I stood on my skis near the edge of the white expanse, admiring the wind-sculpted snow. As I gazed over the virgin landscape on Second Roach Pond in Maine I could see that I was a pioneer who had left my mark. However, the wood smoke odour was not a sign that creature comforts weren’t far away.
Behind me, a graceful timber-framed structure was perched just uphill from the pond’s edge. This was Medawisla. It is a state-of the-art, off-the grid ecolodge located in north central Maine near Greenville.
My wife and I had traveled to Maine to ski cross-country through the 100 Mile Wilderness. This region is the last stretch of the 2,184-mile-long Appalachian Trail. Just two decades ago, this ski trip would have been inconceivable: Much of this “wilderness” was owned by timber companies and scarred by industrial logging.
A remarkable turn of events has seen hiking and skiing replace logging in a newly protected area of Maine. In the early 2000s, 6 million acres of forest — more than a quarter of Maine’s land — was put up for sale by timber companies. The future of the largest forest ecosystem east the Mississippi River was in danger. Appalachian Mountain Club’s (AMC), in 2003, launched the Maine Woods Initiative. This works with local communities and promotes outdoor recreation, conservation, sustainable forest, and carbon sequestration (sales are financing additional land purchases).
They saved 75,000 acres north-east of Greenville, created 130 miles of recreational trails, and acquired three historic sporting camp: Medawisla Little Lyford and Gorman Chairback. This is part of a broader conservation effort that now covers 750,000 acres extending from Greenville to Baxter State Park, which is home to Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak.
The Maine Woods have made a shift from forest exploitation to recreation, which has resulted in an immediate byproduct: one the most popular lodge-to-lodge skiing routes in the United States. The route showcases both the past and future of Maine, from clear-cuts visible on distant hillsides to the bright green of new growth, a reassuring sign of nature’s resilience.
“We took industrial timber land and built the largest cross-country ski trail network in New England,” said Steve Tatko, the director of Maine Conservation and Land Management for the AMC.
Medawisla Wilderness Lodge may be the most grand of all the AMC Maine lodges. The original hunting lodge was constructed in 1953 and closed down in 2012. After a $6 million investment, a new ADA compliant complex was opened in 2017. It includes a solar powered main lodge, nine cabins, and two bunkhouses. The lodge is a showcase of Maine craftsmanship. It features tables and chairs made from curly Maple and figures of loons on its deck that were carved locally by a chain saw artist. Second Roach Pond can be seen from the dining room windows. Medawisla is Wabanaki’s word for loon. It offers 35 miles of cross-country skiing trails.
Inside Medawisla’s main building I found other guests sitting in stuffed chairs around a four-sided stone-and-glass fireplace. At a family-style dinner featuring roasted tarragon chicken and minestrone, as well as string beans with slivered nuts, I sat next a Maine woman who claimed to be a seasoned sailor. She casually mentioned her cameo in “The Perfect Storm,” the best-selling book by Sebastian Junger. I barely remember lifting my fork to eat as I listened spellbound to her harrowing tale of survival at sea after her sailboat sank during the epic 1991 nor’easter.
Our trip took us just before the pandemic began. Masks are recommended for winter at lodges. Breakfast and evening can be served family-style in the main dining rooms, or you can take them back to your cabin.
This trip was filled with guilty pleasures. The first was the experience of traveling through a wilderness area by day and then staying in warm lodges at night to enjoy delicious food that had been prepared for us. Another was to roll out of our cabin onto a groomed trail, and have our bags transported by snowmobile ($20 per bag). We could travel light on cross country skis through this magnificent landscape, carrying only a small pack of food, clothes, and other gear.
We skied up the wide, groomed Lodge to-Lodge Trail to reach a scenic top point from Medawisla. We stopped to enjoy the panoramic 360-degree views at Big Spencer Mountain (3.215 feet) which crowns the landscape.
After a brief snack we began a long, wind-in-the-face descent. John, a pilot from an airline, followed me as I skied alongside him. He banked around wide turns and extended his arms like he was flying as we glided to valley floor. A small sign pointed us to a narrow trail through the woods that abruptly led to First West Branch Pond, our next lodge. Eric Stirling, the fifth generation to manage West Branch Pond Camps, was there to greet us. He built the camp as a sporting facility in 1881. His family has owned it since 1914.
