This years adventure began much more smoothly than last year - no polar vortex induced blizzard to obliterate our travel plans! We all landed in Manchester without issue, loaded up two minivans and blasted north. The rental kiosk lady was appalled that we would choose to go outside and ski all day with temps ranging from the teens to way below zero.
Not quite four hours later we pulled up to the Rental Center at Sugarloaf, about 30 miles from the Canadian Border. U-Turn, Shuttle, Iru, Peter, Joan and myself had schlepped our skis north but GQ, Hawkeye, Brian and Kathryn needed to pick up some rentals. When we cracked the doors to the vans, we were greeted by howling winds. Air temps were in the single digits.
Everyone got their gear and layers in order, then we made the short drive to the Airport Trailhead. Half the team deployed from here to make the 3ish mile ski in to the Flagstaff Hut. Arctic wind blasted the wide open field here, blowing powder into our faces. Everyone rushed to get moving which led to a bit of chaos. Jen thought Joan was ahead of her, and set a blistering pace to catch up. As it turned out Joan was behind her, also racing to catch up!
The rest of us doubled back to the Stratton Brook Trailhead to make the 9ish mile trek which started with the Narrow Gauge Pathway. Hawkeye and I brought up the rear, after having missed the trailhead turn off on the first pass. We finally got clipped into our skis around 3:15, then set off chasing down Brian, Iru and Michael. The Narrow Gauge trail was totally flat and offered little chance for injury, so when we came to the Maine Hut Trail connector we made the short climb north then continued east on the rolling MHT. There was plenty of opportunity to practice our herringbone, snowplow, and crashing techniques!
The stars came out about 30 minutes before we reached Poplar, and the air temp dropped below zero. We popped on our headlamps to finish the last few miles. Somewhere in here I realized I probably should have put my mittens on when I couldnít feel fingers anymore. Dumb. Rather than stop to do so, I hammered out the last mile and was very glad to see the lights of the hut ahead.
I rolled into the hut and received a hearty greeting from the rest of the team. Stephanie was right on my heels. I was glad to see everyone had made it in one piece! This wasnít weather you wanted to be out floundering in the dark. When my fingers finally thawed out, I realized I had jammed my index finger during a spill and hadnít even felt it. Oops.
The hut was surprisingly quiet and it turned out the other groups would be a no-show. We had the entire place to ourselves! We got to spread out and take over all the bunkhouses. It also meant there was food or 30 people. It didnít go to waste. The hut staff - Max, Zack and Kelly - were awed at our capacity for eating, as bowl after bowl of food disappeared. Chicken breast with bean stew, green beans, and homemade rolls - all delicious. We may have inadvertently started a legend.
We took the energy tour after dinner to check out the off grid systems (3 out of the 4 huts built so far are totally off-grid), and generally just hung around the wood stove swapping war tales. As is our norm, we were off to bed early!
I canít remember what the temps were the next day, but I remember this being the warmest morning of the trip - probably mid-teens. Balmy! We again clipped into our skis after a filling breakfast and set out into the crisp morning. There was a good long downhill run to start - one of the few I nailed without crashing. We quickly discovered that the groomed tracks had been wiped out by fresh snow and wind. Having established tracks to ski in would be a rarity for the rest of the trip.
After descending for a bit, the trail was more or less level and rolling until the sharp climb up to the Halfway Yurt around 6 miles in. Peter had gotten the wood stove fired up and then pressed on before I got there a little after noon. The rest of us crowded in and enjoyed lunch and hot drinks as clouds and some snow flurries blew in. Brian sat down to repair his hip straps that had torn as a result of a crash. Jimmy revealed that his boot was systematically and steadily chewing away his achilles.
The second half of the day was relatively easy, either downhill or flat. I wiped out on the long run not long after leaving the yurt for no good reason whatsoever. But we made good time, rolling into the much more busy Flagstaff Hut around 3. Peter had gotten there so early he had gone to work on a snow cave! He later enlisted Stephanie's help to finish it up.
At dinner that night we devoured the shepherds pie like a starving wolf pack. There was near-hysteria when it seemed the food was in short supply. But the hut staff continued shoveling bowl after bowl of food in front of us. Eventually our appetites were satiated.
