Overnight in a backcountry cabin, alone on the trails when the sun rises
BRIDGTON, Maine - The half moon shone brightly but not enough to fully illuminate the snowy path. Instead, four headlamps created streams of light as we skied and snowboarded down a trail at the Shawnee Peak ski area, bound for a small rustic cabin.
My partner, Jan Duprey, and I were sandwiched between a pair of ski patrollers turned porters who carried our backpacks filled with sleeping bags, slippers, food, and other necessities. Instead of a front-desk check-in, we rode the chairlift to the summit of western Maine’s Pleasant Mountain. From there, the pair accompanied us under the orange rope of a closed trail as we slowly rounded a curve and plunged into darkness in the chill of the early January night.
The snow underfoot was manmade as Mother Nature had proven worse than stingy with the natural stuff. Instead of skiing all the way down to our cabin for the night, we were forced to stop and carefully pick our way in clunky ski boots from snow to precarious brown ground.
“Use your poles and walk sideways,’’ instructed a patroller.
His advice was wise and allowed us to make it to the wooden steps, up to the deck by the Adirondack chairs, and into the comfort of the cabin. The pair dropped off our gear and skis, and we were alone with the warming glow of a propane wood stove fire and lanterns. The mountain was ours.
The Pleasant Mountain Cabins - the North Ridge Yurt and Tuckerman’s Cabin - sit at the summit and are new wilderness alternatives to Shawnee’s slopeside ski-in, ski-out East Slope Condos. Both are located on the gentle Sunset Boulevard trail, a pathway that opened last ski season. According to marketing director Rachael Wilkinson, the circular open-styled yurt began operating last summer, while the cabin was completed in November. The rustic accommodations are open year-round and were chosen for their remoteness and broad vistas.
Indoor furnishings are basic with bunk beds for four, futon couch that sleeps two, chairs, and table. The no-frills kitchen is equipped with dishes, utensils, and a propane stove. Though water for washing is provided, you bring your own drinking water. The outhouse is nearby and a raised outdoor fire pit is the alfresco living room.
The 2,006-foot Pleasant Mountain not only hosts a ski area on its hulking northern front, but also is a popular hiking destination as it rises sharply above the rolling forests and farms. It stretches about 4 miles along a north-south ridge in the towns of Bridgton and Denmark and is largely protected under a partnership between The Nature Conservancy and Loon Echo Land Trust. The approximately 10 miles of hiking trails lead over the handful of ledgy and open summits ripe with blueberries in summer to views of the undulating Lakes Region and neighboring Presidential Range into New Hampshire. A hotel once graced the main summit; a fire tower stands there now.
In winter, the laid-back, 40-trail ski area with nary a high-speed detachable quad is the focus. When the facility first opened with a rope tow in 1938, it was named for the mountain itself. Some 74 years later, the area is now known as Shawnee Peak, and it has seen several owners. Trails are lighted at night for skiers to cruise down the 1,300-foot vertical drop.
And that’s what Jan and I did earlier in the day before meeting up with the ski patrollers, sticking to the lower part of the mountain along with scores of tweens and teens carving its mild trails like Pine Slope, Happiness Is, and West Slope off the Pine Quad Chair. We found the top was a bit fast and firm for our tastes. Trails during the day get skied off, creating slick and icy spots, and the sugary snow gets pushed to the side. That’s where we tried to tread, on the sidelines. And when we saw a grooming machine laying fresh late afternoon corduroy, we followed those pathways as the sun set with its pinkish hue.
The plan was to cook some chili and rice up at the cabin, but the draw of a quenching pint and wholehearted comfort food and sandwiches in the slopeside Blizzard’s Pub won out. We watched from a booth as skiers and riders carved down the trails and hit the terrain park.
Later, we found ourselves inside the cabin listening to rock music on the hand-cranked radio as Jan ruled the cribbage board. She opted for indoor creature comforts as I ventured outside into the still of the night to start a tiny fire in the pit. I could feel the temperature drop as the wind blew through the trees, and clouds darted across the sky. I heard no snow guns firing, chairlifts moving, or skiers shouting. I hiked back to the ski trail and just stood in the middle of it. When can you ever do that?
In morning light, we saw the wintry mountain and lake beyond. It was time for a morning ride in the grooming machine before the lifts started spinning.
Instead of kicking back with a cup of coffee on the deck chairs, we packed, left the gear for the crew to get, and got in a glorious first run. Alone, we could take our time. There were no out-of-control skiers or snowboarders to worry about. We could stop where we wanted. We took long, graceful, arcing turns to make the run seem longer. Together we skied under the still chairlifts at mid-mountain and wound down Lower Kancamagus, the stillness soon broken by the sounds of snowmaking guns on east-side trails.
We traveled on an ocean of virgin corduroy and we had to do it again. So we rode up in the sun-roofed cabin of a Pisten-Bully grooming machine waiting outside the base lodge. Carefully negotiating metal steps over the massive rig’s tracks, we slid into the comfortable cabin and were transported back to the summit, where we were again left alone to choose our paths. We did so slowly, our faces stinging from the cold with smiles seemingly frozen on.
When the run ended, so did our time alone on a Maine mountain. The lift attendants were walking to their stations to begin their day.
Shawnee Peak 119 Mountain Road, 207-647-8444, shawneepeak.com. Rates $165, additional night $125; morning groom ride $15 per person, minimum two people.
Marty Basch can be reached at www.onetankaway.com.