Maine Huts and Trails

01fdd2b0aad86ac6614cf2fb02b0417e5266c82ccd

Hello! I am the wife and mother of this happy hiking team in Maine. I tend to exist on the hiking periphery and I’m known mostly for cherry-picking the hikes I attend and forgetting critical supplies, like appropriate snacks and waterproof shoes.

On that note, welcome to the post on our recent 3-day hike from the Long Falls Dam trailhead in New Portland, Maine to the Flagstaff Hut (1.8 mi) to the Grand Falls Hut in West Forks, Maine (11.2 mi) and back (13.0 mi) to the trailhead (described on the Maine Huts and Trails website as the Hut-to-Hut Shoreline Trek).  Maine Huts and Trails, which has four “huts” in the Carrabassett Valley region of western Maine, is a non-profit with a stated mission “to create and operate a world-class system of backcountry trails and eco-lodges for people-powered recreation to enhance the economy, communities and environment of Maine’s Western Mountain region, for the benefit of current and future generations.”  You can view and download trail maps here.

Husband and I (we were sans daughter this trip) took a route that began with a two-mile walk along the Shore Trail from the trailhead along a wooded route bordered to our left by glimpses of nearby Flagstaff Lake to the Flagstaff Hut – a beautiful, modern and welcoming property. Flagstaff Hut is the largest and most popular of the huts in the Maine Huts & Trails system and was built in 2009. I was glad to get there and take off my shoes. I know what you are thinking – she is tired after two miles? The answer is yes- it was incredibly hot. A handwritten dinner menu on a chalkboard awaited us, letting us know that at promptly 6pm we would get meatballs and pasta and blueberry pie!

A patient and friendly staff member who was turning out fresh bread in the kitchen greeted us and told us where our room was (she even switched us to a private room because one was available), answered questions about where we could swim and borrow paddleboards and explained the token system for the shower and how to operate the composting toilets. The main building houses a large community/dining area, a reading room, bathrooms, showers, and a drying room for wet gear. The dormitories are separated from the main lodge at Flagstaff Hut.

01990ad093eb0f730e55127d0b5ef41b3b61b39680
Yes, it looks like a crime scene photo, but this is what a room looks like.

The room was spartan but clean, well-lit and I won’t say “comfortable” but I am comparing that to my bed at home. It’s a thin, plastic mattress, folks. And a plastic pillow. But it sure beats the ground.

01ed15a4e38d13d82f8f98c6c5308cbdf068e976fa
A snowshoe hare in its summer colors looks for food near Flagstaff Hut

Dinner is served family-style promptly at 6:00 pm. The food is fresh, sometimes local and healthy. On the night we were there, there were thirteen of us spread over two tables and the staff accommodated all sorts of dietary restrictions, which is no small feat these days. We also tried lobster mushrooms foraged by the staff.  Guests mostly discussed their plans for the next day or tips about what they had already seen and done in the area. It is a family-friendly environment, with children of various ages reading and running around. After dinner, we took a guided tour to see how energy is used throughout the hut and then we took a .1 mile stroll along the Birch Trail to the end of the small peninsula to watch the sun set over the Bigelow Mountains.

01fe25087aba7e1a165176911d0c51fc2ff9d9100e

Kids were swimming and friends were chatting. We returned to the reading room where I read about the history of Flagstaff Lake, which was man-made and a controversial project at the time it was created. Quiet time begins at 9:30. Make sure to bring earplugs because you can hear your neighbor snoring. I would also bring a fitted sheet for the mattress next time, as it can feel like sleeping on a diaper.

The shower is warm and quick and will give you an activity especially if you wake up at 6:15 ready to walk but need to wait until 7:30 when breakfast is served and the sandwich bar is put out so you can make a bag lunch. With sausages, eggs and pancakes in my belly, I was ready to go! We set out at 8:30 am to walk the Maine Hut Trail to the Grand Falls Hut. I must admit that I had some anxiety about the distance because it was 11.2 miles and I’ve never walked that far with a pack on. Let’s be honest here, I haven’t walked one mile with a pack on prior to this. Fortunately, my pack was light and husband graciously carried my water and a few other supplies.

