Colorado and the Alps have legendary high-mountain hut-to-hut ski traverses. New England can't match them for rugged peaks, but the Maine Huts and Trails Association has set up a very well-run network of backcountry hostels with everything you need for comfortable adventure. If the idea of skiing for 10 miles to an off-grid cabin with hot tea waiting for you sounds appealing, consider a trip to the Carrabassett.
- Day One: Drop car near Sugarloaf ski area, hour shuttle ride east to the trailhead. Easy 2 mile ski back to Flagstaff Hut. Beautiful sunset behind the Bigelow Range over the lake. Our hut crew were a couple who met on the AT with their totem rubber chicken and Wolverine. Our LEGO doppelgangers got along just fine with the other toys. Excellent roast chicken with balsamic maple glaze for dinner. Only 4 other guests at the hut, both older guys with their young sons. (I did OK in a dinosaur trivia contest with the 8 year old, but dinosaur knowledge has advanced a lot since the 70s.) I made a tactical mistake by finishing my book on the first night. ("Year Zero" by Rob Reid.)
- Day Two: Heavy snow overnight continuing through the day. 12-mile ski to Poplar Hut with a lunch stop at Halfway Yurt, where we stupidly decide not to start a fire in the wood stove. No grooming, and it didn't take long for me to be breaking trail with my shins. Finally, a MHAT snowmobile catches up with us to pack down the snow for the last mile or two. Overnight at Poplar, the oldest and coziest hut. Hut crew Quinn and Kevin keep the atmosphere friendly and cook satisfying spare ribs. Also, they make the best pancakes of all 3 huts. 12 guests here, a family and a few couples.
- Day Three: Mostly flat 8-mile cruise on high-quality groomers. The first few miles are a beautiful descent down the ridge with fine views of the Bigelows. Once we reach the Narrow Gauge Trail, it's a flat and sometimes boring old railbed with intermittent views of the river. The last two mile climb up to Stratton Brook is steep, but we manage to make it to the hut in time for lunch. As the newest hut, Stratton is still developing its character, as well as its library of books and games. Best architectural innovation: covered walkway between the bunkhouse and the main lodge. All 10 guests other than us are a big group of french-canadians.
- Day Four: Technical and fun scream downhill to the trailhead. Dig out the car and head home.
If you're considering going:
- For $20 per day, they will shuttle your bag to the next hut by snowmobile. Note that you'll still have to schlep your bag on the first and last day since they only shuttle hut-to-hut with no trailhead service. You can't pack too heavy, but it does make the main legs of the trip more enjoyable and faster. We still skied with light packs for food/water, survival gear, and extra layers.
- The meals are excellent, and the hut crew seems able to accommodate just about any dietary restriction. They'll want to know well ahead of time if they need to plan around anything too unusual. Breakfasts are very carb-heavy with pancakes/oatmeal/muesli and stingy quantities of sausage.
- Trails are well-marked and the map is good. A GPS is a fun toy or emergency backup at best. There are two competing and wildly inconsistent distance marking systems between Flagstaff and Poplar - ignore numbers posted on the diamond signs.
- Trails are usually groomed, but not guaranteed. I wouldn't plan on skate-skiing.
Things I wished I had known or would have done differently:
- Not only do you have to pack out public library books when done, you can't add them to the hut's library.
- The bunkhouses are kept warm enough that a bag liner is sufficient when paired with the provided blankets. Sleeping bag unnecessary.
- It was unnecessary to pack lightweight warm-weather xc-ski gear like tights or a cycling wind shell.
- My Sirius gloves keep my hands warm, but not dry. When taking them off for lunch, you need to put the gloves inside your jacket to prevent them from freezing over.
- VFFs make terrible hut shoes. Hut shoes should slip on and off easily, and be compatible with ski socks. Independent toes are bad for both.
- The huts are close enough to trailheads that you don't need to buy a packed lunch on the last day. We exited trail at 10am.
The mark of a good adventure is that it should make you want more. After studying the trail maps, I now have at least 2 return trips to the Carrabassett Valley planned:
- I had thought that the Maine 4000 footer peaks were inaccessible and deep in the Hundred Mile Wilderness. Turns out that 10 of the 14 are right here and fairly easy to reach. I just created my ME4k google map: Abraham, Spaulding, Sugarloaf, Redington, and the Crockers are connected by a single trail and should get me 6 peaks in one weekend.
- Flagstaff Lake was flooded in the 50s to make an electric dam. The town is still under water with churches, houses, and schoolhouses visible when the water is clear. I want to launch my kayak from the west end of Flagstaff, paddle the length of the lake, and stay at Flagstaff Hut. Day 2, head up the Dead River to the Great Falls Hut for lunch, then back to Flagstaff. The Bigelow Range defines the south edge of the lake, has two ME4k peaks, and there is a trail from the lake to the top. If I can add in a hike, all the better.