A cross-country ski trip through the Maine desert

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I sat on my skis on the edge of the white expanse and admired the intricate, wind-sculpted snow. Looking over this blank canvas at Second Roach Pond in Maine, I could imagine that he was a pioneer leaving his first footprints. But the smell of wood smoke belied the fact that the creatures’ comforts were close by.

Behind me, a graceful wooden structure rose just above the edge of the pond. It was Medawisla, a state-of-the-art, off-grid ecologist in north central Maine, near the city of Greenville.

I had come to Maine with my wife and another couple to spend five days and four nights cross-country skiing through 100 Mile Wilderness, a region that hosts the final stretch of the Appalachian Trail 2,184 miles long. Just two decades ago, this ski trip would have been inconceivable: much of this “desert” was owned by lumber companies and was marked by industrial logging.

In a remarkable turn of events, skiing and hiking have largely replaced logging in a newly protected strip 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 lumber companies. The future of the largest forest ecosystem east of the Mississippi River was in jeopardy. In 2003, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) launched the Maine Woods Initiative, which works with local communities to promote outdoor recreation, conservation, sustainable forestry and carbon sequestration. carbon credit sales are financing additional land purchases).

They retained 75,000 acres north and east of Greenville, developed 130 miles of recreational trails, and acquired three historic sports camps: Medewisla, Little Lyford, and Gorman Chairback. This is part of a broader conservation effort that now covers 750,000 acres stretching from Greenville to Baxter State Park, which is home to Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak.

This shift in Maine forests from logging to recreation has yielded an immediate byproduct: one of the best lodge-to-lodge ski routes in the United States. The route shows both Maine’s past and future, from clear carvings visible on distant slopes to the bright green of new growth, a reassuring sign of nature’s resilience.

“We took industrial lumber grounds and built New England’s largest cross-country ski network,” said Steve Tatko, director of Maine Land Conservation and Management for the AMC.

Medewisla Wilderness Lodge is the largest of the AMC Maine hostels. The original hunting lodge was built in 1953 and closed in 2012. In 2017, after an investment of $ 6 million, a new ADA-compatible complex was opened that includes a main energy pavilion. plot, nine huts and two bunk beds. The lodge is a showcase for Maine crafts, with handmade curly maple tables and chairs and lion figures on the deck that were carved by a local chain saw artist. In the dining room windows there are wide views of Second Roach Pond. Those staying in Medewisla, the Wabanaki word for ridge, can explore a network of 35 miles of well-kept cross-country ski runs.

Inside the main Medewisla building I found other guests sitting in stuffed chairs around a four-sided stone and glass fireplace. At a family dinner of roasted tarragon chicken, minestrone, and chopped almond beans, I sat down next to a Maine woman who said she was an experienced sailor. He casually mentioned his cameo in “The Perfect Storm,” Sebastian Junger’s best-selling book. I can barely remember lifting my fork to eat as I listened in fascination to his creepy story of survival at sea after his sailboat sank during the 1991 epic Easter.

Our trip was made shortly before the start of the pandemic. This winter in the lodges, indoor masks are recommended (where all staff are masked), and breakfast and dinner can be eaten as a family in the main dining rooms or taken to your cabin.

This trip was full of guilty pleasures. The first was to travel through a wild landscape during the day and stay in warm lodges every night eating delicious food prepared for us. Another was leaving our cabin on a well-kept trail and transporting our bags to our next destination on a snowmobile ($ 20 per bag). This meant we could travel fast and light with cross-country skis through this great landscape carrying only a small day backpack with food, clothes and extra supplies.

From Medewisla, we skied up the wide, well-kept Lodge-to-Lodge trail to a scenic high point. We stopped to contemplate the 360-degree panoramic views of the imposing snow-capped peak of Big Spencer Mountain (3,215 feet) that crowns this landscape.

After a short snack we started a long wind downhill. I skied behind my friend John, an airline pilot, who stretched out his arms as if he wanted to, circling wide as we glided to the bottom of the valley. A small sign led us down a narrow path that meandered through the woods until it abruptly emerged into the bright white expanse of First West Branch Pond and our next hostel. We were greeted by a smiling Eric Stirling, the fifth generation of his family to run West Branch Pond Camps, which was built as a sports camp in 1881 and has been owned and managed by his family since 1914.

