After two years of walking past the Maine Huts and Trails gift certificate taped to our kitchen wall, Jonathan and I finally followed through on our plan to experience the Maine woods as guests in the huts. Along with two intrepid friends, we recently plotted out a four-night, cross-country ski expedition. What we discovered was one of Maine’s great unsung treasures. The huts offer a uniquely enchanting immersion into Maine’s vast and glorious outdoors for trekkers of all ages and all levels.
“Hut” is a misleading term for these accommodations. They are spacious, high-ceilinged lodges with outbuildings that house thirty to forty people. You are blissfully disconnected from the electronic world, and you sleep in a sleeping bag in comfortably heated bunkhouses. Inside each main lodge there are large common areas for dining, games, reading, and lounging. There is beer and wine for sale and a fully-stocked kitchen where the hut staff prepare hearty, family-style meals. If that isn’t enough to tempt you to engage in “people powered” travel, you will also find waiting for you at the end of your rigorous day a warm drying room for your damp gear; indoor, state-of-the-art composting toilets; and – perhaps the most luxurious amenity – hot showers!
On our way to the Airport Trailhead we made a stop in Kingfield, Maine at the Maine Huts and Trails (MHT) headquarters. I highly recommend this stop for first-timers, since employees offer lots of information, suggestions, and enthusiasm to get you pumped up for your first day. Thanks to Patrick’s insider information, we learned about the excellent vista near a trail stop we’d be passing called “half-way yurt.” The vista involves an extra trail climb of ten to fifteen minutes, but the view of Sugarloaf and the Bigelow range was jaw-dropping.
Day one was a 3.3 mile, fully-loaded ski in to Poplar, the original hut. We worked up quite a sweat on that climb, but our loads were lighter for the rest of our ski-days. For an extra $35 per day, MHT offers a shuttle to transport your gear (up to 25 pounds in a backpack) to your next destination. We happily sprang for that added perk.
Rihanna and Caleb, our hut staffers, greeted us at Poplar’s registration window, oriented us to the facilities, and announced the dinner menu – spicy beef stew, rutabaga mash, farro and butternut squash salad, homemade bread, and coconut cupcakes for dessert. Yup, it was as good as it sounds. Not only are the huts almost exclusively off the grid, they also do their best to use locally-sourced food. That means real Maine blueberries and Maine maple syrup for your morning pancakes.
Since I am not by nature a morning person, I was daunted to hear that we had to have our gear packed and ready for the shuttle at 7:30 a.m. However, since breakfast is served at 7:30 anyway, it wasn’t so bad and allowed us to start our long days promptly, with plenty of daylight ahead.
On day two we made the 11.5-mile trek from Poplar Hut to Flagstaff in a light snowfall. The recent heavy snow and wind was a bonus, and not just for excellent skiing conditions. The woods were glorious and peaceful. Huge dollops of snow muffled sound and decorated stumps and spruce boughs. Birch and cedar trees were limned in white highlights. We had easy going on the groomed trail, and we weren’t alone. For about a mile we followed the pawprints of a fox, probably grateful for an alternative to the deep slog in the woods. We spotted a downy woodpecker, flushed a grouse, and fell under the spell of our own rhythmic gliding through the silence.
The half-way yurt was perfectly placed as a lunchtime rest stop. We lit up the woodstove, warmed and dried our damp outer layers, and ate the lunches we’d prepared from the hut’s lunch buffet table that morning. Best of all, the yurt is at the top of a rise, so your after-lunch event is a lovely, long downhill glide.
The MHT system was the brainchild of Larry Warren, who was inspired by hut-to-hut trails in the European Alps. As MHT celebrates their ten-year anniversary, they have plans to expand their four huts and 80 miles of trails to an additional six to eight huts, each with its own particular character. Flagstaff, grandly overlooking Flagstaff Lake, has trailhead parking less than two miles away and is perfect for families interested in boating, hiking, snowshoeing, or skiing.
January is quiet season, so I found myself alone with my coffee one morning in the airy dining room. I gazed through a floor-to-ceiling pyramid of tall windows that framed a dazzling portrait of snow and birches. Quintessential Maine woods, I thought…and someone else is doing all the cooking. I will definitely return.