HUT TO HUT
Blog and Photography by: Maine The Way
My watch reads 3:12 AM as I crawl out of bed to check the wood stove—the cabin air is brisk, likely around 45-50ºF, and I worry that our fire has died. A quick peek inside reveals a few coals glowing red hot—‘Phew!’ I think to myself, an hour longer and I might be trying to get a cold stove going again. I grab two logs—the last two logs in the cabin—and with a few breaths bring the fire back to life. Realizing that I may need to stoke the fire once more before morning, I decide to head outside for more firewood, cursing myself for not checking our woodbox before bed. I throw some layers on and head outside.
The snow squeaks loudly beneath my feet, sounding like styrofoam being crunched. I swing the door shut quickly behind me as I step outside. The cold air stings my exposed hands and face, and I can feel it seep slowly under my jacket around my neck. I grab the zipper, pulling it tightly up against my chin.
Despite the dark sky—there is no moon tonight—the stars shine brightly, lending a soft blue light to the entire scene, reflected by the crisp white snow. There is a pile of firewood alongside the cabin, but I decide to venture further, to the thermometer on a nearby tree. It reads -15ºF, which explains both my current discomfort, and our desire for a crackling wood stove in the cabin.
I shuffle back towards our abode, where white smoke now wafts upwards from the stovepipe, grabbing an armful of logs on my way while trying to keep my hands tucked into the sleeves of my jacket. I push open the cabin door and am hit in the face with the warmth, my glasses steaming instantly. ‘It is amazing,’ I think to myself, ‘how the cabin that felt chilled just minutes ago now feels like a sauna compared to the outside air.’ I throw one more log on the fire for good measure before damping down the stove, and crawling back into bed.
The Appalachian Mountain Club has three lodges that lie in the wilderness east of Moosehead Lake. Two of them are old fishing camps—Gorman Chairback Lodge dates back around 150 years, and Little Lyford Lodge is over 140 years old, but each have been updated with newer environmentally friendly main buildings, while many of the quaint old cabins remain as well. Medawisla is the newest of the lodges, and was completely rebuilt by AMC (there was a 1950s sporting camp on the site previously). All three lodges are open for a summer/fall season and a winter season, and offer a variety of options for people looking for all levels of adventure. Medawisla lodge is accessible by car all winter, and offers amenities like LED lighting. The other two lodges are ski-in/ski-out for the winter, but can be reached by car in the warmer months, and feature the old Coleman style propane lights and wood stoves.
Regardless, it is a comfortable experience—the staff at the huts are astounding, and all guests are provided with three meals a day that far exceeded my expectations of what backwoods food tastes like!
For our trip we had two nights in at the lodges, and opted to visit the two southern ones—Little Lyford and Gorman Chairback. We are avid skiers and jumped at the chance to ski from hut to hut, but since we were bringing bags full of camera gear on the trail we took full advantage of the AMC’s gear shuttle service, having a duffel bag brought in to the lodges via snowmobile. This is an irreplaceable service, and makes the trip much easier than carrying several days worth of gear.
It was snowing as we drove up to the lodges on a Thursday morning in February, taking a right turn in Greenville to head ten miles up a dirt road to the “Winter Parking Lot”, which surprisingly was a searchable location on Google maps. Despite the heavy snow the roads were well plowed, a result perhaps of the active logging going on along the road—we had a fifteen minute delay as a logging truck got filled by a log crane on the road in front of us.
Minutes after parking, just as we were getting our skis on, an AMC groomer came to the lot to refuel. “Which trail are you headed on?” he asked as he filled his tank.
“Little Lyford,” I respond, “Probably on the Hedgehog Gate trail?”
“Perfect, that is where I’m headed next on the groomer!” he tells us. Sure enough, we follow him onto Hedgehog Gate trail, and get to enjoy pristine corduroy trails with the fresh powder we’re receiving tamped down into the perfect base—firm but soft.
Of the nearly thirty miles of skiing we did over our three days at the AMC lodges, Hedgehog Gate trail was undoubtedly my favorite—and the conditions didn’t hurt either! The trail began by winding through a grove of old hemlocks and spruce, before it began the first of two climbs. Over the better part of a mile the trail rose up three hundred feet over the spine of a ridge, and while not terribly challenging it had a few steep sections.