01ca9384e9db537cc4eb09869b16b64e9b6c2d5870
The narrow trail runs along the Dead River for several miles

 

 

I discovered quickly that this was going to be a single-file walk. The trail is well-marked and clear but too narrow for two people to walk side by side, so conversations are nearly impossible. Also, you may not see anyone on the trail for the entire 11.2 miles, as was the case with us. The first third of the trail hugs Flagstaff Lake and then you enter the wooded Big Eddy area, and finally you follow the Dead River for the remainder of the trail. While there are numerous signs that say “Maine Huts & Trails” there are very few mileage markers or landmarks until you get close to the huts. Just after leaving the hut, the first bit of the trail was boggy and wet and not a good place for expensive, new running shoes. I’m just saying. The Big Eddy area was my favorite walking area because of the soft, pine-covered floors and the sunlight filtering through the tall trees onto the trail. Hiking poles are not necessary but we both found them helpful. There is very little elevation on this route and the only place I would say you have to be careful is the part right around the Grand Falls, which is rocky and steep for a short period. It is not so much a hike as it is a very long walk in the woods and along a river.

0182cee9c447a5b39e6f57f5b3c8239b0cd3d7df6c
The peaceful morning sun hitting the trail

 

 

Yes, do bring a mosquito net and some Deet. Due to the proximity to the water and the low-lying areas, there were several stretches of trail that I did a lot of cursing and swatting and power-walking and questioning my decision to walk this trail. I came out looking like I had the chicken pox.  Husband is completely unappealing to bugs.

There were brief pit-stops to pick blueberries or raspberries along the way, but we mostly just motored along. The banks are steep, and not conducive to swimming, except at a canoe and kayak launch off Dead River Road, and then a small beach right before Grand Falls.

We stopped for about twenty minutes to eat smushed, warm tuna salad sandwiches, raisins and granola bars, but there were no obvious picnic spots along the way, save for a lone picnic table about 2/3 into the trip and not marked on the map.  The picnic table may actually have been placed there by mosquitoes as a trap.

011ec59ab1f320af329b243fe6a20a0152debdc0f3
Moose use the trails, too.

Although there was evidence of bear and moose, we did not see any.  Shortly after crossing the Dead River on a footbridge, we startled a large predatory bird mid-meal, causing it to drop a headless squirrel Ozzy Osbourne-style right next to us. During the course of the three-day hike we saw a garter snake, a small green snake, kingfishers, a hawk, a school of trout and lots of curious red squirrels.

0146a06dc427b67ee2fc5d43dd3b6f29b13ef30c8c

The big highlight is the impressive “Grand Falls.” It is certainly mesmerizing, and you can stand close enough to cool off in the mist it throws off.

We got to the Grand Falls Hut at about 2:30pm and quickly stripped off our socks and shoes (no trail shoes in the huts) and met our two new hosts who directed us to our room and said they would be available if we had questions. My first question was “can you drive me back to the trailhead tomorrow?” (no.) “How about a gear shuttle?” (we’ll check on that.) “How about a canoe?” (We’ll check on that.) “Is there a shorter way?” (no.) “Can I have a glass of wine?” (yes.)

0188d2b4d0aebfbcc4ddeba8212d3b4ff1f9c2373e
Grand Falls Hut

The hut was quiet and peaceful and had a similar set-up as Flagstaff. The dorms were connected to the main lodge through a walkway. The showers felt deliriously good. How rewarding to walk all day, then get clean, grab a book and sit on a couch in a beautiful, sunny lodge with a glass of wine next to the man you love? It was also nice to be able to have a conversation with him after staring at his back for six hours. It was not as nice to contemplate the fact I had to walk 13 miles back to the car the following morning.

