|Lodging||Rustic Mountain Lodge|
|Distance & Duration||It's the Appalachain Trail, but..ten miles|
|Difficulty||Moderate to Strenuous|
|Highlights||waterfalls and wildlife|
If moose were so plentiful on the highway, we predicted they would be copious at our first destination, the Gorman Lodge at Chairback Mountain. Gorman was nestled in wilderness, enveloped by coniferous forest, and bordering a lake which brimmed with blue water and sky. It was an ideal haunt for moose, the kind of place they could go for a drink with their buddies, maybe some people watching. But it wasn’t a bad hangout for people either.
The main lodge of Gorman was an immense log cabin, with westward facing windows overlooking the aptly named Long Pond. A spacious dining room abutted the windows, flanked by a library. The far side of the lodge housed restrooms, showers, and a sauna. But the central feature was the kitchen.
We discovered that at dinner, where we heaped our plates with pork loin, mashed potatoes, squash, and berry cobbler. Because Gorman serves beer and wine, we even sampled local brews. My favorite was the Kennebec River IPA, a beer fit for the wilderness with its light hints of pine.
Before the feast, we located our rooms in the bunkhouse, a secluded Lincoln log cabin with five bunk beds. Since we didn’t have to argue over sleeping arrangements, we took advantage of the kayaks on Long Pond. All the while, our eyes panned the shores for a moose. This dusk, they were not feeling particularly social, but we assured ourselves it was only the first night. There was plenty of time to see a moose.
It was hard to be disappointed here anyway. Even as the golden light of sunset faded, guests remained on the dock, counting how many stars and planets revealed themselves sixteen miles from the nearest town.
I woke the next morning, ready for the trail...and the moose. Gorman's chef had prepared a hearty French toast, and a bagged trail lunch, which we had ordered the night before. Afterwards, the staff reviewed our itinerary, ensuring we were outfitted for our trip. Before long, we stepped onto the Henderson Brook Trail, just outside the bunkhouse.
That’s where we saw the tracks: ten yards from where we'd slept the night before. There was still water pooled in their concavities. They were just as fresh as our own, and facing the same direction. This moose had probably bedded down when it heard our voices, but the tracks promised things to come.
Henderson Brook carried us across a meandering stream until we intersected the Appalachian Trail. From there, we were delivered to the Rim Trail, the start of our journey around Gulf Hagas.
Gulf Hagas is “The Grand Canyon of Maine.” A black river winds between cliffs of sheer slate, forming an extensive gorge. Occasionally, the river's bottom drops out from under it, succumbing to a series of waterfalls. Screw Auger Falls commences the Rim Trail, which winds northwest along said rim to views of Buttermilk Falls, Billings Falls, Stair Falls, and The Jaws, a place where the canyon walls close in on the river like a wolf, holding a writhing snake in its teeth.
After stopping for lunch at Buttermilk Falls, a popular swimming hole, we began an ascent to the highest canyon walls. Here were the most astonishing views, though perhaps not for those who fear heights. Looking down, the cliffs pitch in on themselves, and Billings and Stair falls resemble tiny faucets in the distance.
It was bittersweet to reach the Head of the Gulf Trail, which coaxed us away from the river. The scenic vistas decreased, but our fatigued legs rejoiced to encounter flat and forgiving terrain. No moose appeared, but we did intersect another set of crisp tracks, which led us straight into Little Lyford.
We probably looked a bit lost when Mike, Lyford’s manager on duty, found us at the trailhead. The sudden stumble into civilization, the realization that our walk was complete, left us slightly dumbfounded. But perhaps civilization wasn’t the right word for Little Lyford. It was more rustic that Gorman, and enclosed by heavy woods. It felt like coming across an early Maine settlement: built by hand in the isolation of an unforgiving countryside. Yet the atmosphere in the cabins was comfortable.
The main lodge resembled Gorman with its fireplace and wood interior, but it had a side porch and a cozy library loft. The green bathhouses were situated nearby, in a separate building, evidently by someone who shared a fondness for my grandfather’s expression about what you don’t do where you eat.
Our cabin, “The Red Quill,” was stationed between the bathhouse and the main lodge. It was a simple box with two beds, but it contained a coldwater sink and a wood stove for months less merciful than August. Simple details brought hominess: coat hooks handcrafted from tree limbs, aged photographs of loggers floating lumber through Gulf Hagas, a bulky log table. I imagined myself writing there as the light of dawn filtered through the window, or absorbing the warmth of the fireplace as a blizzard snowed me in.
Dinner introduced us to the only other guests that evening, Maureen and her husband, Ashley. At capacity, Lyford houses 66 guests, but we were the lucky mid-week customers. The staff could attend to us personally. The chef, Duncan, explained how he prepared the fried green tomatoes from the lodge’s garden, the edible flowers that adorned our salad, and our main course, a tender portabella pasta primavera. We even received an extra slab of warm blueberry pie with desert. Between bites, we engaged in the usual small talk.
“Seen any moose?” Ashley inquired. “I saw two this morning, right across the pond on the opposite dock. I almost didn’t notice them until I said to myself, what’s that big brown thing over there? And when I paddled over, they ambled off into the woods. Big lanky things. Ever seen one?”
I was annoyed with Ashley’s gloating, but I answered: once. When I was very young. In my own backyard. I didn’t know how to explain that the novelty had worn off. That I needed to see a moose with my full adult consciousness. I needed to see one in the wild.
Just then, Lyford's naturalist, Lani, approached the table and invited us to a moose presentation in the upstairs loft. Ashley muttered something about “rather see a real moose,” but Ben and I attended, hoping we might learn something about the elusive beasts. As she spoke, Lani presented photos she had taken--many within miles of the camp. Feeling overdue, Ben and I rushed to Lyford Pond afterwards, but the only wildlife we encountered were mosquitoes.
We slept straight through our 5:30 alarm set for moose gazing. Our enthusiasm had waned, especially prior to sunrise. Instead, the breakfast bell roused us, and Duncan’s pan fried eggs and tomatoes woke us up. We indulged in a third slice of blueberry pie.
Procrastinating our departure, we took one last hike up Indian Mountain, a 2,341 foot climb just outside the camp. There, the Laurie’s Ledge Trail brought us to a 180 degree view of the area. Since we passed Lyford pond on the return, we borrowed a canoe: a last-ditch effort to glimpse a moose. Needless to say, we were unlucky. But we did wear ourselves out enough to face the car ride.
Little Lyford's manager, Chuck, returned us to our car at Gorman. Chuck was from Millinocket, and a Maniac through and through. He punctuated his questions with “did ya?” and “are ya?” We discussed winter at the AMC lodges: guests skied and snowshoed six miles in to Little Lyford, then could go on to Gorman using the Camp-to-Camp Trail. The staff transported excess gear via snowmobiles. There would be moose, no doubt. I thought again of the cozy fireplaces in the lodge, of a soothing sauna after a long day of Nordic skiing. It would be the same lodges waiting there, but an entirely new adventure. “Come back and see us in the winter, will ya?” Chuck asked. And I knew I would.
Because maybe we hadn’t been searching for a moose. Maybe we had only wanted to find everything it represented: the wild, the archaic, the unspoiled. And perhaps, like in Oz, the very thing we were persuing had been there all along—in the rustic charm of the AMC lodges, in the mysterious abyss of Gulf Hagas. Maybe we had found it after all. We had found Maine.
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