For my birthday this year, my mom treated Yvonne and me to two nights at the Maine Huts system in the northwestern mountains of Maine. We cross-country skied a total of 28 miles (3, 11, and 14 miles over three days, which is more than twice as much as I’ve ever xc skied before) in some of the finest, most gorgeous terrain you could ask for.
If you haven’t heard of the Maine Huts, they are currently four large, backcountry huts (inspired by the AMC White Mountain Huts, but with a twist), created and operated by a relatively new non-profit organization. The four current huts are located in the Carabassett Valley area, which is already a major outdoor recreation area due to Sugarloaf ski resort, the Bigelow Preserve, Flagstaff Lake, the Appalachian Trail, and more. The Maine Huts system adds backcountry lodges with about 80 miles of cross-country ski trails (also used in summer for hiking and mountain biking).
Since I worked at a similar system of camps for the AMC in 2008, which is when the first of the Maine Huts opened, I was extra curious to see how things worked. These huts have more in common with the White Mountain huts than with AMC’s Maine Wilderness camps as far as the setup– one main lodge with a central kitchen and lounging space, then bunk rooms for guests– but their setting is very much Maine.
The cross country ski trails are mostly situated on old logging roads that have been re-purposed, and several newer hiking trails have been cut by the Huts organization’s trail crew. The terrain is lots of glaciated rolling hills through mixed northern forest. Large rivers and lakes and mountains are ever present. I find that region of Maine is extremely distinctive compared to the more mountainous regions of New Hampshire and Vermont, or the southern New England forests in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
The huts themselves are pretty spectacular, with all sorts of state-of-the-art technology for functioning off the grid. Super-efficient wood furnaces heat the water for showers and the kitchen, and power central radiant heating, making all of the buildings nice and toasty even in a cold winter day. Solar voltaic and mini-hydro generators power the lights in the huts as well as a few other electrical needs. Supplies are shipped in by snowmobile every week, but otherwise things are pretty self-sufficient.
Skiing over trails that had once been part of Maine’s vast network of logging roads was an interesting paradox– even with active logging roads not far away, and the very cushy huts all around, this area felt more wild than much of the hiking I’ve done in New Hampshire and Vermont recently. Really, when it comes down to my personal definition of “wilderness”, the Wildernesses of the national forests in the Northeast don’t cut it. For me, it has more to do with distance from cities, lack of crowds, and proximity to a rustic way of life. Even if that doesn’t count as true wilderness, it still feels more wild to me. Places like the Cohos Trail, the far north of the Long Trail, and most of Maine provide that feeling of wildness. We even saw a few logging trucks and an active logging operation, but the setting still seemed plenty remote to me.
There are four huts in the Maine Huts system now, the most recent having been finished this winter, but the long-term goal is for a dozen huts and a hundred more miles of trails. I can think of few more worthy goals out there. The Cohos Trail comes to mind as a similar project, creating a totally new system of non-motorized outdoor recreation trails where previously there were none, trying to bring more attention to the natural beauty of the area, and, in the case of Maine Huts, also showcasing resource conservation techniques in their buildings.
I could go on much more about the huts– the startlingly good food (dinner on night one was barbeque short ribs and a fresh slaw for which I wish I’d stolen a recipe) and the amazing settings (an afternoon ski across Flagstaff Lake with views of the Bigelow Range), but you’ll just have to check them out sometime.
Yvonne and I ended the few days bruised and battered from falling so often, but it was well worth the pain. And then on the trip back to New Hampshire, we had an extra night in Maine due to a white-out blizzard that caught up to us in Portland. I’ll count that as a good sign that I need to come home to Maine more often.