Pickups, along with pulp trucks, rule Kingfield. You'll never fit in here if you don't drive one or the other, which is why I'm thrilled to shed my station wagon and hop into Dave Herring's full-size Toyota Tundra for the short drive to a trailhead up the road in Carrabassett. Herring, the executive director of the nonprofit Maine Huts & Trails, is taking me to see the six-hundred-thousand-dollar backcountry lodge that his group is opening this month, and the brawny pickup helps us both seem a bit more like men of the woods. But what I learn after spending a few hours with Herring is that he views these woods less as a wilderness used exclusively by the hook-and-bullet crowd than as an outdoor playground that should also be open to skiers, hikers, and mountain bikers - people as likely to drive a Prius as a pickup.
Starting with its first lodge, at Poplar Stream Falls, and adding another at Flagstaff Lake and a third on the Dead River west of The Forks as soon as next winter, Maine Huts & Trails is pairing groomed cross-country skiing trails with comfortable backcountry accommodations. Within seven years, Herring hopes to be operating twelve backcountry lodges and 180 miles of trail from Bethel to Moosehead Lake. So far his group has raised more than $5 million from private individuals and companies and cleared or cut some thirty-six miles of old logging roads and new trails between Carrabassett and The Forks.
Dozens of hemlock bridges, reinforced with metal I-beams, now span stream crossings. In warm weather, the wider, eight-foot-wide trails will be open to mountain bikers, hikers, and even hunters, the narrower terrain
reserved for foot traffic only. (Motorized traffic is prohibited year-round.) On Fridays during the winter, a motorized groomer - essentially a smaller version of the Sno-Cats found at downhill ski areas - will smooth a trail to allow cross-country skiers to practice their diagonal and freestyle strides on fresh-cut corduroy.
At around four thousand square feet and boasting many of the comforts of home, the Poplar Stream Falls lodge is the only facility currently in operation, but the Land Use Regulation Commission is expected to take up the applications for two others early this year. Each lodge (if these are "huts" then I must admit to living in a "shack") will be nearly identical, and backcountry adventurers will find the same experience at each one: check in at a reception desk, toss your backpack into whichever detached bunkhouse you've reserved (you can choose from a four-person private one to a twelve-person communal unit), hang your sweaty polypropylene in a specially vented drying room, and then pad your wool socks across the slate floor to one of the tables and chairs arranged in the lodge's cavernous living room. Don't worry about your toes getting chilly; the radiant-floor heat system, powered by a wood-fired boiler in the lodge's basement, takes the edge off. Before the five-person staff sets out the evening's dinner you'll probably want to hit the showers (though with only four stalls serving forty-two guests, you might want to plan early) or perhaps take care of some other business in the composting toilets (they cost more than thirty thousand to install, so you better use them!). After dinner (meals are included in the room rate, which ranges from fifty-five to ninety-five dollars per person), you might indulge in a staff naturalist's discussion before trudging out to your bunkhouse and snuggling under thick blankets (provided by the lodge, of course). In the morning, you'll feast on a hot breakfast before strapping on your boards or snowshoes and hitting the ten or twelve miles to the next hut.
Welcome to the Great Outdoors, version 2.0.
Look at all the main tourist attractions in Maine - they're all within ten miles of the coast," says Dave Herring. We're ascending the first steep uphill climb of the 2.5-mile trail between the trailhead in Carrabassett and the Poplar Stream Falls hut, situated at an elevation of about 1,300 feet. "The state has been looking for ways to bring tourists inland, and what better way than this? The product is here - it's the Maine woods - but by and large it's not accessible. We're trying to change that."
If climbing this steep grade is a challenge for me - Herring reassures me that the first rise out of the parking area off Carriage Road is the toughest of the whole trail - bringing a new way of experiencing the backcountry has been far more difficult for Maine Huts & Trails and its founder, Larry Warren. The former president of Sugarloaf/USA first conceived of the hut system as a 180-mile network of twelve huts from the Mahoosuc Range near the New Hampshire border to Rockwood, with the trail wandering through private and public land and passing near such scenic spots as Height of Land, Flagstaff Lake, and the Bigelow Preserve, north of Carrabassett. Indeed, Warren's decision to route the trail through the Bigelows would prove to be pivotal, as it galvanized opposition groups such as the Friends of Bigelow, which saw the idea of mechanized groomers as paving the way not just for skiers but for other high-impact uses in this strictly traditional area.
"A lot of people in Friends of Bigelow are like me, old-time Mainers, and they can't see staying in such a lodge - they camp out," explains Lance Tapley, a founder of Friends of Bigelow. "They were concerned about a noisy machine going through the woods and were afraid that it would disturb the tranquility of that part of the Maine woods. They also worried that [the lodge] would be a palace for well-to-do out-of-staters."
The deal that Tapley brokered between the Friends of Bigelow and Warren, an agreement that still smarts for some die-hard traditionalists, moved the trail from an eight-mile crossing to one that uses an existing right-of-way to slip across a tiny corner of the preserve. The key to making this possible was a twenty-five-year lease Warren secured with the Penobscot tribe for access to 306 acres of their land around Poplar Stream Falls. This $114,000 deal, which has an option to renew every five years, allowed Warren to connect all the sections of trail that he had negotiated with such landowners as FPL Energy, Central Maine Power Company, and Plum Creek Timberlands, as well as several smaller landowners and the state of Maine. In total, Warren spent about $1.6 million to secure the right to run his trail between Carrabassett and The Forks. Once the deals were in place, he estimates he spent more than two hundred thousand dollars to build the thirty-six-mile trail itself, which was scaled down from the original sixteen-foot-wide swath to an eight-foot-wide groomed area.
