Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness is big country, a sprawling expanse ranging east to west from Brownville Junction to Greenville and south to north from Sebec Lake to the West Branch of the Penobscot River. Encompassing roughly 750,000 acres, the region is a jumble of rugged mountains, pristine lakes and ponds, free-flowing rivers and streams, and the next to last stretch of the famed Appalachian Trail. Remote and wild but not true wilderness, the “100-Mile Wilderness” name is credited to Steve Clark, the longtime AT guidebook editor, who coined the name in the 1980’s to alert thru-hikers to the fact that no resupply points existed along this 100-mile section of trail, still largely the case today.
My favorite time to visit the 100-Mile Wilderness is winter, when I can click into cross-country skis for a journey into the AMC’s Maine Wilderness Lodges in the heart of this vast region. With an extensive network of well-marked, wonderfully groomed ski trails by day and cozy cabin accommodations and mountains of good food in the lodges by night, it’s a pretty special experience set amid a beautiful and inspiring landscape.
Over three days from January 17-19, my wife Fran and I skied a wonderful circuit on AMC’s conservation and recreation lands, staying in comfort at two of their Maine Wilderness Lodges en route. Here are my trail notes from the second day of this most excellent ski trip, when we trekked from Little Lyford Pond to Gorman Chairback Lodge and Cabins on Long Pond.
LITTLE LYFORD POND TO GORMAN CHAIRBACK LODGE ON LONG POND (7 miles, 3 leisurely hours)
A beautiful sunrise this cold morning, about 5 degrees according to the thermometer on the lodge porch. Quiet around the place, not much going on. But there was coffee, so I filled up and headed over to the bathhouse for a shower. The packed lunches were ready when I returned, set out in brown paper lunch bags. Turkey and cheese with veggies for me. I added a bag of chips, some GORP, a few salty snacks and a cookie to my bag and was good to go.
A big breakfast was next up: French toast, sausage, spinach frittata, fresh fruit, OJ and more java. Nice work on the food by the hard working crew, now and at last night’s dinner. They do it up good and hearty without a lot of fanfare.
We saunter back to the cabin and finish packing up, then load our gear in the waiting sled. I take one more look around the cozy cabin, a tough place to leave for sure. We make another foray down to Little Lyford Pond for a look-see that nets us nice views of Baker Mtn. and Indian Mtn. It’s a beautiful day with bright blue skies and scudding white clouds.
We strike off along the West Branch of the Pleasant River on good trail, alternating between hardwood groves and dense thickets of spruce and fir. A half inch or more of snow fell overnight and blankets the track in velvety powder. Nice skiing. Great skiing, actually. At the bridge over the river a mile in, we break for a bit to enjoy the sun and warmth and listen to the gurgling water below us. The trail across the bridge leads to Gulf Hagas; some of the other party from Little Lyford are headed in there, but we opt for a shorter day and keep on toward Gorman Chairback.
The morning turns gray and cold, but not freezing. It’s the perfect temperature for skiing. We leave the river for the rolling terrain to its south. It’s mostly up it seems, and we make good on our herringbone technique as needed. A lone skier flies down past us at one point; we would see here again this evening in the lodge. We get a few swoops down along the trail ourselves and enjoy each one. Squirrels squawk here and there, birds are chirping in the trees, there are grouse tracks, fox tracks, rabbit. We’re certainly not alone out here.
Big, precious woods, these are. It’s a wonderful feeling to be out here and away from it all, for a little while anyway. We stop and stand and eat our sandwiches along the track. A sweaty chill sets in and we don’t linger. Finally up ahead we enter the big woods around the east end of Long Pond. Impressive old white pines. We make our way through the mature forest of stately trees and ski right between the cluster of cabins that make up Gorman Chairback Lodge and Cabins. Smoke is rising from a pondside cabin and we wonder for a moment if that is ours.
