Frost heaves rattled my bones as I drove farther into the western Maine wilderness. Any sign of residential neighborhoods far behind me, I glanced to my left at white-capped mountains peaking over jagged evergreen tops.
“You’ll be in the middle on nowhere, so it’s pretty hard to miss the sign,” Barbara Nickerson, finance manager of Maine Huts & Trails, had said earlier that morning. With her index finger, she had traced the snowshoe route to Flagstaff Hut on a map flattened on the counter of the organization’s Kingfield office.
Some 22 miles down Long Falls Dam Road, just past Roundtop Mountain, I spied the Maine Huts & Trails sign and turned left onto a gravel road that lead to a slushy and surprisingly crowded parking lot. Apparently, a lot of people had the desire to be in the middle of nowhere on that sunny March Monday.
“Last year, we had the best year ever, and this year, our numbers are higher,” Nickerson had told me. “The word has gotten out.”
Indeed, it has. Just last month, the New York Times ran a story by Eric Hansen, who — however unprepared for a Maine backcountry experience — traveled north to write about the relatively new hut-to-hut network.
Currently, the nonprofit Maine Huts & Trails offers 45 miles of groomed cross-country ski, snowshoe and hiking trails stretching from outside Sugarloaf ski resort to the small community of West Forks.
What’s unique about the network is that many of the trails have been built for the entry-level skier or hiker, making a backcountry experience accessible to a wide range of people, including families with small children.
Three “huts” break up the long stretch of wilderness.
Larry Warren, a founder of Western Mountains Foundation and visionary of the Huts & Trails system, worked on the project for more than 20 years before the inauguration of the first hut, Poplar Stream Falls Hut, in 2008. Flagstaff Lake Hut (11.3 miles to the north) opened in 2009, and Grand Falls Hut (another 11.5 miles by trail northwest) opened in 2010.
“We took a break in 2011, but now we’re gearing up for phase two to begin shortly,” Nickerson said. “It’s very exciting.”
The nonprofit’s vision is to create a 180-mile trail corridor with as many as 12 huts along the way.
As I buckled on snowshoes beside the kiosk and privy at the Long Falls Dam Road Trailhead, another vehicle bumbled into the parking lot.
Doug Malloy, 65, of Athens, an avid skier who has explored the entire network, hopped out and began waxing his skis against the car. That day, he brought along his 31-year-old daughter, Kaitlin, and her boyfriend, Andrea Sorgato, 30, both of Boston.
“Touring centers are kind of nice, but here you feel like you’re actually going somewhere,” Malloy said. “It’s just so varied. You can ski along the river to waterfalls, on a flat lake, through hills — and you get to these huts, but they’re not huts, they’re grand lodges.”
Eager to set my eyes on Flagstaff Lake Hut, I tucked the trail map into my pack along with other necessary gear and started the 1.8-mile trek. After a few hundred yards, I left the Maine Hut Trail for the Shore Trail, a narrower snowshoe route that hugs the shore of Flagstaff Lake, a shallow, 20,000-acre lake with an intriguing history.
Flagstaff Lake was smaller until the Long Falls Dam impounded the Dead River in 1950, enlarging the lake and submerging parts of several abandoned townships. Building ruins can still be seen below the surface.
Though the temperature was in the 50s, the lake was covered with ice, but snow had melted off the sunny bank, leaving it bare and soft, rendering the snowshoes unnecessary. But in the shaded woods, snow deepened and the wide shoes prevented me from post-holing.
As I gazed at the Bigelow Range lording over the lake, a chickadee nearly slapped my face as it darted across the sunbathed trail. Birdsong mingled with the chatter of red squirrels, welcoming spring, a season that will usher in hikers rather than skiers.
Though the Maine Huts & Trails network is busier in the winter, the lodges and trails are open year-round.
About a half mile in, I passed by a middle-age couple from Bowdoinham who had just spent a night at Flagstaff Lake Hut for the first time. They raved about the food and friendly staff and urged me to go on their “green” energy tour when I arrived.
