September 20, 2017
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Mount Chase native returns to run sporting camp with new emphasis on monument

By John Holyoke, BDN Staff
Updated:

MOUNT CHASE, Maine — Lindsay Downing grew up here, on the edge of some of the state’s deepest, least-developed woods, running from cabin to cabin of the traditional sporting camp that her parents owned, playing with the children of guests and sharing her own living room with hunters, snowmobilers and anglers.

Not that she ever thought she’d want to own Mt. Chase Lodge herself, mind you.

“It was awesome and I hated it — all at the same time,” she said, shaking her head at the memory and laughing. “I loved guests. I loved hanging out with them. Probably I was the most annoying kid ever, because if we ever had families staying and if they had kids that were my age, I would sleep in the cabins and we would have this great sleepover.”

When she was about 10, she remembers earning $20 per night in tips from hunters who’d send her running to fetch them bottles of beer they’d left on their cabin porches.

Then, she began to grow up.

“I loved it until I became a teenager, and then I hated it,” she said. “Because as a teenager, all I wanted was my own space. … Somebody’s always in my house. [I was] always having to have that face on.”

And when she graduated from high school, she vowed she’d never return to run the lodge on the shore of Upper Shin Pond.

Between then and now, a lot happened. Lindsay met Mike Downing. The couple hiked a long trail together, and they fell in love. They worked in the hospitality business deep in the woods of Maine and Alaska.

And eventually they decided that buying that lodge seemed like a pretty fine idea.

In 2016, Lindsay and her husband Mike Downing bought the place from her parents, Rick and Sara Hill. Consisting of five private cabins and eight bedrooms in the main building, the lodge first opened in 1960.

The new owners would likely tell you the purchase was just the latest great adventure they’ve shared. Together, they’ve reshaped Mt. Chase Lodge, changing focus from filling the bellies of hungry hunters to offering more sophisticated and scrumptious dinners by reservation, which locals drive miles to enjoy.

Their job responsibilities are strictly defined. Lindsay, energetic and outgoing, now eagerly puts on “that face” and concentrates on the customers. Mike, quiet and low-key, is skilled in the kitchen and provides the vision that fuels the lodge’s commitment to food.

Adding to their optimism and serving as one of the catalysts of their decision to pursue their dreams here is the presence of the year-old Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument not far from their front door.

“We always knew we [were sitting on a] gold mine [if the national monument designation took place,” Lindsay said. “It is the future for us.”

The adventure begins

When Mike graduated from Bates College with a degree in physics, he took a job in the insurance field and spent 4½ years in an office cubicle he came to dread.

“I couldn’t take it any more, being stuck inside all day,” he said. “That’s when I decided to leave, and I was looking for some kind of trail job or national park job. I had one connection that got me into Maine Huts and Trails.”

Mike had long loved to cook — his mom used to pay him to make her breakfast — and he got to work learning more about the field.

Meanwhile, Lindsay was living her own dream, teaching at an outdoor education center in California and looking to come back to her home state. While on a rock-climbing trip in Joshua Tree National Park, she huddled in the shade behind a boulder so she could interview for a job, also with Maine Huts and Trails.

Before long, the two met, hatched a plan to hike the Appalachian Trail together and finagled a way to work together at the same hut.

Lindsay, for one, knew early on that she’d met someone special. You might even say her rubber chicken told her so.

“I was going to hike the AT alone, and I was kind of freaking out about it,” she said. “I started asking anyone with legs if they’d do it with me.”

Then, at a gathering of Maine Huts and Trails employees, she showed up with the rubber chicken that her family had given her as a gag Christmas gift, instructing her to take it with her on the trail, posing it for photos along the way.

“I was like, ‘That’s a great idea. I’ll have a companion,’” she said. When she showed her chicken, which she named “Shengwey” to her co-workers, one of them seemed unimpressed.

He walked away.

A few minutes later, Mike returned with an action figure he’d taken on many of his own adventures and made a formal introduction.

Shengwey, meet Wolverine.

“So that’s when I knew I was going to marry him, and I started to figure out how to make that happen,” Lindsay said. “That’s when I started pushing the AT idea.”

Mike, whose brother had hiked the trail a year earlier, said her invitation sounded good to him.

By the time they started hiking, the co-workers were officially a couple.

Make that a couple facing a 2,180-mile walk in the woods.

“It was either going to work out horribly bad, or it was going to end perfectly,” Mike said. “It just happened to work out perfectly.”

North to Alaska

After completing the AT, the couple began to work seasonally, spending the winters at jobs for Maine Huts and Trails, and winters in Alaska, where they worked at the upscale Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge.

That’s where Mike became a chef’s assistant responsible for appetizers, bread, desserts and the staff meal. Lindsay, meanwhile, headed up housekeeping.

That experience proved invaluable, Mike said.

“I did learn a lot [at Maine Huts and Trails], but it wasn’t the high-end stuff that I learned in Alaska,” he said. “[Alaska] was the bulk of my training, where I got to work directly under a professionally trained chef.”

Among the things he learned: how to make all kinds of wonderful bread. That knowledge fueled a passion that continues today.

In fact, at Mt. Chase Lodge, Wednesday is “Bread Day,” and Mike prepares loaves that he sells for $5 apiece to a list of local subscribers.

