I stepped outside the Library to watch the sunrise glow on snow-covered Long Pond. Not a soul or a sound deep in the North Woods of Maine.
Instead of the buzz of the snowmobiles that flock to these parts come winter, I hear my boots crunching on snow as I walk up the short hill to Gorman Chairback Lodge, to pour myself a cup of coffee. The cook is working on breakfast, but the comfortable couches around the wood stove are empty, everyone still snuggled in their beds in the cabins sprinkled on the property. The leather couches are inviting, but I take my coffee to go, for the cozy experience of reading in bed in the Library.
This is my Florida, my Caribbean, even when the skies are gray and temperatures hover in the single digits. I’d long wanted to visit Gorman Chairback Lodge, a backcountry ski destination owned by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). Scoring a stay in the Library was an added bonus.
In the summer or fall, I could drive right up to Gorman, park my car, and settle in a for a week or several days of relaxing, kayaking and hiking, to Gulf Hagas, or along the Appalachian Trail, which follows Chairback Ridge not far from the lodge. And I’ll do that some day. But first, I wanted to ski in.
After an 8-mile ski through the woods and then along the Pleasant River, we discovered Little Lyford Lodge in a snow-filled hollow that felt like a snug Swiss village. There, we recovered in the lodge, and baked in the sauna. That night, after a meal of hearty lasagna and conversation with other visitors, we slept soundly in our cabin.
Twenty years ago, when I hiked from Monson to Mount Katahdin on the 100-Mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail, virtually all of the surrounding land (and much of the trail as well) was privately owned, mostly by paper companies.
AMC’s purchase of Little Lyford Lodge in 2003 was the first step in the organization’s “Maine Woods Initiative,” an ambitious project aimed at conserving land in the 100-mile Wilderness region, east of Moosehead Lake. Since the early 2000s, the organization, working in collaboration with others, has conserved almost 80,000 acres through a combination of direct ownership and conservation easements. Now, a corridor of preserved land extends all the way to Baxter State Park, and further east, thanks to recent designation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
AMC also has developed an extensive network of trails that connect its three lodges along with a private lodge, West Branch Pond Camps, so that guests can ski or hike from lodge-to-lodge. The third lodge, Medawisla, currently is closed for renovation, but will reopen in summer 2017.
The organization’s initiative also has served to reinvigorate the tradition of the Maine sporting camp that once drew thousands of “sports” each year to the North Woods. Although you can still find 40 or traditional camps through the Maine Sporting Camp Association, many more have closed since their heyday in the first part of the 20th century, as the automobile and the airplane, along with busy work and family schedules, have changed the way people vacation.
With its huge membership base, the AMC has a ready pool of potential guests eager to get off the grid and away from the glow of the screen. In the long run, I suspect that Maine’s many family-owned sporting camps will benefit from AMC’s marketing efforts, as a new generation discovers the North Woods.
After our night at Little Lyford, we set out for Gorman Chairback Lodge, skiing on a “green” (easy) trail along the Pleasant River. We considered a side trip by snowshoe to Gulf Hagas, the largest gorge in Maine, but decided we best conserve our energy for the ski to Gorman. The skiing was irregularly groomed, but not difficult, and easily accomplished by anyone with some cross-country experience (or an enthusiastic novice).
After eight miles, we burst out of the woods at Gorman Chairback, just in time for a cup of fresh Carrabassett Coffee. The cook was busy preparing the evening’s dinner, an authentic chicken Cordon Bleu. Gorman is noted as the best of AMC for its cuisine and also offers beer and wine for sale.
After our night in the Library, and a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and blueberry muffins, we packed up our trail lunches and set off on a bluebird sky day. My only complaint was that our stay was too short.
On the long drive home from Greenville, I did my usual plotting: this summer, a return to Little Lyford for the hike to Gulf Hagas? Next winter, a ski into Medawisla and a couple of nights at West Branch Pond? Not exactly “California Dreamin,'” but if I need to escape the cold, I know where to find the sauna.
Sources and resources
More information about AMC Lodges here.
You could spend a well-lived life visiting Maine’s many sporting camps listed at the Maine Sporting Camps Association. I have especially fond memories of visits to Bulldog Camps, and look forward to checking out many others.
For information on the history and economic impact of AMC’s Maine Woods Initiative, see this Baseline Report written by economist David Vail (a former professor of mine!). Also, I’ll point out here that in the North Woods, thousands and thousands of acres remain in private ownership for logging, snowmobiling and other pursuits. Economic activity and conservation are not incompatible and often work well in tandem.
For more information on another hut-to-hut ski adventure, see my post on Maine Huts and Trails:
The AMC also operates a system of hut-to-hut hiking in the White Mountains, although most are closed in the winter (with the exception of Lonesome Lake and Carter Notch Huts). Here, my post about a visit to Madison Hut: