Tim Jones: Maine huts and trails
'Newton's Revenge." That's the apt name of the trail you take to reach the Stratton Brook Hut, the newest gem in the Maine Huts and Trails system (www.mainehuts.org.).
Stratton Brook is spectacularly sited on the top of a hill with Sugarloaf Mountain to the south and the Bigelow Mountain Preserve to the north. From the closest trailhead, it's just under three miles to the hut. And the only way to get there is via your own legs and lungs. In the winter, you snowshoe or ski, in the summer, you hike or mountain bike. No motor vehicles allowed!
We woke that morning to lowering clouds and it was snowing lightly by the time we hit the trail to the hut. The first mile and a half of Newton's Revenge could be called Newton's Snooze -- it's that flat and easy. The whole trail, all the way to the hut, had been groomed for snowshoes, skate, or BC skis and tracked for classic skis. Not until 1.6 miles out does Newton wake up -- "up" being the operative word. From there on, it's an almost-relentless climb.
The light snow falling was slightly sticky and that actually made the climbing easy -- the fish-scale bases on our back-country skis gripped perfectly and we only had to herringbone up the very steepest of the many pitches.
At the top of one particularly steep climb, a whimsical snowman greeted us with the message, "You can do it!" We could, and we did, taking it slow and arriving at the hut just before noon. By then, it was snowing pretty enthusiastically.
Stratton Brook Hut ("hut" is something of a misnomer -- it's more like a spacious and elegant wilderness lodge), houses 44 guests in one bunkroom and 10 smaller rooms, which sleep two, three or four people.
The hut crew, Saphrona and Dan, greeted us warmly, offered us some delicious leftover chili, and showed us the drying room for our wet gear, the bathrooms with indoor composting toilets, and running water, including showers, and our room with three bunks, two side-by-side.
We laid out our summer-weight sleeping bags (the bunkrooms are heated to 60 degrees), put the pillowcases we'd brought on the pillows provided, grabbed our books (I was re-reading "Robinson Crusoe") and headed to the main lodge to sit in comfortable chairs in front of a warm woodstove.
The two other guests. Lisa and Diane, both from Maine, showed up early in the afternoon, Diane on skis, Lisa on snowshoes carrying skis. It was snowing harder by then.
Dinner that night was rich lentil soup, followed by locally raised roast pork loin, roasted vegetables, peas and homemade bread. They ask ahead of time about dietary preferences and restrictions.
Bedtime came early and sleep came easy. I got up once in the night, mainly to check the weather -- it was still snowing, the wind stirring the trees. The moon had been full two nights before and it softly lit the clouds above, but I couldn't even see a light in the valley below.
The next morning, we ate breakfast, packed up and headed out into 10 inches of wet-cement snow. It was sleeting up high, raining below, and despite good raingear, we were damp from sweat and rain by the time we reached the base of the hill.
We'd planned to ski into Poplar Hut that afternoon but decided to save it for another visit. As it was, we saw just enough of the Maine Huts and Trails to whet our appetite for more. We've already booked a visit (by kayak!) to Flagstaff Lake and Grand Falls Huts this coming summer. Life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
Skis or snowshoes?
We'd planned to ski into both Stratton and Poplar, and everything we'd heard or read as we planned our trip indicated this was the way to go. But just before our trek, Marilyn rode up a chairlift with a woman who had visited Stratton Brook a few days earlier. She stated she was an "expert" cross-country skier and that the trail into Stratton was almost impossible to ski up and dangerous to ski down, and snowshoes were the only way to go. That worried us, but our snowshoes were four hours away. So we stopped at the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center (www.sugarloaf.com/outdoorcenter) and rented MSR snowshoes which I strapped to my pack so we'd have them if needed.
It turned out that, in the conditions, we had no trouble at all climbing on our skis. Skiing downhill the next morning in the heavy, deep, heavy, untracked, heavy snow, was actually more work than climbing up had been the day before. The flats were a real challenge on skis and snowshoeing in all that wet cement would have been a long, slow slog.
It all depends on conditions. Had the trail been hard and icy instead of sticky, snowshoes would have been better than skis. Snowshoes are always the default option for safety, but skis are more fun. Actually, this would have been a perfect place to use the sliding snowshoes I wrote about a few weeks ago ... Hmmm.
Carrabassett Valley, Maine, is the jumping off point for most visitors to the Stratton and Poplar Huts. We'd skied Sugarloaf (www.sugarloaf.com) the day before on exquisite corduroy snow, overnighted in the Sugarloaf Mountain Hotel, the perfect place to bracket a visit to the Stratton Brook and Poplar Huts. We were able to safely store our city stuff and alpine ski gear at the hotel while we explored the backcountry.
Even if you aren't an alpine skier, this is a wonderful area to visit with lots of restaurant (try the Shipyard, Hugs, or the new 45 North) and lodging options in a variety of price ranges. And, as I noted last week, the Sugarloaf Outdoor center has 90 kilometers of groomed trails to warm up on before you head into the backwoods.