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Willem Lange: Bit of Luxury Somewhere in the Maine Woods

In the Maine Woods

I’m not quite sure where we are, though any old native would say, “You’re in Maine, ya damn fool!” My friend Put and I drove east from Greenville for several miles two days ago, past the airport with a lovely old DC-3 parked at the terminal, then on through a hundred log jobs, on a road as iced as a bobsled run, to a large parking lot where an Appalachian Mountain Club snowmobile shuttle picks up the gear of people coming to stay at its lodges. They pick up people, too: those who’d rather ride than ski the several miles to camp.

Yesterday, Shannon, our irrepressible guide, mentioned that we were skiing through the Bowdoin College East Grant, which put us in Township T7 R9. See what I mean? I have almost no idea where we are. She pointed to a very natural-looking bit of northern forest — “the School Lot,” set aside for the location of the school in the very unlikely event the township is ever incorporated. “That lot probably hasn’t been logged for 100 years,” she said. It looked it.

The Appalachian Mountain Club, during the past few years, has acquired about 60,000 acres of former timber company land in northern Maine. This, along with the Appalachian Trail property, has protected an unbroken corridor of conservation land all the way through the famous 100-Mile-Woods to Mount Katahdin.

In addition, the club has purchased and renovated three old sporting camps, one of them originally a 19th-century loggers’ camp, and is promoting camp-to-camp skiing, hiking and mountain biking. I’m accustomed to the White Mountain hut system — Madison, Greenleaf, Lakes of the Clouds — but was advised by Rob Burbank, the AMC’s public affairs director, to say “lodge-to-lodge” when mentioning these accommodations on-camera.

I must admit he has a point. The White Mountain huts don’t have hot water, showers or saunas. These lodges do; and it’s quite a treat, after a day trudging through the snowy woods, to doff everything, take a leisurely turn through the sweat lodge and the showers, and then don fresh duds (ferried in by the trusty and cheerful snow machine drivers) for supper in the dining room.

It’s a long way over here from the Connecticut Valley; you’ve really got to want to be here to drive that far. Put lives in Lyme Center. I drove down from Montpelier early the other morning, praying for clear roads, and met him at the P&H Truck Stop in Wells River. Our rendezvous was for 5:30, but Put was for many years a Vermont dairy farmer, and retains that perverse rural notion that the earliest riser is the most virtuous person around. So I got there at 5:20, and as I climbed out of my truck, he strolled out of the restaurant as if he’d been there for some time. I was damned if I’d ask.

We loaded his skis, poles and packs into my truck, and were off — north to St. Johnsbury, east on Route 2, with the usual obligatory stop at McDonald’s in Lancaster, to Skowhegan; north from Skowhegan to Greenville a little before our 11 o’clock meeting time with the camera crew. A quick lunch in town at Auntie M’s, and we were off for an afternoon’s skiing and shooting.

It quickly became evident that the AMC’s so-called Maine Woods Initiative is pretty popular. A gang of happy Vermonters from around Morrisville was just coming out of the woods as we arrived, and another larger one, from Massachusetts, was heading in. The dining room would be full that evening, with barbecued chicken in the offing.

Those skiers who choose to be transported all or part way in to camp ride in a fiberglass Sno-Coach. It’s not like the snow coaches in Glacier Park, and not for the claustrophobic or anxious. It’s a tight fit for three adults; I had to practice various approaches in order to fold myself up enough to get in and out. It seems suspiciously high off the ground and top-heavy, like an old stagecoach, and if you let your imagination loose, you can easily create a calamity in your mind.

But it whisks riders in jouncing, rattling semi-comfort at up to 30 miles an hour. We were able to get all our scenic and skiing shots in time to hit the sauna at the men’s hour of 4:30. One diehard woman sat defiantly in a corner till sheer numbers of Y-chromosomes drove her out at last.

One reason the AMC was able to afford the purchase of these forest lands is probably that they’ve been pretty well scalped by decades of corporate logging. Percival Baxter, who purchased all of what’s now Baxter Park just north of here (but never spent a dime he didn’t have to), did it that way: offering peanuts for logged-off property with an eye to what it would again become.

Put and I — he’s even older than I am — will never see it, but a few decades of rest, combined with sustainable harvests, should see it lose its desolate look and regain much of its natural beauty. Meanwhile, the surrounding granite peaks, with Katahdin’s snowy crown dominating the horizon, are reminders of what this was when Henry Thoreau came through and wrote The Maine Woods.

We spent that first night at Little Lyford Pond Camps, where Shannon and I had fished a couple of summers ago for native brook trout. The next day we all set out for Gorman Chairback Camps, which have been extensively renovated, and a beautiful new lodge constructed, with funds provided largely by the Gorman family of L.L. Bean. The trails were beautifully groomed by the busy snowmobile squad, and the air temperature just about freezing. Lovely!

You can’t take your own bottle to Chairback because of liquor license restrictions, so you do what everybody did during Prohibition: you drink in ill-disguised privacy. One large group of skiers — professors and scientists — had gotten into camp fairly early, spent the late afternoon in a cabin, and arrived for supper in a very merry condition. They jovially entreated me to teach them the waltz interlude to Logger Lover. I declined. Tomorrow was going to be another long drive.

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached by email at willem.lange@comcast.net.