CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine - How hard could it be, I asked myself as I contemplated hiking the 2 1/2 miles to the first hut in the newborn Maine Huts & Trails system. It had been ages since I had worn a serious backpack, years since I had completed a strenuous hike, and I had done neither in winter. Still, I couldn't resist checking it out. Which is how I found myself hiking to the Poplar Stream Hut in mid-March with crampons and ski poles and weighed down with a borrowed backpack.
From the trailhead in "downtown" Carrabassett Valley, it's a gradual but relentless uphill trek. In winter, the 8-foot-wide highway through the woods is groomed and tracked for classic and skate skiing; in summer, mountain bikers are welcome. Hiking in, I passed skiers, snowshoers, and other hikers heading out; some stopped to chat. "You heading in overnight?" said one hiker. "You're going to love it. It's so cozy and friendly. We met others and shared wine in the upstairs lounge."
I smiled, grateful for the break, then plodded onward. About two-thirds of the way in, another backpacker came steaming down the trail. "How're ya doin'?" he said. "Tired," I huffed. "Really? You OK?" He looked concerned. I rallied a smile: "Yes, just a little winded from hiking with a backpack. Haven't done that in years."
He introduced himself as Jamie Corriveau, operations manager. "The staff will take real good care of you," he said. "Jack's making chicken cacciatore for dinner; Alec and Casey will show you around; Melissa will be in later, she's ice climbing. Did you bring any wine?"
Was he kidding? I had jettisoned much of what I had planned to carry, and with nearly a mile to go, was wishing I had lightened the load even more. My shoulders ached and my calves were conversing with me. I continued upward, drawn not only by the promise of a comfy bed, a good meal, and conversation, but also by the quietude, the scenery, and my determination.
With the February opening of the first hut in the system, Larry Warren's hut-to-hut dream is becoming a reality. When it's completed, the trail will cut through some of Maine's most spectacular backcountry and stretch 180 miles, from Bethel, in the Mahoosuc Mountains, to Rockwood/Greenville on Moosehead Lake.
The idea originated in the early 1970s, when Warren helped create the town of Carrabassett Valley and its cross-country center. "We tried to gain some traction developing a hut-and-trail system in Maine without much success," he said. "Until the 1990s, about 90 percent of Maine was open forestland, and 90 percent of that was owned by paper companies. Because the paper industry in Maine had always provided public access to private lands, there wasn't much of an incentive for change."
In the late 1990s, the companies began selling their holdings into private hands. "The changing face of land ownership made the vision a lot more compelling in people's minds," Warren said.
The initial vision was simply a local loop system, but when Warren renewed efforts to implement his dream, it morphed into something much larger. "As people in neighboring communities heard about what we were planning, they encouraged us to venture into their communities - Stratton, Rangeley, The Forks, Rockwood. They said, 'If you can get to Rangeley, we can help you get to Bethel.' "
From 2000 to 2003, Warren presented his plan to business organizations and leaders, communities, state-planning offices, and tourism officials. One leader he targeted was Bob Peixotto, chief operations officer for L.L. Bean. Peixotto, now president of the Maine Huts & Trails board, liked what he heard.
"We spent a lot of years going to the [Appalachian Mountain Club's] White Mountain huts when the kids were growing up. I recognized the value of a hut system for those with a family," Peixotto said. "Bean's saw what I saw: This is more than just a cabin in the woods, this is a way of expanding outdoor recreation in the state, of creating a venue for ecotourism. The trail showcases some of the finest backcountry we've got."
The biggest difference between the AMC and Maine systems is terrain, Peixotto said. "This is a more accessible venue. You've got to be in pretty good shape to do the White Mountains and get over the 4,000-foot peaks." In contrast, the Maine trail stays low, following rivers and lakes as it noodles through the wilderness.
"Clearly getting the interest and potential commitment of L.L. Bean and their owners was a key first step," Warren said. Bean's owners agreed to provide financial assistance if Warren proved the trail was viable. "I was challenged to go out and accomplish tying together the corridor and easements, purchase agreements, leases, license agreements for a contiguous trail from the Carrabassett Valley to Rockwood." He succeeded.
