Trip Report: Maine XC Adventure: "You get to point B ... Or you die!"

Posted by Michael Martin on

So, Thursday night, things weren't looking so great. I had had a snow day and was off on the treadmill when the text messages hit that the flight Hawkeye, Covergirl, Fancy Pants, and I were on to Augusta, Maine, had been cancelled. For almost 14 hours, we four tried as best we could, but none of us were able to re-book. The Savages, Sunshine, and Heavy D had booked and re-booked ... It looked liked their flight from BWI to Portland, Maine would go. Glum, Fancy Pants and I stayed up way too late watching the Olympics. When figure skating came on, I had all I could take and went to bed.

Friday morning, hope springs eternal. I managed to get through to U.S. Airways, and Sergio managed to book me for a 7:30am Saturday flight to Logan, which I figured would do the trick. Hawkeye jumped on the same flight. Covergirl wavered, but I gave her a pep talk, and she found a way to Boston. The trip was back on. Hawkeye came over to crash on my couch ... On Valentine's Day! My dog got exiled to MacGyver's. Ominous messages came from the Savages. Mrs. Savage stated that they had reached the first hut but that she had wanted to die. Could we bring painkillers when we came?

Saturday morning. DCA. BOS. Covergirl is waiting for us at Hertz. We four pile into the Chevrolet Impala we rented, and start the drive north. There are winter storm warnings on the interstate, but the roads are fine. We fly due north, and roll smoothly up to Sugarloaf Mountain, where we pull in to change and rent skis. That chore down, we drive to the trailhead ... And things start to get interesting.

I'm taking us to a different trailhead so that we can ski and meet the Savages, Heavy D, and Sunshine. I've got to use a back road called Long Falls Dam Road. I figure that this is a road we'd planned to use for the shuttle on Monday, so how bad could it be? Well, it's not that bad, but it's snowing now (Pax, Part Deux) and it's accumulating. At this point, we discover that the tires on the Impala are pretty bald and on a grade it has no traction at all. Covergirl, Fancy Pants, and Hawkeye get out to push, while I try valiantly to get the car up the grade. Fancy Pants starts talking about us being devoured by coyotes: a real morale builder, that Fancy Pants. A local comes up behind us in his 4 X 4. He is super nice (everybody in Maine is nice), but he looks like an extra for the Duck Dynasty. We manage to push the Impala over the pass. The local follows us as we continue to the trailhead. Covergirl dubs me an honorary Minnesotan for my emerging skill driving in the snow, as I learn the trick of diving down hills to slide up them. Texas is long forgotten.

As we reach the trailhead, darkness falls, but we only have about 2 miles to ski in to the hut, so we don our lamps and get started. I think we were all just happy to be on our skis. The ski in is beautiful, with perfect snow on the ground and in the air. Covergirl and Hawkeye ski in to let the others know we're coming. Fancy Pants is uncomfortable skiing in the dark, so we go slowly, but we get there about 7:30pm. We enjoy a merry reunion, many beers are consumed, I dig into the chicken pot pie, and we settle into a peaceful slumber rather early. We did start at 4:30am.

Sunday dawns, and we have 12 miles to ski, from the Flagstaff Hut to the Grand Falls Hut. We start at about 9am. The main group goes ahead while Fancy Pants and I ski together. Early on, Fancy Pants has concerns about the distance. We return to the lodge; we spend some time talking with the staff there about options. There really aren't any. As Fancy Pants says, "You get to point B ... Or you die!" So we set out again, at about 10:30am. I withdrew our pack from the gear shuttle when we got back, so now I have two people's gear to ski 12 miles with. Fun.

