..and with a forecast of a steady ZERO degrees (F), we were packed up and heading out into the wild west woods of Maine. The prior night, while driving the final miles near Kingfield, still in cell-phone contact with the world, I did some google-calulations of what zero Fahrenheit actually was: a steady -18deg C in old money as we say. Little did I know that this would be the warmest it would be for the next few days. Ah well, a good metabolic workout for the brown fat was ahead..
Dennis, John and I were headed out on the cross-country, back country trails on a hut-to-hut adventure. An article in the NYtimes had inspired us to pack up our down jackets, backpacks and pointy skinny skis, and head off under our own steam into the quiet woods. Parking our car in the Rangeley airport parking lot, we loaded up the van with our bags, climbed on board and started our mini-trip. 2 hours later, we were dropped off south of Moosehead lake, in the west forks trails, an area famous to rafters, white water kayakers and fishermen. We strapped on the skis, loaded our backpacks and started on the slippery route south. For some reason, I had assumed that this XC ski session would be similar to what I did at home, the local golf course, the local (flat) wooded trails, the local beaches. Not. Groaning under a 20lb pack, I struggled to say up while going down hills, and even while going up hills. I dug deep in my winter brain, and re-discovered my snowplough and some basic telemark edging techniques. Inventing new ones (like sitting down on my ski tails when the going got too steep), I recovered my comfort zone. And stopping every hour for wardrobe adjustments, we gobbled some food during these micro-breaks before the cold seeped in. We followed the raging river below us, up and down, winding our way in the woods, pausing the let the legs and shoulders recover. Five and a half hours later, we made it to the Grand Falls hut, a beacon in the wilderness. These so-called huts, are more like eco-lodges, 4 stars, and more. Providing wonderful, nutritions dinners and breakfasts, companionship of other skiers, warmth from solar, hydro and wood-power, radiant heat, hot (albeit 6 minute) showers, and gregarious, happy staff, we quickly settled in and called it home. Bunks were spartan, but cozy, and tired legs + full belly = sound sleep. No phone ,no internet, no where to even charge any plug in item, we were truly off the grid along with these huts.
Day 2 was mellower, skiing along the riverbanks and the edges of Flagstaff lake. We had time to recover, enjoy the scenery, the silence in our own heads, practice our kick and glide techniques. A warmer day, with no significant winds, it was a balmy 2 degrees. We were already stripping down a layer, but holding onto the triple bagged hands (with hand warmers). Covering the 13 miles in 4-ish hours, we were still pretty tired when getting to Flagstaff hut, meeting skiers from the prior night and a whole bunch of new lodge friends. A father and son-in-law from Wisconsin, a group of women from Boston, a gang of MBA kids from Harvard.
All warm, tired, and hungry. Dinner at 6 was demolished, and legs were stretched out on the radiant heated floor for stretching before bed. Some hung to chat over a beer by the wood stove, comparing the day, planning the next. Enjoying the moment.
We wrapped up well, and headed out, bracing for the elements. On advice of a local land ranger, we took a side trail through the woods and out onto Flagstaff lake, a frozen wonderland. Luckily, we had a tailwind, as the wind gave a -25deg F windchill. I was wrapped in 6 layers of clothes (base wool, wood ibex top, MTN hard wear windstop top, fleece vest, then piled on the down hoodie and the windproof jacket) and even while skiing hard, was struggling to stay warm. I borrowed Johns wind pants, over my 2 legging layers, and transformed into a human again. We skied several amazing miles on the frozen lake, glacier like, the wind had blown drifts like sand dunes, carved and sculpted, ever changing in the howling gales.
We skied past the three tiny ice-fishing huts, pausing for lunch in the lee of a peninsula and then onwards to the next hut at Poplar. The man-hut.
Poplar was the first hut built in the Maine huts and trails system, and is famous within the trail system for having an all male staff. In common with the other huts, they were funny, smart, and great cooks, while all looking like young, slim versions of Grizzly Adams. Our Boston and Wisconsin friends joined us in celebrating Dennis’s birthday, over wine, beer and hot chocolate. What a fun night. We slept well, and sad to leave the hut and our trail buddies, we clicked in and headed down the steep slope, back to reality. Three long days on skis had relaxed the legs, and I enjoyed the undulations, the steeps, the turns coming more comfortably, the crashes, all but eliminated. This short 4th day had us skiing across the end of the runway at Rangely Airport and back to the car.
Deep smiles, thoroughly relaxed bodies, and brains totally engaged in the land, the companionship, the inspiration of the eco-lodges, we truly had a vacation, respite from our crazy hectic world. We were within phone contact with the world, but for the next two hours in the car, no-one charged the phone, the iPad stayed buried deep in the bag. We headed to the ferry, bringing the vacation forward with us, each of us already planning next years trip, hoping for another hut to be built by then, to stretch out the adventure another 15 miles, another 24 hours. More dreams to come.