015ff7545e926320d4e1793ea614a9c3f693768a8b
Next time, we will paddle this stretch of the trail

I would highly recommend renting a canoe in advance from Maine Huts and Trails, putting in at the Big Eddy canoe launch, and canoeing the 6 miles along the Northern Forest Canoe Trail on the Dead River to break up the walking. Everyone else staying at the lodges had canoed or kayaked that stretch. Once you are at Grand Falls Hut you will have your canoe/kayak and at least the option to paddle that stretch (I feel certain if you elected to leave the vessel there at that point and walk back, you could). I would also strongly suggest that you check in with your group and be honest about how nice it would be to have your gear shuttled back to the trailhead. By the time you get to Grand Falls Hut and your feet are tired and your shoulders are sore, you very likely might not have that option anymore, as was the case with us – no canoes left and no gear shuttle available. There may or may not have been some internal cursing when I found that out. I guess this is how I learn my physical limits!

Before dinner, we took a short walk along the Fisherman’s Trail to a swimming spot. We soaked our tired feet in the cool water and enjoyed watching the Dead River rapids. Dinner was plentiful and delicious – roasted chicken with pesto, kale salad, warm berry crisp. Guests traded stories by a big bonfire and quiet time began at 10 pm.

010eb184f4d4640ba17360e076d6817b9b6f9167b2
The dining area at Grand Falls Hut

The next morning we set out at 8:15 after a breakfast of eggs, sausages and fried (local) potatoes to hike all the way back along the same route to the the trailhead. You know it is a long walk when you finally see a sign letting you know that you have five miles left and you are excited. It is about 13 miles from Grand Falls Hut to the Flagstaff trailhead and it felt so nice to get my socks and shoes off, change my clothes and sit in an air conditioned car for a while. We arrived at the trailhead about 2:20 pm (yes, we were moving along!!) and a large, boisterous group of parents with teenage girls was just gearing up to hike into Flagstaff Lake. We let them know that they picked a great adventure!

5 steps to getting back on the path: Ideas, resources, tactics, and links for hiking Maine in 2018

01ba5291fa803ab4eb7f3b79fcf041de60bf649920

Maine’s seasons are different than those of our neighbors to the south- sometimes the resolutions of the New Year are still buried under several feet of snow, even at the beginning of Daylight Savings.  I believe it’s important to get outside in the winter either way, but this article will focus on planning for the traditional hiking season.

013d0f1b76fdb932e45451cd01de05825175e5efee

Step 1: Create a difficult, even unrealistic goal.

  • How we did it in 2017: In the winter of 2016-2017, we decided to attempt the 100 Mile Wilderness.  The difficulty of this task forced us to create a training schedule, and to prepare our gear and bodies one piece at a time for a “capstone” hike, so that we were not fully ready for it until we stepped onto the trail.  The training then became part of the journey, instead of being a series of unrelated excursions.  And we also had a blast doing it.
  • How you can do it in 2018: Pick a goal, and plan for it.  Check out this great article by Carey Kish on Ten Great Hikes You Should Do in 2018.  Or this one, again from Maine Today, on 10 Brag-Worthy Hikes in New England.  Pick one outside your comfort zone, something you haven’t done before.  If you are a more experienced hiker or backpacker, do the same with longer, multi-day hikes.  Try the Section Hiker blog for ideas.  Great ideas in the area include Maine’s Bigelow Range, the Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire, and even the Long Trail in Vermont.  Or maybe you are tired of explaining why you have lived in Maine for X number of years, and never been to Katahdin’s summit.  Make it challenging.

014f618d47f310413314bdf332c6c76de66f0e2ca5

Step 2: Make yourself accountable, find a partner if you can, and lock in your plans.

  • How we did it in 2017: Daughter and dad agreed on our training plan and final goal.  Hiking together is fun.  We told people (family, friends, co-workers, gear salespeople) we were going to hike the 100 Mile Wilderness together.  That made it hard to back out.  We also set aside vacation days for the attempt, and later, booked a Baxter State Park parking pass ahead of time for Katahdin.  Planning is fun, too, and having these outdoor excursions to look forward to can be soothing, depending on your life situation and “day job.”
  • How you can do it in 2018: Start with the end goal in mind, and back up to the current day, making incremental additions to your training plan.  For accountability, book your arrangements early (vacation days, lodging, re-supply) so you are motivated to follow up on your investment.  Put everything on a calendar.  In general, buying a state park season pass is a good deal, and will prompt you to get out there.  Maine’s is $55 for individuals, or $105 for a vehicle pass, and free for seniors. The White Mountain National Forest offers an annual pass for $30, and an annual household pass for $40.  These passes also allow you to forgo the hassle of trying to find a pen and exact change at the many self-service kiosks at trailheads, and to support our great parks.

