Over the River and Through the Woods

cross-country skiing in Maine

Over the River and Through the Woods

When I was a baby, my dad (in green) would cross-country ski with me in a backpack; forty years later, I am still usually the caboose. Photograph by James Baigrie.

By Sarah Stebbins
Photographs by Erin Little
Styling by Janice Dunwoody

To Grandpa’s house we go for backyard fun and an unfussy meal

Crafts store finds, including a runner fashioned from muslin yardage, grapevine wreath “chargers,” and oversize pinecones create a natural tablescape. Cedar branches dress up the chandelier.

My dad, Charlie, takes an out-of-the-way approach to homeownership, settling as far from “the hoopla” in towns as he can. Before I was born, he and my mom built a ranch in West Buxton ringed with dense pine trees that colored our lawn orange with needles and provided a year-round buffer from neighbors. When we relocated to Yarmouth, they erected a Colonial on a wooded Cousins Island plot, about as far from downtown as you can get save for Littlejohn Island — (literally) a bridge too far for my mom.

Now, my dad and his partner, Chris, are ensconced in a brick-red Saltbox surrounded by 40 acres of forest and fields in East Baldwin. Here, they are an island virtually unto themselves with a vegetable garden, two freezers in which to store the summer’s crops and provisions from their favorite Portland markets, trails for walking and skiing, a sauna to steep in afterward (because, as my dad says, “everyone our age is ailing”), and a woodstove and generator to fuel the whole operation when the power lines go down in the winter.

cranberry mimosas

TOP In the dessert hierarchy, my dad’s prized chocolate chip cookies occupy the highest pedestal. LEFT“Bupa” with this eldest grandson, 8-year-old Luke. RIGHT These cranberry mimosas were so tasty. To make: mix cranberry juice with sparkling wine; garnish with cranberries (and halved vanilla beans if you’re feeling fancy) and serve on a snow-covered tray.

But they are almost never alone here. Their land teems with enough wildlife to fill a field guide and perpetually feed my dad’s man vs. nature conflict. There are the deer that frolic before the dining room’s bay window and munch on spring seedlings; the groundhogs that decimate the tomato crop; the foxes that feast on the compost pile; the red-tailed hawks that eat the chipmunks living in the fieldstone wall; the songbirds and wild turkeys that peck at the seven feeders; the raccoons my dad traps and releases near the Saco River; and the skunks he sometimes unwittingly captures instead.

Then there are the people who flock to the house in all seasons. Given the remote location, we’re all more likely to spend a day or weekend here than to drop in for dinner. In winter, my family tends to arrive in the morning, acquainting ourselves with whoever is already there — relatives of Chris’s from out of state, perhaps, or local friends and their grandchildren — before heading out to ski and sled in the whitewashed fields behind the house. Our kids drift in, rosy-cheeked and smelling of crisp, wood-smoke–tinged air, for snacks and hot cocoa and we all gather around the oak dining table for a meal in the afternoon.

cross-country skiiing in Maine
cookies and hot cocoa by the fire

TOP I swear, these hors d’oeuvres only look elaborate. Everything — cheeses, fruit, nuts, salami, and crackers — came from the grocery store and took minutes to arrange on a weathered oak cutting board. LEFT Chris, whose family is Ukrainian, makes the most delicious borscht (beet soup); on this day we had it with a baguette, salad, and my dad’s salmon. RIGHT My husband, Mark, agreed to ski at my pace. Photograph by James Baigrie. BOTTOM The tradition of skiing with a baby strapped to Dad’s back continued when our sons, Luke and 5-year-old Noah, were born, but this does not seem to have stoked their enthusiasm for the sport. They (and our Lab mix, Junie) are here for the treats.

A lifelong salesman, my dad presides over these gatherings with affability and his trademark persuasion. You might find yourself believing, for example, that rare is the only way to eat salmon (“restaurants always burn it,” he laments), that his chocolate chip cookies are the best you’ve ever tasted (his “secret”: bake frozen dough balls on a frozen, parchment-covered tray at 390 degrees for 10 minutes, allowing crispy shells to form over soft centers, like truffles), and that he once scared off a bear in his driveway by holding his arms over his head and roaring, Where the Wild Things Are–style. This story is true but, for his grandsons’ benefit, the plot tends to thicken with each telling. “What can I say?” he always wraps up. “It’s a wilderness out here.”