Maine's Western Mountains | Winter's Soul
From Kingfield, Route 27 noses through the Carrabassett Valley, twisting and turning with the tumbling of the ice-choked river. Then suddenly around a curve, you see it: Sugarloaf’s white-capped triangle. You’ll understand immediately why locals have long called this “Oh-My-Gosh Corner.” On a blue-sky day, all it takes is one run from that above-treeline summit to the funky, oh-so-1970s angular base village to feel the love–and on a powder day, that love can become a lifelong affair.
Facing Sugarloaf from the north is another of the state’s 4,000-footers, Bigelow Mountain, hiding sprawling Flagstaff Lake from view. Before he betrayed the colonists, Benedict Arnold led his troops through this swath of Maine wilderness on his ill-fated 1775 march to Quebec. Hoping to spy Quebec City, one of his men, Major Timothy Bigelow, climbed the mountain that now bears his name. Once slated for development, Bigelow is now part of a wilderness preserve. Winter hikers brave the Appalachian Trail, which crosses its summit ridgeline, but there’s a far less challenging way to explore this swath of wilderness, and that’s on snowshoes or cross-country skis along the Maine Hut Trail, an easygoing route that snakes through the woods south of the ridge. The side trail to Poplar Stream Falls, two horsetails measuring 51 feet and 24 feet, respectively, is worth the effort–and a hot, homemade meal at the nearby Poplar Stream Falls Hut makes a great reward.
Route 27 veers north to the town border in Stratton, a frontier village in the town of Eustis. It nips Flagstaff Lake, slices through Cathedral Pines–a majestic stand of old-growth red pines–and then parallels the North Branch of the Dead River, finally wriggling through Chain of Ponds, a spectacular chunk of water-laced wilderness, and the Boundary Mountains.
Artist Marguerite Robichaux has lived and painted here since the 1980s. “I paint everywhere I go, but much of my work is right out of these woods and mountains–I never tire of it,” she says. Her paintings capture not only the majesty of this landscape, but also the vastness of the wilderness. I know that if I ski or snowshoe down a snow-covered forest road, the only sounds I’ll hear, other than the occasional drone of a snowmobile, are the snap of an icy branch breaking, the hollow thump of snow falling from a tree limb, the creak of an ice-covered pond, and the flutter of recalcitrant leaves still clinging to branches.
Saddleback: Wilderness and Community
Heading southwest along Route 16, a lonely 17-mile stretch of road–where you’re far more likely to see moose, deer, or snowmobiles than other cars–tethers Stratton to Rangeley, an outpost of civilization surrounded by woods, overlorded by mountains, and edged by water most of the way.
“It’s a wilderness experience–that’s what’s up here,” says Steve Philbrick, owner of Bald Mountain Camps Resort, open year-round on Mooselookmeguntic Lake, in the village of Oquossoc. “I’ve been all over the state of Maine, I’ve been on every big lake, but because of the mountains, lakes, and wilderness, there’s nothing else like this anywhere else in the state. There are places I can send you to where you’ll never hear a snowmobile, where if another human has visited in the last week or so, it’s because I’ve sent him there. I can tell you where to go to look for moose antlers, or where, if you tiptoe through, you’ll see deer.”
But it’s not all woods and water up here. Rangeley’s downtown is peppered with shops carrying a mind-boggling assortment of moosey merchandise, plus a movie theater, a bowling alley, and a handful of inns and restaurants. I’d be remiss if I didn’t dish on my favorite lunch spot, Thai Blossom Express, owned by Sam Sriweawnetr, a genuine hero. As a chef for U.S. embassy staffers in Iran in 1979, he hid five Americans in a house in Tehran until Canadian officials could arrive to smuggle them to freedom; he himself then spent more than a year in hiding, eventually escaping to the United States. He opened an acclaimed restaurant in Boston, then came to Maine.
Small-town kindness and camaraderie are pervasive here. It’s exemplified by the free loaner skates available at Ecopelagicon for use on adjacent Haley Pond, and by the winter sporting events and wingdings brightening the seasonal calendar. “In little towns like Rangeley, the community’s soul is in the school, and Class D high-school basketball games are more heated than any Class A game,” says Rob Welch, owner of the Pleasant Street Inn. One of his favorite events is the annual New England Pond Hockey Festival (set for February 3-5 this season; details at newenglandpondhockey.com). “We have opening ceremonies, and retired Boston Bruins have even played in it,” Welch explains. Another is “Diva Night,” a midwinter cabin-fever reliever of a talent show (January 27-28 this season, at Moose Alley, a downtown bowling and entertainment center; there’s a regular summer show, also). “When ‘Patsy Cline’ shows up in a red dress and sings,” he says, “mouths hit the floor–you’re ready to say, ‘Oh my God, it is Patsy Cline.'”
Rangeley’s heritage is peppered with sports and rusticators, anglers and hunters: names such as Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby, the state’s first licensed Maine Guide; taxidermist and fly-tier Herb Welch; and Carrie Stevens, who earned national renown for her fishing prowess and original fly patterns. Even in winter, there’s no escaping it. The trails etching Saddleback’s face are named for famous fishing flies, such as “Grey Ghost,” “Green Weaver,” and “Blue Devil.”
Once touted as the “Vail of the East,” Saddleback Maine languished during an extended battle over development. For 20 years, this spectacular chunk of real estate, just east of Rangeley, went virtually untouched. Now it’s slowly modernizing, replacing T-bars with chairlifts, updating base facilities, and selectively cutting massive glades, while preserving its sinewy trails, edge-of-the-wilderness experience, and head-swiveling views over the frozen expanse of the Rangeley Lakes to New Hampshire’s distant Presidential Range. Those vistas slay me every time I come here, especially on one of those days after a storm, when the sun’s brilliance makes me squint; when evergreen branches are laden with snow and the runty summit trees are rimed with ice.
When shadows fall long, most folks retire to the warmth of woodstove or fireplace, content to swap tales, swig beer, and watch the rosy shades of dusk surrender to the inky nightfall. But if it’s clear, I prefer to bundle up, head into the hushed darkness, and gaze beyond the starlight canopy into the soul of a New England winter’s night.