We ski ... It is a beautiful day, and the snow is lovely, soft, and plentiful. The route is generally flat. There are a few downhills that challenge me. Falling and getting up with a full pack on is ... interesting, but I don't feel that the pack bothered me much. Fancy Pants and I make slow but steady progress. Skiing along the beautiful, if ominously named, Dead River, we reach the halfway point in the afternoon, and darkness falls as we approach Grand Falls. The terrain becomes tougher with some climbs and descents. Fancy Pants is tired, and in the dark, it's a no-go. I lash her skis to my now monstruous pack and she walks for a spell. We turn onto a snowmobile path about a mile from the lodge. Though we're tired, we take time to admire the stars. When a snowmobile pulls up, she climbs aboard. The driver offers to take my pack, but I tell him that I've skiied all day with it, and would just as well finish with it on. As I ski the last mile (which is NOT flat), I have time to question my wisdom ... But I am soon nearing the lodge. Savage, Covergirl, Hawkeye, Sunshine, and Heavy D come to meet me. They have been concerned and have heard conflicting stories of our progress all day long.

We are soon eating and drinking in the Grand Falls Hut, where Hillary is a wonder. She does her WFR routine, but Fancy Pants is fine, just a bit cashed and dehydrated. We chat with some kids from Boston who have participated in the rescue mission. They help me name Katie Sunshine: I think one of those little boys has a crush on Katie! I mention that they never needed to worry, that I had my "rescue beacon" with me, if I had needed it. Someone hears "rescue bacon" and a legend is born.

Monday morning, we are all logistics all the time! We have 8 miles to ski, and then the whole return trip to do. Mrs. Savage and Fancy Pants are done skiing, and catch a snow mobile ride to the trailhead. The rest of us set off at 8:30am. I'm only carrying my day pack now, and I'm very pleased at how well I can ski. Some of the steeper stuff bothers me (I take off the skis and walk 'em), but the hut people say this stretch should take 2h45-4h, and I reach the trailhead in exactly 2h45. It's a glorious day, and I'm getting the hang of kicking and gliding. I stop only a few times to drink hot tea. The miles just fly by: I entertain thoughts of skiing all the way to the car!

We eight reassemble at the trailhead, board our shuttle, and start rehearsing the lies we're going to tell. At the Impala, Covergirl, Fancy Pants, Hawkeye, and I are quickly off and we are running south for a 6pm flight out of Boston. We all agree that Heavy D will never make a 4pm flight out of Portland. Covergirl actually crawls back in the trunk of the moving Impala to marshal equipment. After many antics in Boston--Spring Street, Covergirl?--we drop Hawkeye and Covergirl off at the curb at 5:25pm.

Guess who's waiting for them at the gate? Heavy D, who has mastered the art of time travel.

(The slight blur you see is the result of a temporal distortion in the time-space continuum.)

Fancy Pants and I handle the car and catch the 7pm flight to DCA, only delayed by an hour. We are at home eating pizza by 9pm.

Thanks to everyone who made this wild trip happen, despite all the obstacles that got thrown our way. As I told Heavy D, where would the fun be if things went as planned?

You guys are all awesome and a pleasure to be with! You should each add on your tales from the trip, as everyone had their own story to tell.


Jimmy posted on

My... goodness....[:)]

Daniel posted on

My flight was from Augusta, not Portland...I'm not that good. ;-)

To fill in the story for the early crew-- i.e., we four who got to Maine Friday...after much shuffling and reshuffling of travel arrangements, Will, Joan, Katie, and I managed to get tickets on the same plane from BWI Airport to Portland, Maine. (At least one poor soul on-board was trying to go to Oregon...) Hurled from the sunny mid-Atlantic, abruptly, to cold, gray coastal Maine. Will rented us a good-sized Jeep(?)-- help me with the specifics-- and off we went into the unknown. Snow was falling and blowing; I was reminded of our drive into the Adirondacks High Peaks back in November. The main roads were well-plowed, though. (This was Maine, after all, not a certain U.S. capital that shall remain nameless.) A pit stop netted us a couple Whoopie Pies, Maine's official "state treat" and one of the silliest-named snacks this side of Dunkaroos. After a few directional miscues-- Will used a snowbank as a bumper-car style cushion on one artful turnaround-- we reached the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center in Carrabassett Valley, some time after 4:00 PM. Katie and I rented skis, boots, and poles (Will and Joan brought their own). A short drive later we were at the Gauge Road/Poplar Trailhead, whence we set off some time around 5:20 PM for Poplar Hut, under three miles out.

