Tim Jones: Late winter is a perfect time for backcountry adventures in Maine


Greetings from Maine, where my sweetheart, Marilyn, and I are transitioning from several days of absolutely splendid Alpine skiing at Saddleback and Sugarloaf to what should be several days of exceptional backcountry Nordic skiing.

Tomorrow morning, we get up early and ski into Stratton Brook Hut, the westernmost and newest hut of the current four in the Maine Huts and Trails system. You can see the layout at www.mainehuts.org, or give them a call at 207-265-2400. We'll overnight at Stratton Brook and then ski 10 miles to Poplar Hut, which was the first of the huts, overnight there and then ski back to our car. That'll leave us two more Maine Huts, Flagstaff and Grand Falls, to explore some other time (probably by kayak this summer). It's almost 33 miles from Stratton Brook to Grand Falls and we've heard that some of the trails are, well, challenging. We chose the two closest to each other to start, so we can do a simple loop.

Stratton Brook holds 44 guests in one bunkroom and 10 smaller rooms, which sleep two or four. Poplar holds 42 guests with three bunkrooms and seven smaller rooms. All the sleeping rooms are heated at both huts and they have indoor plumbing, including showers. They also feed you dinner and breakfast, and will provide a hearty trail lunch for a small additional fee.

In many respects, the Maine Huts and Trails sound similar to, and a bit more upscale than, the eight White Mountain Huts run by the Appalachian Mountain Club (www.outdoors.
org/lodging). I've stayed at all those in the summer and fall when they offer full-service with meals and bunks (but no hot showers). In the winter, all but Zealand, Carter Notch and Lonesome Lake are closed and the three open ones are self-service (bring and cook your own food) and don't have any heat in the bunkrooms. You also can't easily ski between them.

The AMC also offers lodge-to-lodge backcountry skiing in Maine. Each year, for the past several, we've skied around or between the wilderness lodges up near Moosehead Lake and West Branch Pond Camps (www.westbranchpondcamps.com).

This is always one of the highlights of our winter, and we look forward to it. Many of the people who work at these lodges have become like friends, and we've made other new friends among the other guests, which is easy when you are far away from civilization with people who share similar interests.

We're betting that the Maine Huts will be just as warm, friendly and fun. We're not expecting the same experience -- the setup is very different -- but we're looking forward to it, and we have been planning obsessively.

Our research started with their website, which answered most of our questions, (they have good packing lists for summer and winter). Then, we talked to their incredibly helpful staff members, who answered our remaining questions and helped plan our itinerary. We also talked with several people who have visited the Maine Huts in the summer, and a few who have in the winter, and we picked their brains for their best advice.

We discovered that the two huts we are visiting are perched on top of steep hills. To reach them from the closest trailhead, you ski a couple of miles on mostly flat trail (some of it is an old railroad bed), but the last mile or so is pretty much uphill. If you ski from hut to hut, there's about four miles of railroad bed trail between the two trails. Some people told us the steeps were too tough to ski, so, last minute, we rented MSR snowshoes from the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center (www.sugarloaf.com/outdoorcenter) and strapped them to our packs. Be prepared! Life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

A backcountry warm-up

The one thing we don't have to worry about is whether our legs are in shape. The last two days at Saddleback on eight inches of fresh, fluffy powder were among our Top 10 Days of Alpine skiing together, ever and we pounded ourselves both days. And today at Sugarloaf was bright blue sky and perfect corduroy and lots of long, long runs.

But I felt that, since I would be skiing to the huts with a pack carrying most of our gear, I should get out and at least re-acquaint myself with Nordic skiing with a pack on. So Monday afternoon, after a morning on Alpine skis, I drove a couple of miles down the Saddleback access road to the Rangeley Lakes Trails Center (207-864-4309; www.rangeleylakestrailscenter.com) which has 55 kilometers of some of the most beautiful woodland trails that you can imagine. A lot of it is groomed and tracked for Nordic skiing, but they are building one of, if not the largest networks of snowshoe trails in the Northeast. They are holding a big snowshoe race here on March 17, the first annual Rangeley Moose Dash.

Anyway, those narrow snowshoe trails, packed only by snowshoers hiking in single file, made perfect ski trails for a backcountry warm-up. With my pack on, I poked along through the woods, letting my legs remember what they needed to remember. My only regret is that I didn't have more energy and more time to explore. If you're up in this region in winter, it's well worth checking out.

Another missed opportunity

Sometimes, you miss what's tight in front of you ... I've been going to Sugarloaf for years and had never been to the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center, another incredible Nordic skiing opportunity hidden in the shadow of a major Alpine resort. They have 90 kilometers of groomed and tracked cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, great gear for rent, and a nice little snackbar for lunch.

Next time we're at Sugarloaf, I'm going to take a couple of afternoons to thoroughly explore this resource. Or, if the mountain is too cold and windy, we'll spend the day here. I'm just sorry I didn't get to do it this trip.

Tim Jones is the executive editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email: timjones@easternslopes.com


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