Words & Photos by Jess Beer
A getaway to Maine Huts and Trails, a non-profit hiking & skiing organization.
It’s a quarter after three in the afternoon and the hut is alive and anxious with anticipation as guests slowly begin to trickle in by groups of twos and threes behind us. The rich smell of freshly brewed Carrabassett coffee permeates the air around you, as the subtle sounds of kitchen pans and utensils being tossed about pull your attention inward. The kitchen is like a hive, hut crew members are buzzing from counter to counter, between stovetop and sink; dinner prep is in full swing. Potatoes are tossed about as they are sliced and seasoned for roasting, and the savory smell of chicken in the oven has you salivating like one of pavlov’s dogs. To your left, the beer and wine list eagerly reminds you of just how thirsty you are after a long but rewarding day of cross country skiing.
As we were assured prior to arrival, the hut is warm and welcoming, a sudden change from the frigid winter air we just bravely traversed through on our cross country skis. Most New Englanders take the winter season as a time for renewal, a chance to recharge and recoup after a short and demanding summer, but not this crowd. The folks here have taken full advantage of Maine Huts and Trails opportunity to chose your own adventure, as dozens of cross country skis and even a fat bike or two can be seen gently wedged between snow banks outside of the main entrance. This “hut” is not your run of the mill backwoods lean to, but an intricately crafted eco-lodge nestled between the evergreens.
Maine Huts and Trails is a non-profit organization whose focus is to preserve and conserve the land of western Maine through their back country hut to hut trail system. Modeled after the European backcountry lodging system, these huts offer guests the ability to enjoy a day’s worth of outdoor play and conclude it with a warm meal and comfortable place to sleep.
The original idea behind the huts was created by Larry Warren, a western Mainer and Carrabassett Valley native, whose passion not only lies in varying forms of outdoor recreation but high class eco-tourism. His carefully designed huts are known for being “off the grid” and “self sustaining” through the use of solar energy, wood burning and various composting systems. Larry has kept true to his goal of supporting the local economy by sourcing produce and material for the sustainability and construction of each hut from within 50 miles of each location; a task that has been taken very seriously since day one. You can even take an “energy tour” after dinner when you stay over night, where the hut staff will thoroughly go through the hut with you explaining each system, the way in which they are run, and what their purpose is within the everyday functionality of the hut.
We started our adventure at the Airport trail head, located in Carrabassett Valley along route 27 north. The drive through this area of western Maine was scenic and enchanting, like a scene from a wintery children’s book come to life before our very eyes. Our vehicle wound for miles along the Carrabassett river and through rolling mountainsides, thick with snow from this past week’s early morning snowfall. Views of Mount Abraham can be seen to your left as you pass through the small town of Kingfield, home base of the Maine Huts and Trails office, just south of Carrabassett Valley. Grand views of the Bigelow Mountain Range can be seen along your dashboard as you head further north, dipping between valley ranges and coasting around swift s-curves.
Upon arriving to the Airport trail head, we were greeted with clear views of the distant Bigelow Preserve, West and Avery peak to the right, the Horns and Cranberry to the left. A large kiosk holds a large blown up map of the trail system, portable tri-fold trail maps, and a welcome sign pointing us in the right direction to the Maine Huts ski trail. We chose Poplar Stream Falls hut as our location for this adventure, a 3.3 mile ski from the airport trailhead. With fresh snow all around us, we were eager to hit the groomed trails. Groomers work day and night preparing these trails for the day’s guests, tracking over 80 miles of corridor for outdoor winter enthusiasts to enjoy. This is a hard and demanding task, and we appreciate their hard work and dedication with each kick of our ski boot.
Maine Huts and Trails has become known as one of this region’s top cross country ski destinations. With over 80 miles of groomed corridor for cross country skiing, winter fat biking, snowshoeing and hiking. As you follow the Maine Huts trail between the huts, you will have opportunities to break off of the main trail and take small scenic side trails, primarily accessible to snowshoers and hikers in the winter. These quick alternate routes often offer you the opportunity of viewing natural landmarks like waterfalls, vast shorelines of Flagstaff Lake and sometimes even views of Sugarloaf ski mountain along the horizon line.