This winter Maine Huts & Trails will groom the twenty miles from Carrabassett to the future site of the Grand Falls hut on the Dead River. The final trail obstacle in what Warren has termed Phase I, the network of trails and huts between Carrabassett and The Forks, will almost surely prove to be the most expensive: Maine Huts & Trails is finalizing the application for a cable-suspension bridge thirty-five feet over the Dead River, a pedestrian crossing Warren says could cost as much as $350,000 to build.
Ecotourism experts say the money is well spent. Worldwide, backcountry accommodations are proving increasingly popular, with baby boomers and young families alike seeking out everything from the helicopter-accessed Milford Track in New Zealand to the more rugged and unstaffed 10th Mountain Division hut system in Colorado. No matter where they're going, this new group of outdoor adventurers is pursuing a different type of experience, explains Costas Christ, global travel editor for National Geographic Adventure and president of the Adventure Council. "Call it the spoiled baby boomer," Christ says, "but these people want to feel that their experience is as fresh today as it was on the Marrakesh Express, but now they don't want to do it with a backpack and sleeping on the ground, they want to do it in comfort, with a soft bed and a shower."
Herring says that based on statistics from other hut systems, including the Appalachian Mountain Club huts he operated in New Hampshire before moving to Maine, and from Sugarloaf/USA and nearby sporting camps, he is aiming for about 30 percent occupancy at each of the Maine huts. With three huts operating at that level, he believes his organization can break even within three years.
Despite the complexity of connecting the pieces of the trail system, it is the new so-called hut near Poplar Stream Falls that is the most tangible proof of Maine Huts & Trails' success thus far. Because it is located on Penobscot land, the Poplar Stream Falls hut only required a building permit from Carrabassett, though Maine Huts & Trails did require Department of Environmental Protection approval for the turbine it installed in South Poplar Stream to provide a steady source of power (the hut also has a backup solar panel). Herring says he learned from his experience in New Hampshire to place the huts in lowlands and tucked within the trees, instead of above timberline like many of the huts in the White Mountains. "The AMC had real challenges because the huts were in high alpine areas," he tells me as we inspect the new lodge.
To keep each hut replenished with food and equipment, the grooming machine will haul supplies on its weekly pass through the area; during warm weather a tracked vehicle will be used to minimize trail damage. Finally, other hut systems advised Maine Huts & Trails not to build any lodges that would accommodate fewer than thirty-five guests - such smaller buildings would result in "deficits in perpetuity," according to Warren.
The Flagstaff Lake hut will be situated on a peninsula about 350 feet from the lake itself and thirty-five feet above it. Warren says that with the existing forty-five-foot-high tree canopy, builders will not have to remove any trees for the hut. Most important, the lodge will not be seen by boaters. "With all of our huts, we've tried to site them so that they are not visible and do not impair the experience of being at the resource," Warren says.
Perhaps the most dramatic of the Phase I lodges will be the Grand Falls hut, located about two thousand feet from the thirty-five-foot waterfall where the character of the Dead River changes from calm to white water. The hut will be located on the opposite side of the river from the put-in that rafting companies use, but Warren expects that once the bridge is built hikers and skiers will not be the only ones staying at the hut. "We anticipate there will be a number of users of the hut who will want to take rafts to The Forks, and we've had some discussion with the companies about it," he says. In fact, the proximity of the rafting put-in is one of the aspects of the Grand Falls hut that sets it apart from either the Flagstaff Lake hut or the Poplar Stream Falls hut. "In summer, eight thousand rafters get bused to within a half-mile of the hut site," Warren says. "Remote should never be confused with wilderness."
That distinction is key to understanding and perhaps even accepting the Maine Huts & Trails model for opening up the woods of western Maine. Start skiing from the trailhead in Carrabassett and you'll notice that you're not passing through old-growth forests, but, instead, you're meandering through stands of spindly pine, evidence of the commercial timber operation that worked this area in years past. The views of the Bigelows are hardly the sort of wide-open vistas that you might find in Baxter State Park or Acadia, but, rather, are more subtle, almost secretive glimpses between the leafless trees.
Lance Tapley, the founder of Friends of Bigelow, says that while the success of the new hut system remains to be seen, he believes it strikes a balance between recreation and preservation. "The Maine forest was pretty much raped, beginning in the seventies and up through the nineties," Tapley tells me. "I think this use goes a long way toward tying up the area for recreation and for preserving it, rather than allowing much more destructive uses."
Finally, tourism experts say that what is happening in the western Maine woods is only one way to accommodate the new breed of ecotourists - and the expectations that those tourists are bringing with them. "I was talking to some Maine kayaking guides the other day, and they said they're seeing a lot of people who want to paddle with them to some offshore island, but they want to stop for a nice lunch with some artisan bread and some family farm-raised goat cheese," remarks Costas Christ. "Welcome to the new world of adventure travel."
IF YOU GO
The trailhead is located off Route 27 on Gauge Road, just after Tufulio's. To reserve a hut call 877-634-8824 or visit www.mainehuts
.org. Trails are open to the public at no charge; dogs are allowed on un-groomed trails but are not permitted in the huts.