When you are married to a professional mountain climbing guide, sometimes you have to face difficult facts, like when it’s the end of March in Maine, and your colleagues at work ask you if your husband is home, knowing he travels frequently. And you have to respond that no, Dick isn’t home. He’s in Europe. In Chamonix to be exact, the center of the European mountain climbing. He’s skiing the Haute Route, a world famous ski tour from Chamonix in France to Zermatt in Switzerland. He’s staying in huts perched on mountain tops and ridges high in the Alps, eating breakfasts of French bread and eggs smothered in cheese, drinking wine and espresso, eating croissants and more cheese for dinner, while I am in Maine, enduring March, going to work, shoveling the walk way again and keeping the wood stove going. I assured my colleagues, as I reassured myself, that for Dick, the Haute Route is professional development. Yes, professional development. I just keep telling myself that.
So this summer, while my sweetie was hard at work sharing the excitement of rock climbing with visitors to Acadia National Park, I felt no guilt, none at all, when I left for my trip to the Flagstaff Lake Hut run by Maine Huts and Trails. Way back in February, I wrote a piece about skiing at Sugarloaf, and my long family history in the Carrabassett Valley and Kennebec watershed. The folks at Maine Huts and Trails read it, and asked me to come out to one of their huts as their guest, thinking that I might have more to say about running and living and family history in the Dead River valley, as well as the fabulous hut system they are running. After many emails and calendar consultations, I managed to squeeze in a visit the last possible weekend of the summer before I went back to work full time. I asked my sister and 8 year old niece to join me, thinking that since my sister is a teacher too, it would be a perfect last hurrah before the school year started for all of us.
The Flagstaff Lake Hut is tucked into the woods two miles from the trail head on the eastern end of Flagstaff Lake. The lake was formed in 1950 as a result of the damming of the Dead River at just above Long Falls, and primarily serves to impound water and hold it in reserve for use on the hydro electric dams down stream on the Kennebec. Before the lake was created, there were villages and farms all along the Dead River, which looped and meandered through the wide valley north of the Bigelow Mountain range. One by one these homesteads and farms were bought out, and controversy about the impending flooding and displacement of people raged for many years. Local legend has it that at low water you can still see the drowned infrastructure of the houses and villages, but in reality all of the buildings were dismantled or burned before the flooding began.
All the timber in the flood zone was cut as well, and the stumps can still be seen along the margins of the lake. My great great uncle Rutherford ran a buck board coach along the villages in the Dead River valley, on a road now beneath the lake, and my Moody, Taylor and Caldwell ancestors were surely affected by and involved in the flooding of this landscape. This history makes it a fascinating, not just a beautiful, place to visit, and my sister, who is a Maine history buff could scarcely draw herself away from the pamphlets and history books available in the hut.
We hiked into the hut along the main trail, a wide and flat path that easily accommodates mountain bikes in the summer and a groomed ski trail in the winter. The hut itself sits tucked up into the woods on a small peninsula on the eastern shore of the lake. When the huts were in the planning stages, the Maine Huts and Trails staff asked the Appalachian Mountain Club for advice, and the first piece of advice given was to locate the huts in accessible spots that do not heavily impact the surroundings. The implication was of course that many of the AMC huts in the White do just that. As a result, the Flagstaff Lake Hut is set back just enough from the shoreline, as to hide itself in the woods when looked for from the water. It only takes a minute to walk from the hut to the dock, and the calls of the loons still come in your windows at night, so to me, the hut is plenty close to the lake right where it is.
Our favorite spot by far, one we visited over and over again was the “Vista” on the end of the peninsula where the hut is located. It is a perfect kid zone, with rocks in shallow water to climb around on. It’s also the prime sunset watching spot, and all activity at the hut ceases on a daily basis for the half an hour around sunset as staff and guests alike make their way to the point to watch. For me it was just amazing to finally see the Bigelows from the north, after having looked at them from the south for my whole life. What was on the other side was always a mystery, but no more.