“Bread Day” began as a promotion to get people interested in the lodge’s offerings but has grown into a monster of its own. And pity upon the Downings if the bread isn’t ready.

“One week we posted on Facebook that we weren’t going to be around to bake bread, but we didn’t call everybody [on the list],” Lindsay said. “It was a riot. People were showing up here, looking for their bread.”

Lindsay said they won’t make that mistake again. The couple was going to miss a bread delivery in August, but they let their customers know during the previous week’s delivery and even included one of Mike’s bread recipes for people to make themselves.

Another thing Mike learned in Alaska: the value of good desserts.

“I took a lot of pride in my bread and my desserts. I almost feel like they’re the bookends of a meal,” he said. “I care about the meal in between, but [breads and desserts] make people remember that it was a good meal.”

At Mt. Chase Lodge, that ethos still stands. Luckily, the courses in the middle are just as impressive.

On a recent visit, the beetroot sourdough bread and blueberry feta salad were followed by either a carne asada steak or salmon with a blueberry chutney, each served with roasted vegetables and either garlic rosemary mashed potatoes or wild rice. Dessert was a flourless chocolate cake.

All were excellent.

Back to Mt. Chase

In 2014, the couple was working at an Appalachian Mountain Club facility when Lindsay returned to Mt. Chase Lodge to visit her parents. The Hills had put the lodge on the market 10 years earlier but hadn’t been able to sell it.

Lindsay said she knew her parents were reluctant to ask if she and Mike were willing to purchase the place, but during one conversation the topic did come up.

“They started talking to me about how somebody mentioned that [we] might be interested in running this place,” Lindsay said. “That’s all it took, them taking that first step. … It took a lot of guts for them to say that, because they never wanted to push anything on me.”

Mike and Lindsay banked all the money they could over the next two years, met with business advisers and had an important discussion with Lucas St. Clair, whose family was working hard to establish a national park or monument nearby.

“When we met Lucas and we said, ‘Hey, we’d kind of like to move up here. Is this national monument — at that point it was [being discussed as] a national park — going to happen? Because that’s going to make or break our deal here,’” Lindsay said.

St. Clair’s response convinced the couple they were making a good decision.

“That was the whole premise that gave us the confidence to do it,” Lindsay said. “This area was going to be getting a ton of publicity, and people were going to be coming here.”

Mt. Chase Lodge sits 16 miles from the monument’s north entrance and 27 miles from the primary south portal. The couple have seen an increase in visitors since its official designation a year ago and are eager for what the future holds.

To meet those new demands, they’re working to improve their own offerings at Mt. Chase Lodge.

Old place, new outlook

When the Downings took over operation of the lodge in February of 2016, they knew they’d want to change things.

One was a vivid reminder of the childhood Lindsay lived. The couple would not share their own living room with guests.

Instead of sitting down in the lodge’s main room to watch TV with guests, after meals are cleared and dishes done, Lindsay and Mike put a bell on the counter and retire to their own private quarters.

They’ve also changed focus. While hunters and anglers are welcome, they’re not necessarily the target audience.

“When [my parents] were really doing well, it was because of hunting. They had bear hunters in here, and their hunting season was cranking,” Lindsay said. “But hunters aren’t really foodies. They want to be fed, sure. But they don’t care, really, if it’s the greatest salmon in the world.”

Because cooking is one of Mike’s strengths, the couple decided to focus on taking advantage of those skills in a way that few traditional sporting camps do. They invite the public to make reservations to dine at Mt. Chase Lodge along with the guests.

Meals are served family-style, with one or two entree options and long tables that seat 10 or 20 guests.

“We weren’t basing it on any kind of model. I’d never been anyplace that did that,” Lindsay said. “It was more of a way of making extra money.”

And their modest financial goals were quickly surpassed.

“In our business plan, we estimated $4,000 a year on dinner by reservation. That’s what we had to make,” Lindsay said. “When we got here, word spread very quickly, and we did that in a month.”

Not that offering the by-reservation service wasn’t without some initial pitfalls.

“It was a little confusing at first, because we said we were a restaurant and had a sign [beside the road], and it said, ‘Dining,’” Mike said. “Some people would show up and say, ‘OK, we want to have dinner.’ [I’d say] ‘Well, typically we require two nights’ [advance notice], but we can probably sneak you in.’ They’d say, ‘Good. Where’s the menu?’”

The answer: There is none. You eat what everyone else is eating — while Mike will tinker in order to meet individual dietary restrictions.

The reaction has been positive, once people figure out how the meal works. And while an increase in traveling customers will likely be on the horizon because of the nearby monument, right now the Downings are serving plenty of their neighbors.

“It’s mostly really local,” Lindsay said. Most of the people who come here are [from] Shin Pond, Patten. Occasionally we’ll get people from Houlton.”

And as the monument adds more infrastructure and becomes more well known, they’re hoping to continue to improve.

The couple has already tackled plenty of renovation projects, including adding new beds and refurbishing the porch off the dining room, which offers a beautiful waterfront view.

More improvements are on tap, including a new furnace that will be installed for the popular snowmobile season.

And eventually, the couple might be able to take a day off.

“We’ll be able to afford to pay help to help us,” Lindsay said. “Well, that’s the hope: To be able to have people to take some of the responsibility off our shoulders.”


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