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Yurt-to-yurt trails in wooded quietude

Email|Print| Text size + By Kari J. Bodnarchuk
Globe Correspondent / December 31, 2006

ROCKWOOD, Maine -- Our skis whispered underfoot as we glided through five inches of freshly fallen snow. The forecast had called for 15 to 20 inches, but even in the deep forests of northern Maine, far from much civilization, we were reminded that we were still in New England: The weather was unpredictable.

We'd been swooshing along Baker Trail at The Birches Resort for more than an hour and my breathing had fallen in with the rhythm of my skis. We occasionally stopped for a snack, a swig of water, or to admire the the scratches left on trees by deer rubbing their velvety antlers.

"The deer rub the velvet off because it irritates them," said John Willard, owner of the rustic resort, which sits just feet from Moosehead Lake, overlooking majestic Mount Kineo and 11,000 acres of protected land. "They actually eat it," he said. "It's supposed to be high in protein."

The resort is a draw for cross-country skiers and snowmobilers, who come here as soon as the snow flies to explore this vast wilderness. It has more than 35 miles of groomed ski trails and endless miles of terrain for snowmobilers.

Visitors can stay in the four-bedroom main lodge or one of 15 cabins that also overlook the lake. Skiers also can sleep in three Mongolian-style yurts. That was our choice.

Staying in a yurt is like blending a cabin experience with high-class camping. Each yurt has a wooden circular platform, and a lattice framework and conical roof covered with a heavy, wind- and weatherproof canvas. Inside are a wood stove, picnic table, bunk bed, futon that sleeps two, Coleman stove for cooking, plenty of candles, gas lanterns, and even a little mirror. The roof has a plastic skylight through which you can see the trees or watch snow falling or the moon rising. A typical trailside outhouse is nearby.

My husband and I had planned to spend three nights at the resort, on a yurt-to-yurt, cross-country skiing adventure. Since we arrived after dark, we spent the first night at the lodge, looking over a trail map, talking to guides and other skiers, and enjoying a good meal after the long drive. The Birches' restaurant is the only one open in the area during the winter, and offers a nice variety of hearty pasta, seafood, steak, chicken , and veggie dishes for $11 to $18, along with an impressive wine list.

If you haven't switched gears by the time you reach The Birches, which is a five-hour drive from Boston, maybe the lack of cellphone and Internet services, the absence of televisions, and the striking peacefulness of the setting will help you .

After leaving Interstate 95 in Newport, you pass through the small towns of Sangerville and Greenville, which are good places to stop for gas or last-minute supplies. After Greenville, it's another 24 miles along a decent road that is dark if there is no moon. We passed just one other car driving along this stretch around 6 p.m. on a Friday night last March. Signs will guide you the final few miles once you reach Rockwood, over a two-lane bridge and down a couple of dirt roads that are well maintained and passable year-round.

The decor is befitting a cozy, family-run, backwoods Maine lodge. In the lounge/bar area, couches and chairs are angled around a stone fireplace, and bookcases are stacked with puzzles and books such as "Fishing Dreams," "All About Elk," "Gardening Made Easy," and "Anne of Green Gables." Decorating the wide-planked walls are old wooden and leather snowshoes, a couple of mounted deer heads, photos of Moosehead Lake and, in the dining room, pictures of the Willard family. In other nooks, you'll find a pair of well-loved ice skates, a toboggan, and a clothing stand with a variety of T-shirts and fleece tops for sale.

Willard's father, a contractor from Connecticut, bought the run-down lodge in 1969 and fixed it up for his family. Willard took it over in 1980 and developed the lodge as a winter destination. Then in 1993, he purchased 11,000 acres surrounding his property from a paper company to protect the land.

He plans to build another lodge and 10 cabins over the next few years that will be exclusively for cross-country skiers, and add 25 miles of trails.

"I'm a trail maniac," he said as he skied through the woods with us. "I love to be able to hike through the woods and sneak around."

Willard majored in forestry at the University of Maine at Orono, and as we skied up Baker Trail, he identified white and yellow birch, red maples, poplars, a cedar, and an old spruce along the way. He also told us about the 200- to 350-year-old eastern hemlock and sugar maples on another part of his property, near where he plans to build the cross-country ski cabins.

My husband and I then spent the rest of the day exploring the trails, which are perfect for novice and intermediate skiers. Only one route -- Lookout/Overlook Trail -- is rated intermediate to expert because of its steep pitch. We wound through open and airy forests, past big fields , and along cozy, spruce-lined trails.

After covering 11 miles, we arrived at Poplar Hill Yurt overlooking Brassua Lake. The only people we met on the trail all day were a Connecticut man who had come up for a week of skiing and snowshoeing, and a couple from Warren on their honeymoon. The only other sounds of civilization were the occasional planes overhead; we never heard a snowmobile the entire time we were skiing.

If you're staying at one of the yurts, you can shoulder your own load or arrange to have one of the lodge staff deliver your bags by snowmobile. You can also bring and prepare your own meals or arrange for someone to deliver and prepare dinner for you. Without hesitation, we opted for the bag and meal delivery service.

While we skied around Brassua Lake in a snowstorm, watching the islands disappear in the whiteout, Dan Pasternak, one of the guides, fired up our Coleman stove and prepared a chicken and pasta dinner, complete with wine and chocolate cake. He left us with the fixings for a pancake breakfast, which we made ourselves.

About 12 inches of snow fell that night, weighing down tree branches and burying the trail in fresh powder. The wind created lumps and hills of snow on the lake that resembled frozen waves or a rolling desert. Our skis disappeared under the powder as we skied out to Baker Pond, five miles away, along a hilly route that tested our skills and downhill control. Luckily, many of the trails had two- to three-foot-high embankments that served as guardrails.

By afternoon, the sun had baked the trails, turning the snow the consistency of mashed potatoes. We headed for the main lodge for rib-eye steak and crab-stuffed mushrooms, and then skied back to Three Sisters Yurt, situated on a hill in the middle of the woods, where we would spend the night.

Make sure you bring a headlamp with plenty of extra batteries, in case you get caught out in the dark or ski at night (batteries can die quickly in the cold). We ended up skiing back to the yurt that night with a dying headlamp. The moon was merely a sliver and hung too low in the sky to light our way. For at least half of the two-mile trip, it was so dark I couldn't tell whether my feet were still gliding along the groomed tracks. Luckily, there was just one turn and even though it was too dark to read the trail sign, we remembered the route from the previous day.

That night, we fell asleep to the sounds of a crackling fire, winds gushing through the trees, and bits of snow and ice dropping onto the yurt's canvas roof. A perfect place, if you're ready to be out of touch with civilization and in touch with nature.

Contact Kari J. Bodnarchuk, a Portland, Maine-based writer and photographer, at travelwriter@karib.us.

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