Over to the lodge we go, we snap out of our skis and trundle in the front door to check in. It’s Cabin 5 for us, Galamander. But before we settle in we enjoy a cup of coffee and several chocolate chip cookies. Our gear hasn’t arrived, so we relax for a while sprawled out on the beds. The woodstove is going and we revel in the warmth. I snooze for a bit; it’s okay I think, I’m on vacation. So what if it’s 2 in the afternoon.
After a short slumber, we don skis again and head out on Long Pond for a look around. We make a couple-mile loop, braving the stiff winds blowing in from the west. Out on the pond I can count all five peaks of the rugged Barren-Chairback Range: Barren, Fourth, Third, Columbus and Chairback mountains. I know them well. I turn north and do the same for the White Cap Range: Gulf Hagas Mtn., West Peak, Hay Mtn., White Cap Mtn. Glorious, all of them. All of these peaks are traversed by the AT. Sweet.
It’s back to the cabin for an early happy hour. A little red wine, a snort of Jim Beam. Soon enough, we hear the gear sled arriving into camp, so we go to the shed and pick up the duffles, sled them back to the cabin and unpack. Then Fran heads to the lodge for a shower, while I doze again, enjoying the rare relaxation time. Until I notice the setting sun, which gets me up and outside again in a flash, camera in hand. I spend the next half-hour pacing along the shore grabbing a few dozen shots of the big orb sinking into the western horizon.
It’s 5 o’clock now, so I pad on over to the lodge for a short stint in the wood-fired sauna, joining three of the other party in the soothing heat. A shower next, then to the dining room for a beer, a Geary’s Pale Ale, a real treat way out here. All seven guests gather up and relax in the lounge area adjacent to the dining room. The stove is throwing off some nice heat. Some play cribbage, while others read and write. In the kitchen we can hear the crew preparing dinner, which turns out to be another huge feast.
Tonight’s extravaganza features a big garden salad, lentil soup, cheese muffins, Dijon mustard chicken, wild rice, asparagus and strawberry shortcake (with real whipped cream). Oh my. It just so happens to be my birthday and somebody has tipped off the crew, so I get three candles on my shortcake. We all waddle away an hour later, stuffed to the gills once again and sated with good conversation and more than a few good laughs.
We retire to the cabin, throw a couple more sticks into the stove and collapse into bed between the fleece sheets and downy blankets. A good book nets me another hour of consciousness, but no more. It’s been a good day, we decide, as I kill the gas light. The last thing I remember is the wind coming off the pond and the gentle rumble of the fire in the stove.
AMC’S MAINE WOODS INITIATIVE
AMC has been hard at work conserving land and creating recreation infrastructure in the 100-Mile Wilderness since 2003, when the club purchased the 37,000-acre Katahdin Iron Works Tract. In 2009, AMC added the abutting 29,500-acre Roach Ponds Tract, securing the missing link in what is now a 63-mile corridor of protected land, which includes properties owned by The Nature Conservancy, Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands and the National Park Service. In 2015, AMC purchased 4,300 acres on wild and trail-less Baker Mountain (3,520 feet), the largest chunk of subalpine terrain outside of Katahdin. The club then bought 4,000 acres around Silver Lake in 2016.
The aptly named “Maine Woods Initiative” is the crucible of AMC’s remarkable efforts in landscape-scale conservation, sustainable forest management, backcountry recreation, environmental education and community partnerships in the 100-Mile Wilderness. AMC has established a 27,000-acre ecological reserve to protect the headwaters of the West Branch of the Pleasant River. Local crews harvest 5-6,000 cords of wood annually on AMC land. The club has built 70 miles of new hiking, mountain biking and ski trails, and 16 remote campsites. Three traditional Maine sporting camps have been opened to the public. Hundreds of local school kids have been reached through outdoor experiential learning programs. Overall, AMC’s operations have had a significant impact on the local Piscataquis County economy, to the tune of $2.75 million in 2015, or nearly $19 million from 2003 through 2015.