BOWDOIN COLLEGE GRANT EAST — After a frigid 7-mile cross-country ski-in to Little Lyford Pond Camps during one of the polar vortex temperature dips last month, the first wonder to greet us was a warm cabin, thanks to a wood stove fired up before our arrival by the camp’s staff.
My girlfriend, Jayme, and I, both avid cross-country skiers, got a late start and the trail we opted to take, the Hedgehog Gate Trail, was steeper and more difficult than we anticipated. We carried some of our gear in backpacks but also had left a duffel bag for the camp staff to shuttle in by snowmobile. Arriving to camp at dusk, our entry to a warm cabin was a welcome relief.
Little Lyford was purchased by the Appalachian Mountain Club 10 years ago as part of its Maine Woods Initiative and it has become a popular destination since. In 2004, the camp hosted 1,769 guests. In 2013, more than 6,000 guests stayed at Little Lyford and nearby Gorman Chairback Lodge, according to Walter Graff, senior vice president of the AMC. The Maine Woods Initiative is the biggest undertaking in the outdoor club’s 138-year history and aims to combine the protection of habitat with recreational uses and sustainable forestry in the 100-Mile Wilderness conservation area.
“This was a big idea and it needed a big place and Maine, in the end, was that place,” Graff said. The AMC now owns 66,500 acres in the 100-Mile Wilderness area and has created over 80 miles of hiking and ski trails there over the past decade.
“The sporting camp model is really working for us and we’re providing opportunities for a range of people,” said Graff. “This week we have 100 people on the waiting list for Little Lyford and Gorman Chairback.”
Little Lyford was originally built in the 1870s for loggers who worked the surrounding woods and sent timber down the West Branch of the Pleasant River. As the timber harvesting diminished, Little Lyford became a hunting and fishing destination. Since purchasing it, the AMC has upgraded it, rebuilding cabins and adding a heated bath house with composting toilets, showers and a sauna. The electric lights in the bathhouse and main lodge run off of solar panels, and the sauna is heated by propane.
Another welcome comfort is the hearty food served in the camp’s beautiful dining hall. On our first night, cook Peggy Smith prepared a Thanksgiving dinner. Seated at long tables, guests passed around heaping platters of roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, squash, sage stuffing and cranberry sauce. Dessert was a large slice of pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream. Breakfast the next morning was equally delicious – thick slices of French toast made with homemade bread, along with maple syrup and bacon.
To work off the ample breakfast, we decided to head into Gulf Hagas and hike the Rim Trail above the gorge despite bone-chilling weather. The temperature was 7 below zero and gusting winds created a bitter wind chill. Gulf Hagas is 3 miles long and the West Branch of the Pleasant River tumbles nearly 400 feet down through it. The gorge is sometimes referred to as the Grand Canyon of the East and is perhaps the area’s best known attraction – but because of its remote location is not heavily visited and even fewer people see it in winter. The Rim Trail is 9 miles round trip and runs along the edge of the gorge, affording numerous views of waterfalls along the way. Our plan was to hike the entire length of the trail to Screw Auger Falls and return along the same path.
Recent heavy rains and a subsequent deep freeze turned parts of the trail into sheets of ice and made for slow going. The effort was worth it though, for views of Billings Falls and Buttermilk Falls covered in thick mounds of ice with water rumbling underneath.
By early afternoon, however, the steeper sections of the icy trail were becoming too harrowing and the brutal cold was wearing us out.
At a section known as The Jaws, we decided to turn back. Screw Auger Falls would have to wait for the next trip. The lure of a warm cabin, a hot shower and another delicious dinner was too enticing.
Staff Photographer Gregory Rec can be reached at 791-6432 or at: email@example.com