~ Steven Wright
|Type||Lodge to Lodge|
|Mode||Cross-country skis, shoeshoes|
|Highlights||True wilderness, animal tracks, blazingly bright stars, good home cooking.|
This was not in the plan.
We have just pulled into a snow-covered parking lot in the woods 11 miles outside of Greenville, Maine. It’s time to unload the car, slap on our skis, and take off on a four-day ski adventure through the wilderness. This is a remote part of Maine my wife and I love; I took her on her first wild canoe trip not far from here, produced a bottle of champagne and a diamond ring beside a lake devoid of buildings or people, and while she now probably regrets this, she said yes. This is our first trip to such hallowed ground with our two boys. The plan is to ski a few hours to a heated lodge run by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), where they will feed us fabulous meals and provide us with a heated private cabin for the night, while someone snowmobiles in our luggage so we don’t have to. Then tomorrow we’ll ski to another lodge, stay an extra day doing nothing there, and ski back to our car on day four.
Because right now, Charley is having a meltdown the likes of which I haven’t seen since back in pre-school, when he insisted on wearing the same Superman costume for three months.
Charley is seven. And ordinarily tough as nails. When this kid was five, he cross-country skied up a mountain in Quebec so long and steep (we were lost) that when we got to the top a local lady asked us how he’d gotten there—she scanned the woods for helicopters—because her children had never been able to do it, and they were teenagers. When Charley wrestles with his older brother, I worry about his older brother getting hurt. Charley doesn’t take kreplachs from anybody.
But now he claims his boots are too tight, his feet are freezing, and he never wanted to come on this trip in the first place (not true!). He lies down in the back seat of our aging wagon and bawls.
I can’t really blame him, to tell you the truth. Ordinarily, I like it cold. I grew up skiing downhill in the days when your clothes were about as warm as a fishing net. I’ve snow-shoed in Labrador when it was 20 below. Winter is my friend, quiet, uncrowded, and bug-free. But today is what we call “bragging cold.” The thermometer is somewhere around 10 degrees, but lop at least another 10 off of that for the wind whipping around the trees, chilling our faces and fingers and bones.
What are we going to do? We’re here to ski. It’s February vacation, and this is the plan. I have dumped our luggage in the sheds where it will be taken to our lodgings. Charley’s 10-year-old brother Henry is in his skis at the trailhead, ready to go. And skiing is the only way we’re going to warm up: Cross-country skiing is better than a sauna at that. The only problem is unshod, weeping Charley.
I ordinarily yell at people who idle their cars (it’s a problem I have), but this meltdown calls for drastic measures: I fire up the engine and crank the heat. Charley stops crying. I feed him chocolate. I manage to get him into his boots, his jacket, his skis. I will later discover that I left the keys in the car and the doors unlocked, but right now my wife and I shoulder our daypacks and off we go, all four of us. Down the trail.
Down does not begin to describe it. Picture if you will those tracks the ski jumpers descend in the Olympics. I’m exaggerating, but that’s what it feels like: It thawed and rained a week earlier, so the trail, while enticingly white, provides about as much grip for our skis as the side of a cement swimming pool. Charley begrudgingly heads down, falls backwards on his butt, and begins to cry again. I pick him up, dust him off, and he falls again. And again, and again, and again. He’s cold, miserable, and lying in the snow beside the trail, wailing. How are we going to travel over six miles, I’m thinking, when we can’t even go six feet? Finally I wise up, pop him out of his bindings, throw his skis into the outer pouches of my day pack, and bark at him to walk. And he does. In his red down parka and crummy, ski-swap-bargain, slipper-like ski boots, he slogs down the hill and up the one on the other side. I get some chocolate into him. He runs a bit to catch up with his brother. He starts to warm up. He walks for two miles, then actually skis the final four.
But we are not yet out of the woods.
