski Hall of Fame, and his wife took the helm of the ski center. Anne still advises, but now Jes, who is raising two daughters of her own, is at the reins—she left her career as an elementary school educator to transition to the business full-time in 2020. One of Jes’s tasks is organizing trail maintenance parties each fall, which invite volunteers to help prepare the more than 55 kilometers of trails.

The covered bridge at Sunday River near Carter’s XC Ski Center dates back to 1872.
The nearby covered bridge at Sunday River dates to 1872.

Skate Date

I’ve booked a skate-ski lesson on our second day—the Center has a team of guides and instructors—and it’s remarkable to feel the different technique of pushing off from the balls of your feet to glide. (I’m donning skate skis and boots from the Center’s rentals.) The stance is different from the classic skiing I’m used to. Jes explains and demonstrates gracefully. I try to follow along as we ski from the shop down to the fields near the riverbed.

After a few passes, Jes drops her ski poles and encourages me to do the same as we lean into the wind. “Lead with your head,” she says, moving from foot to foot in a skating motion on the long, flat skis in the long, windy valley of the Androscoggin. Her dog Charlie, whose playful antics are often featured on the Center’s social media pages, romps along nearby.

Along with Nordic skiing, Carter’s XC Ski Center on Intervale Road in Bethel offers snowshoe and fat bike rentals and off-the-grid cabins for ski-to lodging.
Along with Nordic skiing, the center on Intervale Road in Bethel offers snowshoe and fat bike rentals and off-the-grid cabins for ski-to lodging.

Jes is a patient and encouraging teacher, and her ease and interest in skiing is inspiring. “If you can walk, you can ski!” was her father’s mantra, she says, and he had a vision to get as many people to try cross-country skiing as possible. She and her sisters were on skis as soon as they could walk. Jes says it’s an honor to help continue her family’s skiing legacy—and the transition of a family business from one generation to the next.

During a pause in our ski lesson, Jes looks up at the snowy ridges and says she dreams of building her own passive solar house with a mountain view on one of the hillsides here. Lately, she’s been living in the lodge above the ski shop. Meanwhile, Jes skis as many mornings or evenings as possible through the woods and on the network of groomed trails.

We continue skiing, and as if on cue, Charlie is dashing about again, snow flying up from his paws. And yes, it looks like he’s smiling.

XC Trips in Western Maine

Ready to ski, snowshoe, or ride fat-tire bikes? Stay in a backcountry cabin? Western Maine is home to two trail networks created by the Carter family.


786 Intervale Rd., Bethel

The ski center offers cross-country ski, snow-shoe, fat bike, and backcountry trails of various difficulty levels, daily and season passes, a ski shop with gear for rental and purchase, and three eco-cabins available to book for trailside backcountry lodging.

Buy ingredients at the farmstand at Middle Intervale Farm (758 Intervale Rd., Bethel, to cook at a cabin, or go to Le Mu Eats for the banh mi, noodle bowls, and salads or to Steam Mill Brewing for craft beer (both at 7 Mechanic St., Bethel).

420 Main St., Oxford

Behind the brewery is a four-acre trail network originally created by Dave and Anne Carter in the 1980s, and the Portland Gear Hub offers rentals of Nordic skis, fat bikes, and snowshoes.

After hitting the trails, stop in for Oxbow’s farmhouse ales and wood-fired, naturally leavened pizzas.

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