GREENVILLE, Maine -- The Pleasant River was frozen, thick enough for man, and apparently moose, too. Deep in the cold Maine woods, the ice was a palette of black, gray, white, and blues with depressions and cracks. On it, three skiers schussed past chunks of ice the size of kitchen tables, a testament to the force of nature.
By a bend, with the finger-like, snow-choked ravines of Baker Mountain in the distance, a wry Bob LeRoy stopped and turned.
''You know you're safe when you see those," he said, a ski pole pointing to the snow on the ice.
''What's that?," someone said.
''Moose tracks," LeRoy answered. If the ice could hold moose, it could certainly hold people.
Sightings of moose in the flesh proved elusive on this trip, but not of their tracks, nor their frozen droppings. Even before skiing into the solitude of the Appalachian Mountain Club's Little Lyford Pond Camps, one could look at a salt-covered pickup truck and see the swirls left by moose tongues on what the creatures might see as a mobile salt lick and what the vehicle's owner would call a backcountry car wash.
A traditional Maine sports camp that opened in 1873, the eight rustic cabins, library, and lodge about 20 miles east of Greenville are the latest acquisitions by the Boston-based AMC, along with some 37,000 surrounding acres of former paper company land. Little Lyford borders the West Branch of the Pleasant River in the remote 100-mile wilderness. The camps are a short ski or snowshoe to the Appalachian Trail and Gulf Hagas gorge with its high rock walls, tall pines, and avenues of ice.
The AMC purchased the camps from Bob and Arlene LeRoy who ran them for nearly seven years. Bob has stayed on as manager and oversees a crew of three -- Mark Almon, Andy Coone, and Tracy Blood -- with their blend of dry Maine humor and hospitality.
The camps are definitely out there: no running water, no showers in winter. (For emergencies, there are systems for communicating with the outside world.) Gotta go? Use the outhouse, a bracing experience in 3-degree temperatures even with a styrofoam seat. Heat is by wood stove, light is by gas lamp lighted with a match, and water comes from jugs. Get somewhat clean by baking in the wood-fired sauna, running outside to make snow angels (both sides) -- scream as snow is introduced to body parts unfamiliar with it -- then stewing in the sauna some more.
Getting to the camp is also a haul. A four-hour drive from New Hampshire, complete with sporadic frost heaves, led to the shores of Moosehead Lake and Northwood Outfitters on Main Street, where everyone meets before caravaning. Four-wheel-drive and high-clearance vehicles are recommended for the ensuing 11 miles on a snowy, rutted road to the trailhead. There, LeRoy and assistant manager Almon explained what to look for along the 6.3-mile ski into the camps; they'll also haul in gear via snowmobile. Those who don't want to ski can roar in as passengers.
Soon enough, there was silence on the logging road. Only a handful of snowmobiles passed. Where wind whipped across the pines, the snow was down to gravel, scratchy and hard-packed. Where the wind made a snow deposit, though, it was almost sugary along the rolling and winding way. Trees creaked, the wind slapped and tickled. During the two-hour trip, skiers were introduced to what would become familiar sights on the horizon during the two-night stay: the long ridge of the Barren-Chairback range, the snowy top of White Cap, the rivulets of Baker and Indian mountains.
Skiing down into the camps, watching smoke curl from the chimneys, felt like entering the Land That Time Forgot or a movie set where a craggy trapper on wooden snowshoes might be coming back from days in the woods. But inside, the lodge had warm and welcoming soup and pastries, and three dogs lazed by the wood stove. Meanwhile, the stoves in the cabins were topped with kettles of water ready to be poured for hot chocolate.
The lodge is the indoor gathering place for meals, and guests get acquainted by the fireplace and under the high ceiling. A couple of teachers and a couple of doctors, all from Maine, were into the all-you-can-eat dinner, but a guest who had spent the previous night there was overdue in the darkness from her day's outing. LeRoy and Almon mounted a search for her on a snowmobile. By about 7 p.m., she skied back in under headlamp, somewhat embarrassed. Her explanation: There was a disconnect between the two maps she was using.
It was a backwoods reality check.
''People need to take responsibility for themselves," said LeRoy. ''When you come back here, you are assuming a certain level of responsibility."
After a long drive, six-mile ski, half-hour sauna, samples of single malt (one of the joys of having gear sledded in), and a dinner of Tuscan white bean soup, salad, homemade bread, and polenta topped with tomato sauce (the meals were largely vegetarian, though cold cuts were available at lunch), sleep comes easily, missing person search or not.
From the camp, exploration abounds. A ski and snowshoe trip to the Gulf Hagas gorge, a round trip of about 7 miles, is popular. Groomed ski trails near the camp take skiers and snowshoers to both Little and Big Lyford ponds, the former only about a mile away. Snowshoe up to a ledge on Indian Mountain for a look-down at the camp and out to Mount Katahdin to the northeast.
The camps are more than 130 years old, but they're still a work in progress for the new owners. A kitchen has been added to the lodge that was once the LeRoys' residence. The former lodge is a library, and may be used as a teaching area for summer programs such as fly-fishing. Flatwater paddling is being considered for the seven ponds within two miles. Winter survival workshops could be offered and more trails opened to skiing and snowshoeing.
Last fall, a new trail was cut up to the ledge on Indian Mountain, about a three-hour round-trip snowshoe through beech, maple, and pine forest. The signs at Lyford are hand-painted and often only on one side, so one has to look carefully. Strips of colored tape mark the trail to the ledge, named Laurie's Ledge after the AMC's immediate past president, Laurie Burt.
It took only a few hours in the afternoon to ski to the entrance of Gulf Hagas via the Pleasant River and back, following the frozen pathway to the head of the gulf and jumbles of ice at Stair Falls.
Later, after dinner, Doug Malloy, a teacher from Athens, Maine, said, ''What I like about it here is that it follows the tradition of the Maine sporting camps where people sleep in their own cabins and come together for communal meals to talk about their day. There is a timeless quality, not all that different from 100 years ago."
That quality is reached with ease at Little Lyford. It's found in the rumbling of the river under winter's blanket or in tales by the fire. Or even rolling nearly naked in the snow.
Marty Basch, a writer living in New Hampshire, has a new book, ''Twenty-nine Hills," to be published this summer by TMC Books.
How to get there
It is about a five-hour drive from Boston to Greenville, Maine. Take Interstate 95 north to exit 39 at Newport, Maine, then Route 7 north to Dexter, Route 23 north to Guilford, and Route 15 north to Greenville.
In Greenville, drive past the blinking light to Main Street and meet the group at Northwoods Outfitters, the green building on the right-hand side of road. From Northwoods Outfitters and the final 11 miles to the trailhead, four-wheel-drive and high-clearance vehicles are recommended.
Little Lyford Pond Camps
Box 310, Greenville, Maine
603-466-2727 for reservations
Open Dec. 15-March 31 and May 13-Oct. 31. Rates: Adult Appalachian Mountain Club member, $100 per night; nonmember, $120; child member age 15 and under, $75; nonmember, $90. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and taxes are included. Optional snowmobile transport is $25 round trip for gear, $40 for gear and person. Going in and out by dog sled is an option. Call AMC for rates. Two-night minimum stay at the camp. AMC will furnish a list of gear to bring.
Main Street, Greenville, Maine
Snowshoe rentals $15 per day; cross-country skis, boots, and poles $15 a day.