Little Lyford Lodge, when we finally got there, met and exceeded my extremely high expectations. I have a big fat crush on the Maine wilderness, and always have. I like to read aloud to my kids stories of log drives and lumberjacks in spiked boots picking apart jams. When life’s got me down and I need to go to a happy place in my brain, I picture the shores of a particularly quiet and peaceful Maine lake. The Maine woods past and present may very well be my religion—and Little Lyford is a proper temple. We were met at the door of a righteous log-built lodge by a retired policeman from Millinocket named Chuck, who with a mellifluous Maine accent pointed my kids to an entire vat of fresh-baked, buttery chocolate-chip cookies, and explained to us the schedule for meals and sauna. We could smell chicken cacciatore simmering in the kitchen. The chef discussed with us our dietary peculiarities. We had arrived.
Little Lyford had been a lumber camp over a century ago, then a “sporting camp” where wealthy “sports” from “away” hunted and fished in the company of Maine guides. In the late 1980s, however, things began to change mightily in the uninhabited forests that now surrounded us. The paper mills that had owned upwards of 14 million acres, protecting these woods from vacation developments and keeping them wild for people like us as well as the animals, began to founder financially under competition from cheap, unregulated foreign mills, and so they began to sell off mighty, million-acre chunks of land. What would happen to this the last truly vast wild forest place in New England? Lots of things, as it’s turned out. Some of the land was bought by investors, some by developers, some by the State, and about 67,000 acres by the AMC. As a result the moose and fox whose tracks we saw in the snow along the ski trail will be able to enjoy this land in perpetuity. Hopefully Charley and his grandchildren will, too.
Green Drake, the cabin where we spent the night, had retained a proper dose of those heady old-time days. It, too, was built entirely of logs, grayed by the decades, sheets of snow and ice tenting off the eaves to meet three-foot-high snowbanks on its sides. It contained two bunk beds with wool blankets for the boys, and a double bed for their parents. A wood fire crackled in the stove; for illumination we lit propane lamps with wooden matches. Besides chicken cacciatore, we enjoyed a bean soup, mashed potatoes, vegetables, and blueberry cobbler for dinner in the lodge, as well as the company of another family of four who’d come up from Boston. We had the wood-fired sauna after dinner all to ourselves. The night sky, devoid of light pollution, was so bright and start-studded it was actually a challenge to pick out our usual constellations.
Over the next two days, however, I continued to worry about Charley. He’d gotten over his initial fear of the unknown, which had been at the heart of his meltdown, and the weather warmed, and our second day’s ski snaked along narrow trails in the woods, where the snow was soft and the windless air much warmer. On the other hand, Charley had just gotten over something called the Norovirus, and it still hurt him to eat, so he didn’t much. How was a kid supposed to ski 6 miles a day in cold weather with very few calories in his belly?
Somehow the sunshine, exercise, and inspiring vistas of wild ponds and mountain ranges that still looked as they had ten thousand years ago seemed to energize him, because Charley motored along quite happily, developing a strong kick and glide as well as a funny story about a made-up kid named Little Timmy. Our third night, eating dinner at the brand-new, lakeside, Gorman Chairback Lodge, we met a married couple with similarly aged kids. Concerned that the trip would be too hard for their kids, they had sent their kids to stay with their grandparents in Florida.
I looked at Charley, the freckles across his nose darkened by the day’s ski, who had barely nibbled his peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.
“What do you think, Charley?” I asked him. “Would you rather be in Florida right now?” He had liked Florida the time he went there.
He looked at me now like I was the world’s stupidest father and said, “No way.” Charley had also fallen in love with the wilds of Maine.(download trailmaps)
Editor's Note: The AMC huts are just as welcoming after a long summer hike. Gorman Chairback (tucked in trees, upper right) is located on the shore of Long Pond, near Greenville, Maine, and surrounded by 66,000 acres of conservation land. There are 70 miles of AMC-maintained hiking trails nearby, paddling and fishing (for native brook trout). Check out other-season escapes at Outdoors.org.
Thanks to their patented Readecom Universal Grow Hats, Nathaniel Reade and his son Henry, left, now have thick, rich, luxuriant heads of hair.
A professional writer for over 20 years, Nathaniel Reade has been published in magazines beginning with most letters of the alphabet, from Attache to Yankee (Z is a tough one), including GQ, Outside, Men's Journal and Playboy. Much of his work has focused on the outdoors and the environment, from West Nile virus and the biology of mosquitoes to the Northern Forest of Maine.
You can visit him and his work at www.nreade.com