We shared the hut with a handful of couples and their kids - but Flagstaff was nowhere near capacity. So once again we had our pick of bunk houses to spread out in. I woke up a few times that night to fling off my quilt, the rooms were quite toasty!
We streamed out of the hut the next morning after a breakfast of eggs and apple cinnamon pancakes. Joan reunited with her friend Laurie, then the two of them and Hawkeye headed off. Peter and I left last and detoured out onto the wind swept Flagstaff Lake. We broke a short trail across and then reconnected with the MHT. Soon Peter left me in his dust as I hobbled along with blistery heels. Eventually I caught up to Joan and we skied the rest of the day along the beautiful but wind swept Dead River. The head wind easily dropped the temperature below -30, freezing our faces and fingers.
We had the quickest lunch break ever just inside the trees around mile 9 or 10, the only shelter from the arctic winds. We plowed ahead before we cooled off too much, skipping the Grand Falls detour and going straight for the hut. I had one more spectacular crash on the last big downhill onto a snowmobile road. Next year maybe Iíll nail that oneÖ
We were glad to see the Grand Falls Hut appear before as at last, and gratefully warmed up by the wood stove as we talked about the rest of the teamís day. The hutís windows offered a spectacular few of the Bigelow Range. GQ slipped outside with U-turns tripod to get some photos, while in turn we took photos of him!
Collectively we decided that completing the rest of the trail would be a bit much. The final section is rated black, and would take all day to ski the very steep 14 miles. Instead we would stick together and all ski out to the Big Eddy trailhead. I went and located the two square foot area in the hut which had cell phone reception to touch base with Greg, our shuttle driver.
We had Zack and Kelly as our hosts again. They served up another incredible meal of pasta, greens. We ate ourselves to the brink of food comas once again, then retired to the fire for a while. Michael went out to put his tripod to work catching some star shots, which compelled Jimmy and I to go out and do the same.
With only a handful of couples at the cabin besides our group, we once again had the pick of bunkhouses for the night. Some fled to separate bunks to avoid potential snoring, only to be awoken by the sound of Fiber one munching on trail mix in the middle of the night when he had a hunger attack.
The next morning was our last time to strap on skis, and we got moving right after breakfast to go catch our shuttle. This time we took the detour trail to go see the Falls. This required barebooting it up some slippy inclines. But the Grand Falls were very cool and worth the time to visit. All that was left after that was retracing our steps back along the Dead River. Thankfully the wind was mostly at our back this time.
We found Brian doing laps a few minutes before Dead River road trying to stay warm, while Iru and Stephanie were hanging around the junction trying to avoid the wind. Peter had dug himself a hole to hide in! As Joan and I headed down towards the parking area, Greg rolled up with two compatriots in cars. Turns out his van had died on Saturday! But he came through anyway as was right on time. We collected everyone then started the journey back to Manchester.
This trip went off just like we had planned the previous year - though we did have some extra challenges. The weather was much more unforgiving, and not having groomed tracks meant we got some bonus hip workouts. Big thanks to all who came for making it such a fun trip! Also a big thanks and kudos to our Maine Huts staff for being such great hosts.
Thanks for the trip report, Will. It brought back many memories of last year's wild adventure. This year's sounded pretty wild itself, if only for the frigid temps. (-30 wind chill is pretty nuts).
I salute you all for your perseverance. The miles may not be many, but it's not all easy going, especially if you're not an experienced skier and/or have to break trail (which is a major challenge). And some of those downhills are downright scary-- like the northbound one that plunges straight into a country road (somehow I didn't wipe out on it last year). Knowing that you'll end the day in a warm, cozy hut, though, is awfully encouraging.
Sounds like you all did me proud at the hut meals, too. They were damn good. Cold makes everything taste better. :-) Kudos to Michael for starting this fun new tradition of skiing Maine's pristine backwoods. Barring a polar vortex/storm, it's relatively accessible and feels worlds away from DC, etc.
You are right on Dan! We missed you, Alison and Katie out there.