ROCKWOOD, Maine --To call the rustic Birches resort at Moosehead Lake a wonderland in winter is like calling the Big Dig a construction project. It's a gross understatement.
I've been to the Birches twice, once in the winter with a friend to cross-country ski its 40-some miles of winding trails, and this fall with my boyfriend to be awed by the most brilliant colors this New Englander has ever seen. The Birches is the kind of place that, for those coming from the city (it's a 5-hour drive from Boston), takes some adjustment. At first the distant whir of a snowmobile at midnight eerily sounds like a chainsaw; by the end of your stay, it lulls you to sleep.
The snow was knee-deep, powdery, and still falling, on my first visit. Balsam and spruce trees were blanketed in snow; white birches vanished against the landscape. Everything was white except the egg-blue sky. The Birches stood like a logger's refuge in the middle of nowhere. The smell of wood fires split the cold. I was in awe. Not just because of the beauty but because I was humbled, outdone by nature.
Somerset County, in which Rockwood rests, stretches 154 miles south from Fairfield and north to Aroostook County, which borders Canada. (Quebec is 150 miles away.) Here, moose outnumber people in some areas. The county is a vast 3,984 square miles, 96 percent covered by forest. The Birches claims 11,000 acres of that. John Willard Jr., second-generation owner, calls his family operation a ''sort of an outpost." His father bought the property in 1969 when Willard was a teenager. ''Everybody thought he was crazy," he said. ''I thought it was cool."
Willardhas created a place where you can hibernate by the fire or seek adventure by cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, or ice fishing.
The Birches, built in 1930 by a logging contractor, is an enchanting, all-wood wonder. The small bar has tree stumps for stools; some tables and chairs are made out of birch; doors have twig handles; branches make curtain rods. In the main lodge there's a front desk, restaurant, sitting area with games and books, and guest rooms upstairs. Fifteen cabins dot the shoreline.
The cabins are charming in their simplicity. They have at least one bedroom, a wood stove, sitting area with tables and chairs, and a well-equipped kitchen -- refrigerator, coffeemaker, stovetop, microwave, pots and pans -- but no telephone or TV. Everywhere you look you have a view of Moosehead Lake and Mount Kineo, rising 700 feet in the distance.
The closest downhill skiing is Big Squaw, 20 minutes away. Greenville, which you pass on Route 6/15 on the way to the Birches, is the nearest town for shopping. There, Great Eastern Clothing Co. serves fancy coffees and sells ski gear; the Indian Store dispenses items such as frogs and ''Trouble," a $1,700 stuffed moose head. A new store, Claudine Kitchen & Wine Shop, can provide a good bottle of wine, cheese, and chocolates. After that it's a deserted drive until you hit the Moose River Store at the Birches turnoff, where you can buy baked beans or bullets.
The remoteness of the place is, in part, what led Willard to get a pilot's license 18 years ago. He refurbished a 1947 Piper Super Cruiser, a narrow seaplane that doubles as a ski plane in winter. For $150 per person he'll fly guests to a remote area for a backwoods cross-country trip.
The Birches trails were backwoods enough for us. We rented boots and cross-country skis, and headed onto the main trail. With an instructor as guide, we glided over small hills and through woods that seemed to get thicker and quieter, more still and peaceful to the point of being unnerving. What would happen if a black bear happened onto our path? What would we do in case of moose?
I imagined what it would be like to do this day after day. It's possible. The resort has yurts -- weatherproof structures named for the Siberian portable shelters -- and people can ski from one to another. They're equipped with wood stoves, a camp stove, cooking utensils, bunk beds, and ''primitive toilets." Some yurts are several miles apart. With advanced notice, the staff can stoke your wood stove before you arrive and cart your belongings.
After an afternoon of cross-country skiing, my knees had had a workout. I was glad for my polypropylene thermal underwear. I was also glad no black bear had crossed our path, though I would have enjoyed seeing a moose. With frozen toes, I was happy to spy the lodge in the fading light.We ate dinner at the lodge. The restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, is impressive with hand-hewn log beams, a magnificent crackling fire, an antler chandelier, and a large moose head. Folks come from all over to dine here, and it's a popular stop for snowmobilers.
At breakfast the thick French toast and Maine maple syrup fueled us. Lunch was a hamburger. The restaurant also serves salads, sandwiches, and baby back ribs. Dinner was dressy, with candlelight and a great prime rib dinner (served weekends only).
''We don't try to claim we're a gourmet restaurant," said Willard. ''We just give food and plenty of it." His head chef, Paul Marin, has been with him for eight years.
The next day we did what Maine folk do this time of year: We rode snowmobiles. We bundled into ski pants, pulled on wool socks, and strapped on goggles. We straddled the large seats and roared across the frozen lake, where the ice can get up to 4 feet thick in winter. If you like, Willard will drag a portable hot tub onto the ice in front of your cabin, a great way to get a private show of the stars at night.
We zoomed onto the snowy shore and parked by an old house, which had been converted into an inn and tavern, where we caught up on the local buzz and sipped hot chocolate before heading back. A sissy trip. Most snowmobilers pack a lunch and take to the woods, tearing up sometimes hundreds of miles in a weekend. We were glad to retreat to the Birches.
It wasn't until my boyfriend and I visited in autumn that I took advantage of Willard's wings. We squeezed into the back of the plane, pulling a seatbelt over the two of us. From the air, the blanket of reds, golds, and oranges astounded us. His voice crackling through the headset, Willard tried to explain the kinds of birches.
We flew over Kineo, its ridge a rugged spine like a buffalo's. Over Lobster Lake, my heart jumped. We spotted three moose bathing in the water. The water, dark blue like a winter sky, spilled into the color -- all trees, all mountains. Even the roar of the plane did not disturb the solitude.
Naomi R. Kooker is a Boston-area freelance writer.