Into the Wild: Hut-To-Hut Skiing in Maine
Move over, Colorado: Maine has now become one of the nation’s premier destinations for hut-to-hut cross-country skiing, thanks to two new backcountry systems: Maine Huts & Trails in the state’s western mountains and the Appalachian Mountain Club huts, about 40 miles (as the crow flies) farther northeast, outside Greenville, in Moosehead Lake country. As I discovered, these are not your father’s backcountry huts.
Maine Huts & Trails has opened three out of a proposed dozen lodgings that it plans to build along a 180-mile corridor from Bethel northeast to Greenville. I jumped at the chance to go hut-to-hut skiing in the Northeast, an experience that I’ve enjoyed only in Colorado and Europe. Hut skiing combines two seemingly incompatible experiences: being far out in the wild, yet taking advantage of easy travel and the comforts of a warm bed and a good meal by a fire.
Not far from the Sugarloaf ski resort, I stepped into my skis on the trail to Flagstaff Lake Hut. I was surprised: The trail was a carpet of corduroy snow. This may be backcountry, but banish the idea of heavy packs and breaking trail. Some fast gliding down the groomed track was all it took to reach the so-called “hut.” As I rounded a final bend and was admiring views of Flagstaff Lake, I was startled by the long cedar-shingled structure, rising up out of the woods before me. I stepped through the door to an interior crafted from Maine pine and slate, stuffed leather chairs around a woodstove, and solar- and hydro-powered lights and plumbing. Semiprivate and bunkroom lodging is available for 42 people. “If this is a hut,” I declared to my wife, “we live in a cave.” The college-age hutkeepers were preparing pesto pasta, chicken, sautéed asparagus, and fresh salad, all laid out on long cherry-wood dining tables. The evening was capped off by Maine blueberry pie.
The white canvas of Flagstaff Lake shone through the windows the following morning. We glided out onto the lake to admire the frosted ridgeline of Bigelow Mountain, standing watch over a large undeveloped area. Then we headed out on our 11-mile ski to Poplar Falls Hut. Once again, I traveled fast and light along the groomed trail, carrying little more than I would on a daytrip at a cross-country ski center. When we arrived four hours later at our next backcountry chateau, we were ready for the comforts that awaited us. Following another delicious dinner and fresh pie for dessert, we retired to the upstairs library to read, chat, and play board games.
Maine’s other hut-to-hut ski system is more rustic and takes more effort to reach, but it, too, spoiled me with how easy it made traveling through the woods. In the last decade, the Appalachian Mountain Club has bought 66,500 acres of land in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness and acquired three sporting lodges: Medawisla, Little Lyford, and Gorman Chairback.
From Medawisla Lodge, we set out on a three-day, 24-mile hut-to-hut ski. Snowmobiles shuttled our gear down the groomed track, letting us carry only day packs as we skied alongside rivers and ponds and took in views of Katahdin to the northeast. My favorite stop was the century-old West Branch Pond Camps, which appeared out of the greenery at the end of a pleasant nine-mile ski from Medawisla. We stayed in log cabins and ate in the kitchen, where fourth-generation owner Eric Stirling cooked on a woodstove. A bearded, congenial man, he gave voice to what I was feeling as I relaxed from the day’s ski: “My hope,” he told me while sipping red wine from a juice glass, “is that skiers take away from here a sense of something that’s been unchanged through the generations.”