Warren and crew also did their homework in designing the system. They sought input from Outward Bound, Chewonki Foundation (a Wiscasset-based environmental education foundation), and Bean's Outdoor Discovery School, and visited other hut systems worldwide. Early plans envisioned saunas and perhaps tepid water welcoming visitors after a long hike or ski, Warren said, but over the years, the plans evolved. Peixotto believes that when compared with the White Mountain huts, these offer a "slightly higher level of amenity." And how.
The tight complex of small outbuildings grouped around a large central lodge is no simple cabin in the woods. Guests can take a hot shower, dry clothes in a drying room, sleep on a foam mattress in a dorm heated to 55 degrees via radiant heat, dine well in a room infused with natural light, and relax in a lounge furnished with leather sofa, loveseat, and chairs. Each of the four- to 12-bed dorms has electricity.
Such frills come at a price: My peak-season, nonmember dorm bunk was around $86, with tax. Sure, that included dinner and breakfast, but it's not cheap. Although children ages 3 to 14 are $40, that's around $250 per night for a family of four; in a private room, it's closer to $300.
As promised, crew member Alec Frankel, 23, gave me a tour of the facility en route to my dorm. He handed me a quarter as we entered the co-ed bathroom, part of the main hut and just steps from the dorms. "Your first six minutes are free; after that, you need to feed the meter," he advised. Most of the bathroom's lights are on motion sensor, and the composting toilets require a pre- and post-flush.
The hut produces its own power by means of hydro, a wood boiler, solar panels, and a woodstove in the dining room. It's a sophisticated system of batteries and tanks all backed up by a propane generator. "We actually produce as much as 55 percent more power than we can use," Frankel said. "We have to dump it, because there's no way of storing it."
Perhaps not now, but dream-weaver Warren has plans for bottling hydrogen. "If we can capture and convert the excess power to hydrogen, it presents a whole new measure of opportunities on how to utilize the mini hydropower station," he said. "We're beginning to explore the opportunities to buy snow-grooming and other vehicles that might be hydrogen-powered and to look at purchasing generators that can run on hydrogen to provide power or heat at other huts, where we might not have a viable wind, solar, or mini-hydro opportunity."
Famished, I returned to the main hut for dinner. "I use local providers and natural and organic as much as I can," Jack Shields, 49, a crew member who is in charge of the kitchen, said as I heaped my plate with chicken cacciatore, fresh-baked bread, pasta, and green beans flavored with sesame and soy. I ate too much, but was unable to resist dessert: a huge brownie mounded with fresh whipped cream. "Breakfast is at 7," Shields said, as I groaned. "I'm planning blueberry pancakes, bacon and eggs." So much for losing weight on this adventure.
The next hut in the system, slated for construction over the summer, is 10 miles beyond Poplar, on the shores of Flagstaff Lake. Other huts will follow, each 10 to 12 miles - a day's hike or ski - apart. Grand Falls, on the Dead River, will probably be the site of the third hut. The trail to Moosehead will follow the Dead and Kennebec river corridors, and edge Indian Pond, which opens up paddling options. "It's not inconceivable to mountain bike, paddle, raft, and hike different sections of the trail, doing it a different way every day," Warren said.
Warren, whom one acquaintance described as having both feet firmly off the ground, admitted he is already thinking beyond the trail's proposed ends. "We've had some discussions with the AMC. Once we're in Bethel, we're a hut away from tying into the Whites in New Hampshire. In Greenville, we're a hut away from the Katahdin Iron Works region, where they've recently acquired land. And from there, it's up to Katahdin and Millinocket," he said. "We're already discussing with local communities and historical societies how to progress further up the Dead River and into Quebec and . . ."
Pipe dream? If anyone can pull it off, Warren can. I shouldered my pack and eyed the trail heading toward Flagstaff. Heck, if Warren can envision 180-plus miles, I could certainly backpack another 10. I began moseying back to civilization, meanwhile plotting my return.
Next time, I'll bring wine.
Hilary Nangle, a freelance writer in Waldoboro, Maine, can be reached at email@example.com.