The wind blew in gusts, snow swirling across the ice like a thick fog, tumbling over the frozen lake’s rippled surface. We marched through the driving blizzard towards the eastern shore of Long Pond Lake, one snowshoe in front of the other. If we had wondered about the spruce branches sticking out of the snow-pack to mark the trail on our outbound journey, we now knew they were necessary, as any earlier tracks had long since disappeared in the fresh powder.
It was the third day of our lodge to lodge ski through the Maine woods and, with two nights at Gorman Chairback Lodge, my wife and I had decided to store the skis, opting instead for a day’s outing on snowshoes. We had headed down the lake in brilliant sunshine, but after lunch the wind picked up and dark, ominous clouds moved in. We headed home, breaking trail into the fading afternoon light, until our destination’s soft outline materialized in the driving snow.
Not that we were worried, it is hard to get lost on a lake. I had, in fact, let my mind drift like the snow, and had imagined myself as some kind of arctic explorer. Still, we are happy when we see the unique, eight-sided cabin that serves as the camp’s heritage centre-piece on the lake’s edge, and we know comfort, and the warmth of the lodge’s sauna, will soon be at hand. William Dean, a one-armed Civil War vet, came to the shores of Long Pond Lake in 1867, and began work on a hunting and fishing camp. Dean cut trees in four foot lengths, which was the maximum he could handle given his disability, and he built this “Octagon cabin.”
We had driven to Greenville, Maine, three days earlier through a blizzard which ravaged the Eastern United States with two feet of snow in a 24 hour period. Our drive wound through a river of snow and slush, with cars scattered like driftwood, to and fro, on either side. After a night in Greenville, we drove to the trailhead and deposited our duffle bags at the kiosk labeled Little Lyford, to be shuttled ahead via snowmobile. The storm had passed and we set out under blue skies, looping our way down a long rolling slope, while dodging groomers out working feverishly to tame the new snow.
The skiing is beautiful but challenging, the new powder is heavy and choppy, but the beautiful Maine woods glisten as the sun reflects off trees laden with snow. This backcountry realm is a world apart, delivering doses of refreshing mountain air and blissful solitude. There is nothing but the crush of trees and the sound of wind and birds. Chickadees, jays, ravens and woodpeckers flit through the white treetops, and animal tracks mark the snow.
Little Lyford camp was built in 1874 to house lumbermen who worked around the West Branch of Maine’s Pleasant River. In the late afternoon, after some 12 kilometres, we ski down a hill to the lodge. You can almost imagine the scene 140 years earlier, though the camp has been updated in a delightful way, with many modern conveniences. Smoke curls out of the chimneys of nine cozy log cabins, which are clustered around a large new dining lodge. We slip out of our skis and haul our gear on a sled up to our cabin, which has its own porch, woodstove and gas lamps.
A central bathhouse has composting toilets, showers and a wood-heated sauna which we decide will be our first stop. Home-cooked meals are served in the main lodge, and we meet some guests from coastal Maine who have been coming here every winter for 25 years, presumably decked out in the same traditional gear – wool pants, gators, flannel checked jackets and wool caps. We enjoy the community and conversation at the communal dinner tables.
After breakfast the next morning, we pack a box lunch for the trail, and set off once again. The Appalachian Mountain Club maintains a network of more than 125 kilometres of groomed ski trails serving their backcountry lodges, a stacked loop system that gives each skier the flexibility as far as length and difficulty. We decide on something moderate and fairly direct, spend the morning on a steady climb into the highlands, and then, after lunch, enjoy a steady run down to Long Pond Lake.
Gorman Chairback Lodge and Cabins offers a spectacular shoreline location, enchantingly off the grid. As we stand admiring the beautiful winter scene, Chris, camp caretaker, leans out the window of the main lodge and greets us with a hearty “Welcome!” We store our skis in the log rack, and join Chris for a local beer in front of the lodge’s big fireplace.
Gorman Chairback was opened as an AMC lodge in 2011, and other than the towering pines that surround the cabins, it would be hard to mistake it for a 19th century logging camp now. It features a central “green” lodge building for meals and lounging, twelve cabins (some of them a few feet away from the lake) and a bunkhouse. The AMC renovated the lakefront cabins built in the 1920’s and 50’s on the shoreline, and then used these cabins as templates for four new spacious “Deluxe” cabins with private bathrooms and electricity. As at Lyford, the meals are excellent, and here you can buy beer and wine – which we take full advantage of.
The sun is back out as we take our leave on the final day, say our goodbyes to the fellow guests, and start off early. It is a beautiful ski, high above the north shore of the lake, and then a steady climb back to the trailhead near Greenville. Our drive home is easy and clear, and we are rested, thoroughly charmed and utterly rejuvenated by our four day lodge-to-lodge ski in the Maine woods.
MORE ABOUT APPALACHIAN MOUNTAIN CLUB AND MAINE
The AMC: Founded in 1876, the Appalachian Mountain Club promotes the protection, enjoyment, and understanding of the mountains, forests, waters, and trails of America’s Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. The AMC has over 75,000 acres in northern Maine and more than 210 km of recreational trails, holdings that overlap the famously difficult 100 Mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail. What makes the AMC’s lodges especially heartening is how they’ve kept the essential flavour and attributes of these 19th-century traditional Maine sporting camps. A third lodge, Medawisla Lodge & Cabins, re-opened in July 2017, following a multi-million dollar renovation. Medawisla is connected via trail with Little Lyford and Gorman Chairback. Guests can drive to Medawisla and start their lodge-to-lodge ski adventure from there, enjoying the overnight accommodations and related amenities offered at each location.
The Lodges: Accommodations at Little Lyford include nine individual private cabins sleeping 1-6 people, with a combination of doubles and bunk beds. Gorman Chairback Lodge & Cabins offers four private, “Deluxe” cabins (one ADA accessible) with private bathrooms. Each includes a combination of queen-size bed, bunk beds, and a futon. Eight private shoreline cabins sleep one to five people, with a combination of queen-size, full, and bunk beds. At both lodges a separate, shared, co-ed bunkhouse can accommodate 10 to 12 guests. Central bathhouses are located near the main lodges, with composting toilets, hot showers and a wood-heated sauna.
Prices range from $106 per person per night for bunkhouse accommodation up to $201 for a deluxe cabin, and include breakfast, dinner and a trail lunch. (Prices are $89 to $169 for AMC members). The skiing is free.
Plan your adventure to the AMC lodges: www.outdoors.org
Visit Maine: visitmaine.com