Dipping her paddle into the crystal-clear water of Flagstaff Lake, Lani Cochrane pushed away from the dock and drifted out of “the danger zone.”
“Most accidents happen right by the dock,” she said, gracefully standing up on the board from a kneeling position.
Stand-up paddle boarding is one of the many outdoor activities that Cochrane is teaching this summer as recreational programs manager for Maine Huts & Trails, a nonprofit organization that has been building an extensive network of trails and backcountry lodges in western Maine since 2008.
New this summer, the organization has rolled out a series of guided recreational programs for hut guests, from guided hikes of the Bigelow Mountain Range to fly fishing on the Dead River.
“Some people maybe don’t have the equipment or the confidence to go out,” said Cochrane, who has 20 years of experience as a registered Maine guide. “So each hut now has some guided recreation tours … from biking, canoeing, kayaking.”
Since its inception, the Maine Huts & Trails system has become a top destination for nordic skiers in wintertime. By day, skiers can explore the snowy wilderness on 80-plus miles of trails, and by night, they can enjoy a hot shower, gourmet meals and a warm bed at various “huts,” which are actually spacious, eco-friendly lodges.
But each year, when the snow melts, traffic in the hut-to-hut system slows to a trickle. Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Carrabassett Valley, tourism plummets when Sugarloaf ski resort closes for the season.
“It’s such a spectacular part of the state,” said Maine Huts & Trails Executive Director Charlie Woodworth. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be seeing plenty of visitors year round.”
Of all the summer outdoor activities the region has to offer, Woodworth said that mountain biking has the biggest potential to attract new visitors. And he’s not alone in his thinking.
For four years now, the Town of Carrabassett Valley has been partnering with MH&T and the Carrabassett Region Chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA) to design and construct a variety of mountain bike trails throughout the area. By the end of this summer, they will have invested approximately $300,000 in building 45 miles of bike trails, Woodworth said.
“The town has a unique outlook,” Woodworth said. “The town manager Dave Cota said, ‘Recreation is our industrial park.’ That really sums it up.”
These new biking trails — double-track (side-by-side riding) and single-track — are located at the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center and in the nearby Maine Huts & Trails system.
“Now you can do hut-to-hut mountain biking with gear shuttles,” Woodworth said. “Go ride. Have fun. And we’ll see you at the end of the day.”
A gear shuttle — having Maine Huts & Trails staff transport your overnight bags from hut to hut while you travel with a light day pack — can make all the difference in a biking experience.
Cyclists can start out their adventure at Sugarloaf Outdoor Center, where locally-owned Carrabassett Valley Bike has set up shop for the season to provide mountain bike rentals, repairs and trail information. At the center, mountain bikers can enjoy about 15 miles of recently constructed biking trails that cater to all skill levels, from beginner to expert.
From there, the Maine Huts & Trails network is just a few miles away, accessible by a number of trailheads.
“[The Maine Huts & Trails bike trails] are for more expert bikers I’d say right now, but we’re working on our trails to make them more family-friendly,” said Sarah Pine, MH&T hut operations manager.
Currently, a trail crew is working on building a premiere single-track bike trail to Stratton Brook Hut, which opened in 2012 and is the system’s fourth and newest hut. Perched on a ridge, the alpine hut is open to the elements and provides stunning views of the western Maine mountains — Sugarloaf to the south and the Bigelow Range to the north.
“Coming to the hut is an experience because you’re in the middle of nowhere but you have the most comfortable environment to stay in,” said Cochrane before biking to Poplar Stream Falls Hut on Friday.
Uphill from two enchanting waterfalls, Poplar Stream Falls Hut opened in 2008 to become the system’s first hut.
The main lodge and bunkhouses are a combination of rustic charm, comfort, efficiency and beauty, designed by Kingfield architect John Orcutt, whose captivating landscape photos adorn the walls, reminding visitors of the natural beauty that can be found directly outside.
When Cochrane arrived, the hut’s crew of four was busy preparing dinner — a traditional Yankee pot roast of slow-cooked beef with parsnips, potato and carrots; roasted green beans; homemade multi-grain bread; a summer salad; and a dessert of strawberry rhubarb crisp.
“The food just really enhances your whole experience,” Cochrane said. “It’s not like you’re going to get there and they’re going to open up a can of Spam and call it dinner. It’s a gourmet dinner. It’s multiple courses and it’s cooked with so much love. The hut staff takes all day long to prepare each meal, and they take such ownership and such pride of that.”
In the high-ceilinged community dining room, hut guests are served dinner and breakfast, as well as provided the fixings for a tasty trail lunch.
“The beauty of the huts is that each has its own uniqueness,” said Cochrane, pointing out that each of the four huts built so far has been strategically located near natural features that offer opportunities for different outdoor activities.
“This is going to be our biking mecca,” said Cochrane, using her index finger to circle Stratton Brook Hut and Poplar Stream Hut on a trail map she had flattened out on the long wooden dining table.
“And this is more of our water mecca,” she added, shifting north to Flagstaff Lake Hut and Grand Falls Hut.
Flagstaff Lake Hut, which opened in 2009, is located on the shores of the historic and picturesque Flagstaff Lake. There, guests can rent kayaks and canoes or hike on easy trails to visit a nearby beaver lodge or a sandy beach.
Across the lake and up the Dead River is Grand Falls Hut, which opened in 2010 near the breathtaking Grand Falls, an ideal spot for trout and salmon fishing. And guided paddling trips will be provided on the river throughout September; the dates are listed on www.mainehuts.org, where a list of the new recreational programs is updated regularly.
Maine Huts & Trails long-term plan is to construct 12 huts connected by approximately 180 miles of high-quality trails for skiing, hiking, snowshoeing and biking.
“Our numbers are up,” Woodworth said. “Our website is electric now. We’ve got a lot going on.”
To support their efforts by donating or becoming a member of MH&T, visit their website or call their main office at 265-2400, where staff will help you plan your next outdoor adventure. For nonmembers, overnight stays at the lodges during summer start at $56 for youth and $96 for adults.