To paraphrase Michael, this is when things got interesting. Darkness fell pretty soon after we started. The trail rose and kept rising, Poplar Hut being well over 400 feet higher than the trailhead. Except, that is, when it dropped. Nothing like descending on skis when one can hardly see anything. And trees bound the trail at every turn; last time I checked trees are hard. I recall at least two memorable, short-but-sharp downs, both of which wiped me out. (Actually, I fell on purpose on the first, when I picked up too much speed for comfort.) Meanwhile, my new headlamp, which didn't adjust downward (like my old one), seemed better at illuminating the inside of my jacket hood than the ground right in front of me. It was all a bit overwhelming. As a skier, I for one had a steep learning curve. Did I mention that a 14-year-old girl blew past me, piling proverbial insult on injury? Yeah, it was one of those nights...

Anyway, I muddled through. Easiest that night for me was the 'duck walk' uphill, which I found intuitive in a weird way. Eventually, I got into a groove of sorts on the flatter ground. Katie, the sole veteran skier of the bunch, led by example, and I followed behind, trying to imitate. At last, Poplar Stream Hut appeared, its golden lights a welcome sight in the winter woods.

We'd arrived after some two hours. The cozy, wood-plank lodge with roaring fireplace hit the spot. As did the made-from-scratch dinner: lasagna, garlic bread, kale salad, and chocolate cake, plus hot cocoa & tea. Mmmmm. The best end to a long, hectic day. I slept like a log in our four-bunk cabin.

Daniel posted on

Next morning broke sunny and mild. A delicious hut breakfast got our day off to a pleasant, leisurely start. By about 9:30, we hit the trail. Destination: Flagstaff Hut, some 11.4 miles away. Katie, Will, and I detoured off-trail to see a waterfall, but there wasn't much worth seeing. The climb back up the little icy, rocky slope was interesting; arms were used, as well as legs. Soon we were back on skis, catching up with Joan.

From here out, much of day 2 blurs together in my memory. Maybe it was the lack of notable vistas or features, though the forest itself was lovely. A couple steeper drops tested us. One ended at a road, and we each crashed on purpose to stop short. (Not the last time for some of us, either!)

The "Halfway Yurt," so called because it sits equidistant from Poplar and Flagstaff huts, broke up the day. There was a considerable little climb up to the yurt, which at ~1600 feet above sea level was the highest point on our trek. Enough of a work-out that I arrived hungry, despite a hearty breakfast. And just in time, too, as it had started to snow again.

More than a crude teepee, the yurt was fully enclosed and heated with a wood-burning stove. Inside were a group of twenty-somethings from Pennsylvania. They had driven for[i] 24 hours,[/i] at 30 miles per hour, from central PA to Maine. This put our travel woes into proper perspective! I chowed down on my bag lunch from the hut: sandwiches and cookies. (Amazing how quickly I must've burnt off many calories.) The others joined me as the snow picked up. A Florida couple did, too, who told of sailing to the Bahamas and seeing an alligator in a canal, among other things Floridian. It all seemed very far away indeed from our snowy perch north of the 45th parallel.

Alas, all good things must come to an end... and with palpable reluctance we left our toasty shelter, the stove chock-full of fresh cut logs. Skiing again by 2:00. What followed was a gentle and prolonged downhill, one of the day's most enjoyable sections. I 'double-poled' for a little extra speed, and for a minute there felt like a natural Norwegian, hale and hearty, making great time. (My self-delusion of choice for this trip. ;-) ) It was fun, and not steep as the map's elevation profile seemed to indicate (though perhaps this was user error on my part). Of course, a couple more crashes ensued. While I was doing better on the sharper drops, I was still unable to turn properly. Katie gave me some helpful pointers.

