Snowshoe/cabin adventures are one of the great outdoor activities winter in New England offers. I've been writing about them for years now. So you'd think this would be a really easy question to answer. But it isn't.
Without realizing it, Fran set up a number of hoops that are pretty tough to jump through: The "cabin" part is fairly easy. So is the "hiking and snowshoeing." But the "fireplace and kitchen" make it more of a challenge. The "not in Maine" part makes it tougher still. But the toughest gauntlet Fran threw down was the "weekend." If you don't act early, it can be nearly impossible to find a good place on a winter weekend.
And, just because it's who I am, I read between the lines and added a couple more hard-to-meet criteria. First, I assumed that Fran's desire for a fireplace translated to a request for a place that would be "warm and cozy," where they could kick back and relax in comfort.
Second, I made a unilateral decision to avoid places that attract a lot of snowmobile traffic. Snowmobiles and hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing aren't all that compatible and any warm and cozy cabins with a major snowmobile route nearby are likely to be busy and probably noisy on weekends whenever there's snow (but empty and cheap if the ground is bare like last winter ...).
So, does that leave any options? Fortunately, yes. But not many. First up, two great drive-to places which offer excellent trail options and warm and cozy cabins with either a fireplace or woodstove.
The first place I could recommend was the AMC's Noble View Camps (www.nobleviewout
doorcenter.org) near Russell, Mass. Noble View Outdoor Center has almost 360 acres of woodland surrounding its mountain-top location, adjoining more than 1,000 acres of open land. The views of the Pioneer Valley east to Mount Wachusett are pretty amazing, and it maintains an extensive network of hiking and snowshoeing trails. It offers a number of cabin options, all newly refurbished and very comfortable, and the prices are reasonable.
The other road-access spot I could easily recommend is Lapland Lake: (www.laplandlake .com) in Northville, N.Y., smack in the snowbelt of the southern Adirondacks.
Lapland Lake is primarily a cross-country ski center (it's owned by Ann and Olavi Hirvonen -- he' s a former Olympic cross-country racer for Finland), but it has an extensive trail network for snowshoeing as well. On the property, are a number of cozy "tupas" (Finnish for "cabins.") with complete kitchens and woodstoves or fireplaces.
Though he specified "not in Maine," I thought Fran should also consider the cabin and yurt on Shawnee Peak (www.shawneepeak .com) in Bridgton, Maine. It's only 20 minutes from Conway, N.H. They take you and your gear up by Snowcat, and, from the time the lifts stop until they start turning the next morning, you have the place to yourself. Since Shawnee has a snow-making system, you are guaranteed good snowshoeing whether Mother Nature has cooperated or not.
A warm hike-to option
To put it bluntly, most of the hike-to cabins scattered in wild places around New England utterly fail in the "cozy' category. The AMC's Cardigan High Cabin, for example, has a high ceiling, no insulation, lots of air leaks, and a woodstove with no wood supply. Ditto for the three cabins, Black Mountain, Doublehead and Radeke, on the White Mountain National Forest. The AMC has self-service at some of its mountain huts in winter: You can use the kitchen, but heat is minimal. Mountain Cabin at Bretton Woods Nordic is cozy with its woodstove, but barely big enough for two people.
So, the best option I know for cozy hike-to winter cabins is Merck Forest (www.merckforest .org) in Rupert, Vt. The eight backwoods cabins on Merck Forest have woodstoves and plenty of wood, but you need to bring your own backpack stoves and cooking gear. Still, this would be my personal choice for a winter cabin getaway. Unfortunately, all the cabins are already booked for the weekends through the winter (though you could, I suppose, see if there's a waiting list ...)
A real adventure
The more I thought about what Fran and his buddies were asking for, the more I convinced myself that what they really wanted was a real winter adventure. After all, that's what I would want.
So, I suggested they contact Mahoosuc Guide Service (www.mahoosuc.com) and check out one of its weekend dogsledding/traditional camping forays. Kevin Slater and Polly Mahoney maintain two winter camps on Umbagog Lake in Errol, N.H. These camps have woodstove-heated canvas tents with bough floors (smells wonderful!). They are accessed by dog sled (the dogs pull all of the heavy gear) and the clients take turns driving the sleds and traveling on cross-country skis (very easy skiing) or snowshoes. This is a hands-on adventure, you help Kevin and the camp cook with the dogs, firewood, etc. They supply all the gear and outer clothing you need.
Polly runs a number of women-only weekends, so why not a guy getaway with Kevin? Best of all, Mahoosuc still has weekend openings for this winter, where most of the other options I mentioned don't.
Whether Fran and his buddies choose to do a drive-to cabin getaway, a backwoods cabin hike or a dogsled adventure to the wilds of northern New Hampshire is really immaterial. In any case, they are getting outdoors, beyond the ordinary and building memories that will last a lifetime.
Life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!