A winter’s night in the Maine woods

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Despite doubts, I did it. I backpacked into Poplar Stream hut, the first hut on the new Maine Huts & Trails system. I had doubts because I haven’t donned a backpack in eons, I’ve never hiked in winter and it was 2.5 uphill miles.

It was SO worth it. The trail parallels Poplar Stream from Carrabassett Valley (hometown of Sugarloaf). In mid March, the stream is an ice-choked tumble that laughs as it winds down the mountain. In the background, the snowy Bigelow peaks rise, 4,000-footers that hide Flagstaff Lake. The trail winds through the woods, through white and yellow birches, pine and spruce, an occasional maple, poplar and beech trees, with golden papery leaves that dance and whisper in the wind.

And the hut? It’s a green wonder that welcomed me with warmth, a hot shower, a comfy bed and divine food. Here’s the surprise: It’s completely off the grid, yet it has electricity and radiant heat. The hut has its own mini-hydro station as well as solar panels and a wood boiler. The trio, with propane backup, powers the lights, the heat, the hot water. The toilets are compositing; the showers are coin-up; lights in the bathroom are motion sensitive. Dorms (sleeping 4 to 12) are heated to 55 degrees, and bunks have foam mattresses, fleece blankets and pillows.

And the food! Dinner was chicken cacciatore with pasta, green beans seasoned with soy and sesame, fresh bread and, for dessert, a humongous brownie mounded with fresh whipped cream. Groan. The next morning, it was Maine blueberry pancakes with Maine maple syrup and bacon. Jack, the cook, tries to use as much natural or organic and/or local as possible.

And the price: My one night stay with dinner and breakfast cost about $86 with tax. Of course I had to pack in a sleeping bag, pillow case, clothes and toiletries. Yes, I whined–to myself, no one else was around, and my shoulders ached, but I’ll do it again. I’ll hike in roundtrip, without backpack, for a soup and bread lunch ($5), and when the next hut opens on the shores of Flagstaff Lake, I’m planning a multi-day hike–it’s 10 miles between huts.

And the staff: All are Mainers. Hut manager Melissa is a serious climber, with plans to hike Everest next year; Cher Jack has a long background cooking in the area; Casey, Jack’s assistant, is a master of brownies and whipped cream; Alec, a UNE grad and staff naturalist, gives a fine tour of the eco-friendly systems. If it’s quiet, ask them to play a game or two of Four Corners, a group-oriented Solitaire (really!).

And the future: Wow! Eventually, plans call for the trail to stretch 180 miles, from Bethel to Rockwood. It’s open to hikers and mountain bikers in summer, with portions accessible to paddlers. In winter, the eight-foot-wide corridor is groomed and tracked for skiers, with plenty of room to share snowshoers or hikers.