The ski between the airport and hut was smooth and rolling, offing us opportunities to climb small and gradual hills to then confidently coast down smooth turns. We stopped along the way to enjoy some homemade granola that we packed as a trail snack from home, and to scope out our location within the trail map. Careful consideration has been placed within the tri-fold maps, as we are easily able to follow our course, as well as stay on track with the help of diamond shaped blue trail blazes along the way.
The last and final climb before the hut left us feeling jittery with excitement, as we were almost to our destination and only a few short moments from a warm fire and hot cup of coffee. The journey had taken us no more than a couple hours based on our skiing ability, including a few stops along the way. The ski in is easily obtainable by any skier, leaving you feeling conquered and fatigued with satisfaction.
Warm smiles welcomed us upon arrival, as we filled out or registration form and were pointed in the direction of our room. The hut staff was eager to fill us in on the systems around the hut and even reminded us to please keep our electronics tucked away, to ensure that we could take full advantage of the “off the grid” lifestyle and momentarily disconnect ourselves from the outside world. We were asked to stay mindful of energy use within the hut and to remember to turn off any lights that we may use throughout the course of our stay, as well as refrain from overusing water during our showers. After our day of skiing, a warm shower was exactly what we were looking for, and were thankful to have the opportunity to warm up and get cozy in our loungewear.
As a party of two, we were allotted the option of booking a private room, offering us with separate sleeping quarters from the rest of the night’s guests. Depending on how many guests there are each night, parties might be combined within large bunk quarters, posing a similarity to the european style hut to hut lodging experience. The bunk rooms themselves are quiet, comfortable and most importantly, heated! Our packing list for this trip remained fairly small and simple; clothes to ski in, clothes to lounge and sleep in, warm weather gear like hats and scarfs, a sleeping bag and bathroom essentials. Traveling light was easy, thanks to the generous hospitality of the huts for supplying us with sleeping quarters, a comfortable bed and pillow, as well as multiple home cooked meals. For those guests who may need to travel with more gear than ourselves, there is the additional option to have your bags shuttled from hut to hut.
Dinner was served promptly at six, and we were wowed with a large spread of savory fare. The hut staff worked throughout the day to prepare us with homemade bread, seasoned chicken, roasted vegetables and flavor packed potato wedges. We enjoyed dinner with a cold beer and a glass of wine, while fully embracing the family style set up. We sat among two other families, encouraging us to mingle with our new found friends. Stories were shared of our days adventures, time spent within the other three huts, and we were even presented with a dinner speech.
As dinner concluded and dessert was presented, the hut staff thanked us again for joining them that evening, and introduced themselves one by one. We were informed that there would be an “energy tour” that evening, which we were excited for, and that breakfast would be served at 7:30 am followed by a lunch buffet style spread. We were encouraged to create our own lunch sandwiches from the salads in which they prepared for us, including snacks like apples, oranges, granola bars and chips. These bagged lunches offered us the opportunity to hit the trail sooner, and enjoy the most out of our afternoon that following day.
Their speech also touched upon their mission and core values as a non profit organization, including their dedication to minimizing their environmental impact through eco-systems, empowering the local community by sourcing locally, and providing us with a world class experience through hospitality and outdoor recreation opportunities. They explained to us how the huts were formed, how the idea originated, and how the structures came to be.
Our trip has been not only rewarding and memorable, but also educational in more ways than anyone could imagine. From the afternoon’s ski adventure up to the hut, to the family style shared meal, there wasn’t a moment where there wasn’t something to experience or something to learn. When you stay at the huts, you are not only educating yourself about sustainable lifestyles and alternative ways of living, but helping to spread an environmental movement. Maine Huts and Trails is truly doing something incredible here, and by staying within one of their lodges and experiencing what they have to offer, you are helping to contribute to their mission. There is so much to learn about the world around you, and submersing yourself within the backcountry of western Maine is only the tip of it.