This camp is the only privately-owned on the lodge trip and offers a welcome touch local culture and lore. We stayed in log cabins built over 100 years, right next to the frozen pond. A group of high school students in Massachusetts frolicked on a frozen pond and sledded through camp, yelling in delight. Their math teacher said that this 17-year-old winter trip was a favorite respite from the high school grind.
I was able to join Mr. Stirling (a bearded, friendly man) as he prepared our meal on a wood stove in our dining cabin. The walls were decorated with stuffed trophy heads. He pointed out to Whitecap Mountain (3.654 feet), which overlooks camp, and said that the Appalachian Trail crosses its summit. He gave voice to what I felt as I relaxed from the day’s skiing. “My hope,” he told me, “is that skiers take away from here a sense of something that’s been unchanged through the generations.”
Around midnight, I put on a puffy down jacket and ventured onto the pond to feel something that had never changed: darkness. The International Dark-Sky Association (IDSA) designated Maine Woods the first International Dark Sky Park for New England in May 2021. This organization combats light pollution, recognizes areas that protect nighttime views, and identifies them as such. I gazed up at the blue-and black expanse studded with what seemed to be a million stars.
The stiff breeze of 20 degrees was the perfect accompaniment to sunrise. We continued our journey for 6.5 miles along Pleasant River, which is covered in snow. Little Lyford Lodge was built in 1874. Our path crossed numerous animal tracks, including those from moose, mink, and otter.
“Moose outnumber people 3 to 1 here,” said Courtney Turcotte, who oversees all of the lodges for the Maine Woods Initiative. We enjoyed dinner at Little Lyford Lodge beneath a two-story stone fireplace that was adorned with old trapper’s snowshoes.
Gorman Chairback Lodge was our final destination. We weaved our way through tall conifers, which shuddered under a heavy snowmantle. A brief squall cleared the trail. Our home for the night, however, was a hand-hewed log cabin in an octagonal shape on Long Pond’s shore. Legend has it that the cabin was built in 1882 by a Civil War veteran with one arm and his son. The interior was dark and woody, and was a romantic hideaway in the woods.
Our last morning, I was again perched at the edge a frozen expanse. Long Pond sparkled with snow thanks to the radiant warmth of the sun. I moved forward without hesitation and glided into the Maine Woods.
If you go
Greenville, Maine, serves as the point of departure for trips to the AMC Maine Lodges. The Appalachian Mountain Club (603-466 2727) can make reservations for lodging and shuttles. Portland (3 hours) and Bangor (90 mins) are the closest airports.
Where to ski, where to stay
Skiers and snowshoers can experience Maine’s wilderness lodges in a variety of ways. The trails are well marked and guides are not required. However, AMC runs several guided group tours (which fill up quickly). Medawisla, West Branch Pond Camps and the privately-owned West Branch Pond Camps can be reached by car (all-wheel drive is recommended). Each location has miles of ski trails you can explore and return to the same place. This is the best option if you are a beginner skier. Another option is to ski lodge–to-lodge from Little Lyford or Gorman Chairback. Both lodges can only be reached by skis or snowshoes. They share the same winter parking area so no shuttle is required. Each lodge also has its own trail network. All lodges have wood-fired saunas.
A lodge-to lodge ski traverse to all four wilderness resorts is the ultimate adventure. This 32-mile ski requires at most four nights. You will ski on groomed trails that run between lodges. A car shuttle ($60) must be arranged when you book lodging so that your vehicle is at your final destination. The prices for lodges vary depending on the type of accommodation. Prices range from $140 to $425 per night for a couple, which includes all meals. Some cabins allow dogs to stay; the hut keepers recommend that you bring your dog along to ski with you.
The ski trails are groomed so lightweight cross-country skis or waxable skis are recommended. Skiers who are experiencing icy conditions may prefer a ski with a metal edge. You should bring a day pack that includes food, snacks, and first-aid gear. Northwoods Outfitters in Greenville can rent or buy skis. Book rentals in advance for busy weekends. The lodges offer complimentary snowshoe rentals.
Source: NY Times