The Flagstaff Lake Hut is a great one for families, we met several other families, even with kids younger than my niece, who had biked in to the hut. It’s especially good though, for water loving families. Canoes, kayaks and even stand up paddle boards can be rented right at the hut (or checked out for free by Maine Huts and Trails members). The Long Falls Dam is right across the cove from the hut, and from there you can hike down along the Dead River below the dam and see Long Falls. It turns out however, that we aren’t much of a water loving family. I’ve never been big on boating (I’m a sinker, and yes we do exist, though every swimming instructor you talk to will deny it). My sister is more interested in it, but is easily rattled. And much to our surprise, my niece, who loves to swim and splash, was very scared in the canoe. Scared of exactly the same stuff I was at that age—being able to look into the water and see stuff (rocks, logs etc) on the bottom. We’ve never talked about this explicitly, yet there it was. Can fear, particularly fear that specific, be genetic? Clearly our planned outing, across the cove to the dam, was a stretch, so instead we managed a three minute paddle to the vista we so loved, and proceeded to enjoy the beauty of the lake from the firmness of the shore.
The Flagstaff Lake Hut is one of four currently in existence, though the long term plan is for a total of 12 in the western Maine mountains. Trails run north and south from the Flagstaff Lake Hut to neighboring huts, and after our aborted canoe expedition, I took the opportunity to check them out. I ran north along the Maine Hut Trail, even though I was warned about a beaver dam that had flooded the trail for 100 yards. It was more like 10 yards, and very crossable. The trail was variable, part tall grass wet slog, part wooded and semi technical, part dreamy pine needle carpet. I ran to the Long Falls Dam road crossing at Big Eddy, where the signs along the road warn of rapidly rising water when the sirens sound. My paddling friends live for such releases of water from the dam, but the signs on the road made me nervous. Sirens make me nervous, and hearing them in the middle of the woods indicating rapidly rising water is an experience I never want to have. My 8 mile round trip run was a very needed expansion of the child enforced short radius I’d been living with for the past 24 hours.
The nature around the hut did not fail to impress. We saw many small amphibians, froglettes and toadlettes, this year’s hatchlings, fully metamorphosed and dispersing out into the woods. There was a family of aquatic mammals that I suspect were otters by the way they swam, and of course, the ever present loons. We hiked to a near by bridge and flushed out a flock of young mergansers, and saw a bald eagle blow its landing on the top of a near by tree (clumsy birds—who knew?). We were there in the perfect window of time for a burst of fungus in the forest, fungus of all colors was emerging all around us on the forest floor.
There is no balm as emblematic of the north woods as the sound of the loon’s call in the dark. Sitting on the dock watching the stars, lying in bed with the window cracked, drifting off to sleep and having your dreams punctuated by their lonely songs is a north woods experience, and every time I hear a loon I am transported to a time and place where there is nothing else to do but sit on the rocks by the lake and watch the clouds roll across the open sky.
They take good care of you, those Maine Huts and Trails hut staffers. My niece told everyone we were going camping, but the hut experience is so far beyond all my camping experiences I can’t consider it in the same realm. The hut experience is its own category of outdoor pleasure. Yes, there were campfires, and my niece managed to sweet talk the kitchen crew into finding her some marshmallows to toast, but there were also bunks and mattresses and pillows, in rooms heated in the winter time.
There were well crafted hot meals, and plenty of them. There was locally mixed raw cocoa hot chocolate for afternoon snack, and beer and wine for happy hour. There was electricity and hot showers, in the middle of the woods, made possible by an energy infrastructure 100 times more sophisticated than the one at my house (when they offer you the after dinner energy tour, take it! It’s fascinating!). Maine has a long tradition of hunting lodges, in hard to reach places, exclusive by their nature, but the Maine Huts and Trails system is for everyone. It offers a respite from the busy and fractured nature of our modern lives, and provides a space for you to be as active or as restful as you like. Bring a book, bring a bike, bring your kids or family or friends and prepare to wind down. They’ve taken care of everything. I didn’t have to take a tram or ride through a tunnel to get there, and I didn’t get as much cheese as I might have in a European hut, but in the Alps you don’t hear loons, or see otters and eagles. You don’t have miles of trails and acres of lake to yourself if you want them. So when my husband goes to Chamonix again this winter, I’ll be planning my own hut get away; a western Maine Haute Route, ski touring from hut to hut through the mountains I call home.
Thanks again to Maine Huts and Trails for making my visit possible. If you want to know more including info about reservations, availability, special deals, and guided trips, check out the Maine Huts and Trails website. Also see the recent Maine Today outdoor article for more details about the other huts.