IMG_4593

Step 3: Let experts do the work for you.

  • How we did it in 2017: We devoured the books and blog posts we could find on the 100 Mile Wilderness (check this out), and purchased the Appalachian Mountain Club Guide to Maine, as well as the maps for the 100 Mile.  For our training hikes, we consulted the Maine Mountain Guide and the White Mountain Guide (skip to Recommended Hikes, get in the car, and go).
  • How you can do it in 2018: Buy the AMC Maine Mountain Guide and White Mountain Guide.  Just do it.  They come with maps, they are well-researched, portable, and can serve as a journal for hikes completed.  Also, follow Philip Werner’s Section Hiker blog (mentioned above) and Carey Kish’s columns on Maine Today.com.  Ask at Information Centers for actual information, and engage with park rangers and volunteers.  In addition, join the Appalachian Mountain Club.  It’s cheap, most of the membership fee is tax deductible, it supports trails, and they sponsor a ton of group activities/hikes for all skill levels.  Follow the people above on Twitter to get updates and ideas, as well as publications like Backpacker Magazine and Outside, which also has an excellent podcast series.

01cfac11100070732349ebc51022021507ba408940

Step 4: If your plans are disrupted, do “something” anyway.

  • How we did it in 2017: We couldn’t always get out on the trail.  School, work, travel, injuries, commitments came up that kept us out of the woods.  But we figured out ways to work through.  Daughter played basketball, and dad focused on weight room exercises (lunges, box jumps, squats) that strengthened legs for the terrain of the 100 Mile.  We skied.  On a couple weekends we couldn’t hike, or were out of town somewhere, we signed up for several 5K road races – try Running In The USA.  The way to get better at doing hard things is to do hard things.  Just do something.
  • How you can do it in 2018: Shorter hikes can be very rewarding when time is not on your side.  Try a big-payoff one like Burnt Meadow Mountain or Pleasant Mountain, steep hikes with great views.  Try trail running, which is just hiking’s skinnier cousin.  There are trail running groups throughout Maine.  Baxter Outdoors does a great race series, which might take you to some places you haven’t been, help you meet some like-minded people, benefit charity, and get some free beer.  Here are some tips to get ready for hiking with a pack from Backpacker MagazineUnderstand your limits, particularly with an injury, but focus on the things that you can do.  For example, dad broke his right wrist descending Katahdin in September 2017, and this precluded a lot of activities, but still allowed him to hike, and as a result he developed more dexterity in his left hand.  A caveat: all these things help, but hiking with a pack seems to be a singular exercise, and the best way to get better at hiking is to hike (see above regarding hard things).

IMG_3943

Step 5: Let the momentum propel you to staying on the path.

How we did it in 2017: Despite our difficulties at the end of the 100 Mile attempt, we were both invigorated by the hiking we’d done, and talked about more goals.  Daughter had never climbed Mt. Washington or Katahdin, and felt strong after our training.  It was only mid-July, so the good times we’d had kept us hiking, and we completed both of these mountains, as well as some great hikes in between.  We started taking more pictures, and talked about capturing our adventures in this blog, which we began last fall, right after our Katahdin hike.

How you can do it in 2018: Use the aforementioned accountability to keep you going, locked in to activities, and check in with people who are doing the same.  You will feel stronger each time you get out there, and maybe your goals will change by the time you hit your big hike.  You will see intriguing side trails and places along the way.  If you are into social media, use it to catalog your progress.  You won’t find any “look at me shirtless doing yoga on top of a mountain” selfies on this blog, but if that’s your thing, and helps you…  Either way you will have fun and get outside.