This is the only privately owned camp on the trip to the lodge and offered a welcome touch of local culture and tradition. We stayed in century-old rustic log cabins next to the frozen pond. A group of Massachusetts high school students played in the pond and toured the sleigh camp, shouting for joy. His math teacher told me that this winter trip, a 17-year-old tradition, was a much-loved respite from the rigors and stress of high school.

I met Mr. Stirling, a handsome, bearded man, as he prepared dinner for us with a wood-burning stove in the dining-room hut. Stuffed trophy heads adorned the walls. He pointed outside to Mount Whitecap (3,654 feet), which dominates the camp, and noted that the Appalachian Trail crosses its summit. It gave voice to what I felt as I relaxed from the ski day. “My hope,” he told me, “is that skiers will get out of here the feeling of something that hasn’t changed over the generations.”

Around midnight, I clung to an inflated jacket and ventured into the pond to experience something that has never changed here: the darkness. In May 2021, the Maine Woods region was designated as the first international dark sky park in New England by the International Dark-Sky Association, which fights light pollution and recognizes places where night views are protected. I looked at a blue and black expanse that was lined with what looked like a million stars.

The sunrise was accompanied by a strong breeze of 20 degrees. We continued our 6.5-mile journey along the meandering snow-covered Pleasant River to Little Lyford Lodge, which was originally built in 1874. Our path crossed countless animal tracks, including those of hawks, minks and otters.

“Here the moose outnumber people from 3 to 1,” said Courtney Turcotte, who oversees all Maine Woods Initiative accommodations. We enjoyed dinner at Little Lyford Lodge under a two-story stone fireplace that was adorned with old hunter snowshoes.

Our final destination was Gorman Chairback Lodge. We made our way through tall conifers that trembled under a thick mantle of snow. A brief storm whitewashed the road. Our house for the night was a hand-carved octagonal log cabin on the edge of Long Pond. Tradition says the hut was built by a one-armed Civil War veteran and his son. The dark wooden interior was lined with old books, a romantic retreat in the woods.

Last morning, I was again perched on the edge of a frozen expanse. A warm, bright sun made the snow shine in Long Pond. Without hesitation, I stepped forward and slid into the Maine Woods.

Greenville, Maine, is the starting point for trips to the AMC Maine Lodges. Accommodation and transfer reservations can be made with the Appalachian Mountain Club (603-466-2727). The nearest airports are Bangor (90 minutes) and Portland (3 hours).

Skiers and snowshoes can experience the wilderness refuges of Maine in a variety of ways. The trails are well signposted, so no guides are required, although AMC conducts several guided group excursions (they fill up quickly). Medwisla and the private camps at West Branch Pond are accessible by car (all-wheel drive is recommended). Each has miles of ski slopes that you can explore as you return to the same place. This is the best option for beginner skiers. Another option is to ski between Little Lyford and Gorman Chairback. Both hostels are only accessible by skis or snowshoes and share the same winter car park, so no shuttle service is required. Each of these hostels also has its own network of trails. All lodges have wood saunas.

The ultimate adventure is a ski trip from lodge to lodge to the four wild shelters. This 32-mile ski requires at least four nights. Skiing on tidy trails between the hostels and you have to do a car transfer service ($ 60, arranged when booking your accommodation) so that your vehicle is waiting for your final destination. Accommodations range from $ 140 to $ 425 per couple per night, including all meals, depending on the type of accommodation. Dogs are also welcome in some huts; if you ski with them, cabin caretakers recommend dog boots to protect your feet on icy slopes.

Skiing follows conditioned ski slopes, so waxed or wax-free cross-country skis are best. If conditions are icy, some skiers may prefer a light ski with metal cuts. Bring a comfortable backpack for food, snacks, extra clothing, and first aid and repair supplies. You can buy or rent skis and other equipment at Northwoods Outfitters in Greenville; book your rental in advance for busy weekends. There are free snowshoes for use in hostels.

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