After our long descent, the remaining few miles were mostly flat and easy. The trail skirted Flagstaff Lake-- the fourth-largest in Maine, a man-made feature formed by damming of the Upper Dead River-- but I never saw it. The woods were in the way. No matter: by about 3:20, Katie and I reached Flagstaff Hut, near the eastern shore of the lake, which was finally visible. Nearly 6 miles in about 1 1/2 hours-- not bad. Will and Joan followed. I think I speak for all of us when I say we were ready to settle in for the evening.

And settle in we did. Pretty sure we all enjoyed a hot shower; I know I did. Warmed and refreshed, I made myself at home in pajama pants and enjoyed a snack and a Carrabassett Pale Ale. Ahhh. Just as important, there was some compelling reading material on hand for the long night in. Though between the fare and the books, I could've gladly stayed a whole week. Thank goodness for the huts.

Obviously, the question loomed, without an answer as yet: would the other four make it in tonight, as intended? And if so, when? Earlier, we'd gotten word of their arrival in Boston. I can't recall if we heard they'd made it to the trailhead or not-- I don't think we did. Anyway, by the 5:00 hour we were beginning to wonder and worry. Thankfully, Alison and Stephanie pulled in a little after 6:00-- just in time for dinner. They told us Michael and Laura were in tow. Phew. With a full reunion at hand, we devoured our tasty and plentiful meal. Another win by the Maine Huts & Trails kitchen crew; they know how to cook.

By 7:00 or so, we were eight! It was agreed it was a minor miracle that all eight of us even made it there. Guitar and voice serenaded us as fireworks burst above the lakeshore. (Turned out it was those puckish kids we'd later befriend.) Several of us peeled off for an 'energy tour' of the hut's rather ingenious (and efficient) systems for heating, composting, etc. Then the dinner-table conversation resumed and percolated over a large-looking number of beers. Not a bad way to cap another eventful and somewhat demanding day. The next couple days would be even better, scenery-wise: sunshine, blue skies, and beautiful views. In sum, this was a wall-to-wall action kind of experience; like Michael said, we packed a lot in. Very much my style, and DC UL's. Well worth the trip.

Thanks to everyone for making this a fun adventure, despite everything. Special thanks to Michael for planning this and to Will for driving. Somehow I made my return flight...Will makes it all look easy.

PS- Some lies to embellish the tale: the average daytime high was -80 degrees. Genghis Khan had us over for lunch in his Mongol yurt. Downhills were sheer glacier ice leveling off beside hot lava flows. Dan karate-chopped a ferocious pterodactyl when it tried to snatch Katie's Whoopie Pie, saving both Katie and the pie. Etc.

Sharon G posted on

Ha! If I had only known what was going on while I was cozy in front of the fire with two pooches. =)

Joffrey Peters posted on

This trip sounds lovely. I'm sad I missed it/was priced out, but I did manage to do a little xc myself in NH, probably getting about 20km in one day, but with only a day pack.

Michael Martin posted on

I'm sorry you missed it, Joffrey. You would have enjoyed it, I think, and we certainly would have appreciated your skill. I did try to keep it as cheap as I could ... It seems like you did some cool stuff in NH!

In the back of my mind, I'm wondering if we will keep a ski like this as a tradition. The ambitions for the Maine hut system are pretty darned cool.


Will posted on

Thanks for the awesome write ups gents! I could only add my rather ridiculous detour to retrieve my dropped baseball hat - you know, just an excuse for some extra mileage! One of the cool things about this trip, with the back to back days of skiing, you really felt your skill progressing. You had no choice if you wanted to get to that warm hut and tasty meal afterall! The final day when things were really clicking was magnificent, as were the views. The company made the trip even more spectacular as always. A return trip would be a slam dunk. Skiing, or hike + paddling?