A mixed forest gave way to birches, and a massive log lodge emerged. Abandoning my snowshoes and poles, I stepped through the front door, under a mantel of driftwood from the lake.
Hut Master Ellen McDevitt exited the kitchen, leaving that evening’s squash soup in the hands of crew member Jenny Baxter. The two women made up half of the hut’s young crew — all in their 20s.
“We have a menu rotation, but we change it depending on what will appeal to the guests that night,” McDevitt said. “Like last night we had 19 kids, so we weren’t going to make beef stew.”
Instead, they cooked chicken pot pie and chocolate peanut butter pie in honor of “Pie Week.”
During the two full-service seasons, winter and summer, the huts offer much more than shelter from snowstorms and black flies. In addition to a home-cooked dinner (with wine or beer for a little extra), guests enjoy a gear shuttle, shower, toilets, a heated bunkhouse, hearty breakfast and trail lunch.
For the spring and fall self-service seasons — April 1 to mid-June and November 1 to mid-December — the hut crew departs and one caretaker remains to keep the lodge running. At a lower cost, guests can stay at the lodges but are not catered to in any way.
“February was our busiest month ever,” McDevitt said as she leaned against the big stone fireplace in the dining room. “Given the conditions, this winter was phenomenal … we’ve had a couple people come stay in January and then return in February and March, and we think ‘Yes, we’re doing something right.’”
Stunning photographs of the surrounding terrain by John Orcutt, the architect for all three huts, line the walls of the dining room. Everywhere you look in the main lodge, evidence of donations made by individuals and organizations can be seen — from the names engraved on chairs to the L.L. Bean boot mosaic on the entryway floor.
Remotely located, these lodges operate off the grid. Solar panels (with backup propane generators) and a high-tech system provide electricity, and a super-efficient wood gasification boiler supplies the radiant floor heating.
McDevitt led me past a small library, where two women from Massachusetts were reading and relaxing after a day of skiing, to a drying room, where guests leave their snow-covered gear. At the end of the main hall, lit by sunlight pulled down through solar tubes, we entered a pristine bathroom with composting toilets and token-operated showers.
“We don’t have limitless energy,” my guide said, waving her hand over the “3-Minute Shower Wall of Fame.”
As I scanned the hefty guest book by the back porch, McDevitt said, “The percentage of non-Mainers is rapidly increasing. People from Connecticut and Massachusetts are here regularly. We’ve seen people from all over — more from New York and Quebec.”
Because the trail to Flagstaff Lake Hut is short and easy, the crew meets guests of all ages and skill levels.
“But this is still a backcountry experience,” McDevitt said, “and people need to be prepared for something to go wrong.”
A list of what to pack on a hut-to-hut trip and other information can be found at www.mainehuts.org.
In the summer, biking into Poplar Steam Falls Hut has become popular, and at Flagstaff Lake Hut, canoes and kayaks are available for Maine Huts & Trails members.
Base membership is $35.
“Membership is very important to us,” McDevitt said. “We’re at a point where we still need donations to continue to operate and expand.”
The network is constantly growing. New this year is a yurt between Poplar Hut and Flagstaff Hut and a 14-mile section of trail from the Forks to Grand Falls Hut. This new trail runs along the banks of the Dead River and is recommended for intermediate to advanced skiers only.
The organization is also partnering with boat and rafting guides to offer tours of Flagstaff Lake and Dead River.
The trails are accessible and free to the public year-round. For day trippers, lunch is available for purchase and is served at the huts from 11:30 a.m to 1:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday, and on some school vacations and holidays. At Flagstaff, the lunch deal is generally $6 for soup, bread, a drink and a famous Flagstaff cookie — a delicious treat that I ate as I snowshoed back to the parking lot.
For information about Maine Huts & Trails, visit www.mainehuts.org, call 265-2400 or 877-634-8824 or visit their administrative office at 375 N. Main St. in Kingfield.