By the time we reached the top it was time for a snack break—Christine pulled out Grandy Oats’ antioxidant trail mix. Grandy Oats is a long-time Maine brand, they’ve been producing small-batch granola in Hiram Maine since 1979. In addition to their commitment to high quality organic ingredients, Grandy Oats has had a focus on environmentalism—from their solar powered bakery to their continued support of environmental organizations and trail groups. From the top of our little summit however all that mattered was the tasty trail mix we were gorging ourselves on—my personal favorite component were the toasted pumpkin seeds.
A few minutes, and a few handfuls later, we resumed our skiing, zooming down the descent. The snow was still falling, but softer. We glided through the monochromatic forest, everything coated with a white blanket, the trail twisting and turning like coiled snake. Over the final larger hill, we had a primarily downhill run to Little Lyford, and slid to a stop before our home for the gnight—Grey Ghost cabin, an adorable one-room cabin with a double bed and a bunk bed, and a much needed wood stove that was started before our arrival.
I awake again to sunlight streaming in through the window to my right. It is still early, and I savor the beauty of the sparkling snow covered balsam branch that obscures the window briefly, before stretching and pulling on a merino base-layer. I put another log in the wood stove, a constant chore, and pull a chair over to read a chapter of my book before Christine wakes up.
We walk over to the main lodge a little before 8 AM for coffee and breakfast. As we get there the coffee is already out, along with some serving bowls full of yogurt, mixed berries, and Maine’s Grandy Oats granola. My stomach, apparently still hungry from the ski in to the lodge yesterday, is growling and I’m delighted to pour myself a bowl of granola and yogurt to help stave off my hunger before yet another ski day, this time the eight mile trail to Gorman Chairback, with an extra detour to hike into the nearby Gulf Hagas, a gorge with multiple waterfalls.
The high temperature today is going to be 5ºF, and moderately windy, so we take care to cover every inch of our body, including buffs over our faces. Temperature regulation in this weather is always difficult—layers are needed to stay warm, but sweat can cause serious issues, so we do our best to avoid it.
It is a quick ski to the turnoff to the Head of the Gulf trail, which leads down into Gulf Hagas. We are able to make it part of the way in on skis, but the trail is ungroomed and eventually we have to take off our skis and continue on foot. The going is tough, snowshoes would’ve been helpful here, and occasionally we sink into the snow knee deep. Eventually, we reach the head of the Gulf and continue down the gorge, overlooking frozen waterfalls, and boulders covered with pillows of soft snow. “Certainly a worthwhile detour,” I say to Christine and she nods as we gobble up more trail mix before heading back out—energy levels and moods were getting low, and the food is necessary, but in this cold we can’t stop moving for long.
A central tenet of AMC’s Maine Woods Initiative is the conservation of huge swaths of land in the 100-mile wilderness corridor, connecting the Moosehead Lake Region to Baxter State Park. Working with numerous other agencies and non-profit groups like the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands and the Nature Conservancy, as well as private donors, the AMC has now conserved 70,000 acres of forest in Maine. When taken in conjunction with surrounding conserved lands, it helps to create a nearly 650,000 acre corridor of conserved land that is open to recreational use.
The fact that the land is accessible the public is key to the AMC. Steve Tatko, the AMC’s Director of Maine Conservation and Land Management said at the announce of the purchase of a new 27,000 acre parcel in the Pleasant River Headwater Forest, “As a local community member I think it is amazingly important that we keep the land open to the public and that there is access here for the long term. These conservation efforts are deeper than just the ecology or the economy; we are protecting livelihoods and protecting heritage in a cohesive way, that I think will transcend a lot of lifetimes.”
Back on the Lodge to Lodge trail there is one steep rise, followed by a sustained cruise down to Gorman Chairback. The miles of forest click by, and the vastness of this region becomes apparent—other than the few trails we use, and the very occasional dirt road, this region is empty. Or, rather, it is devoid of humanity—otter slides mark the bank of the creek on my left, and we passed moose tracks about a mile back. Squirrels run through the spruce branches, and I can hear chirping from somewhere above me. How lucky we are to have access to such a special part of Maine.
We cross the Katahdin Ironworks Road, a snowmobile highway this time of year, and a sign reads 3.2 miles to the lodge. I smile. I’m tired, certainly, but I’m glad the ski isn’t over yet. Looking around at the snow covered forest, a chickadee flitting from branch to branch, and the only noise coming from the gentle swish of my skis through the snow, I think to myself, ‘there is nowhere I’d rather be right now.’