Year after year, friends of mine who retired ahead of me urged me to join them on their annual cross-country ski trip into the Maine wilderness.
“But I have to work,” was my annual reply. The trip was always in February when classes were in session at the University of Maine. After I retired, they made good on their offer and included me in six exhilarating days of skiing between lodges and camps in Maine’s 100-mile wilderness northeast of Greenville.
Last year we skied from the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Medawisla Wilderness Lodge and Cabins to the privately owned West Branch Pond Camps and finally to AMC’s Little Lyford Pond Camps, with days of skiing around the camps between trips. This year we started at West Branch Pond, skied to Little Lyford and concluded the week at the new AMC Gorman Chairback Lodge and Cabins just opened in January.
The original members of the 10- to 14-person group met on the faculty at the University of Maine and have made the annual trek since 1986. The trip was much longer in the 1980s, and they carried everything they needed on their backs. As the years passed, amenities increased. A van now carries skiers and gear from a winter parking lot to the starting point, and luggage is transported from lodge to lodge on sleds towed by snowmobiles, which set track as they traverse the trails. Skiers carry only day packs with lunches provided at the lodges.
West Branch Pond Camps have become a highlight of the trip because of the effort made to preserve their original character, including warm hospitality. Built in 1880 by Charles Randall, they were sold to the Chadwick family in 1910.
Eric Stirling is the fifth generation of that family to operate the camps. A 1997 Bates College graduate who majored in economics with an environmental focus, Stirling does it all, with a few part-time helpers and his wife, Mildred Kennedy-Stirling, a photographer who is pretty busy with their 2-year-old daughter, Avis. Stirling plows the five-mile road into the camps, creates and grooms miles of ski trails, maintains cabins and the pathways to them and cooks all the meals.
Five of the nine cabins are original — more than 100 years old — and Stirling has lovingly restored them one by one from foundation to insulated roof, maintaining the rustic feeling and furnishing them with everything a camper needs: a good wood stove and supply of dry wood, a teakettle to heat water and a basin for washing, comfortable chairs and stools to prop up feet in front of the fire, a pitcher of drinking water and cups, towels, pillows and beds for guests to roll out their sleeping bags.
“I have an aesthetic sense of what I like to see,” he said, “like the Morris chairs in Cabin 7 make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.” He searched until he found just the right enamelware “that makes things cheerful and bright.” There are no vinyl windows or fake logs in these dwellings.
He has introduced one modern innovation. Privy seats are padded with Mylar-coated bubble-wrap insulation so they heat up as soon as one sits down. But a sign on the door instructs: “Boys and men: Please pee behind the outhouse.”
The details have evolved since he started running the camps in 2004, he said, describing them as “stuff I’ve invented that I think people will appreciate when they come in from skiing.”
Food at West Branch Pond is as authentic as the cabins. Stirling makes everything from scratch using recipes he started learning from his mother, Carol, when he was in high school. Winter guests eat in his kitchen where he can seat up to 20 campers by putting together a zig-zag of tables.
“I don’t cut corners,” he said. “No mixes or frozen bread, and I try to use local foods.” Winter meals feature root vegetables traditionally stored in a root cellar — cabbage, carrots and red potatoes. Last year he made enough New England boiled dinner for our group to have a hearty breakfast of corned beef hash with eggs cooked on top the next morning. Breakfasts both years included fresh doughnuts made on the massive cook stove while we watched and salivated.
“I love it when this group arrives,” Stirling said of my companions. “They always entertain the guests with all their stories. We just sit back and watch it go.” He had just finished serving a breakfast of oatmeal, scrambled eggs, French toast and link sausage, while tales of past trips filled the kitchen with laughter and jest. In addition to our group of nine, five skiers from the Bangor area and a couple from New York City were gathered around the table.
“I hope people will leave with a sense they have experienced something unique — the sporting camp experience — as close as you can get to the wilderness, away from the noise where you step out the door and all you hear are the trees.”