Travel

Happy landings for hikers and bikers on the trail

Maine huts are handsome hotels

The author and his wife made Poplar Stream Falls Hut their second stop.

Maine Huts & Trails

The author and his wife made Poplar Stream Falls Hut their second stop.

The dirt trail beneath my mountain bike’s knobby tires was aptly named Newton’s Revenge. After a moderate incline winding from the floor of Maine’s Carrabassett Valley, across from Sugarloaf ski resort, Newton’s turned into a wall. It was late afternoon, early autumn, with hardwoods igniting their annual chromatic magic. My wife and I had been pedaling for four hours, and we saved the most difficult stretch for last. The pitch, combined with the lactic acid flooding my thighs, won. I clipped out of my pedals, electing to walk rather than crash.

After an extended hike-a-bike, Lauri and I hopped back onto our saddles and continued to the top of the ridge. The thick forest parted, and the Stratton Brook Hut appeared like a mirage. Giddy, we rolled to the hut, the newest of four that make up the Maine Huts & Trails system. I stumbled into the lobby. I got an ice water and an ice-cold Downeast Cider, and fell into a lush leather chair.

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I didn’t move for an hour. Lauri found me with a loopy smile creasing my lips. My quads, calves, and hamstrings were a hair-trigger away from cramping, but there was a blissful endorphin rush coursing through my veins. Sitting nearby was a weary-but-satisfied hiker, with a similar grin.

“I’m spent,” he said. Looking up at the vaulted ceilings, he added: “I can’t believe they call these ‘huts.’ ”

Maine Huts & Trails

Between mealtimes at Poplar Stream Falls Hut on the Maine Huts and Trails System.

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Indeed, these huts are more cutting-edge eco-lodges, a modern-day take on ski clubhouses. MH&T folks call them “boutique hostels,” which fits. The buildings are beautifully designed and built, fully self-contained, with solar electricity and hot water, radiant granite floors, composting toilets, rich wood interiors, decadent leather chairs and sofas, and large, energy-efficient windows that allow waves of natural light. Well-stocked reading rooms provide inquisitive visitors a chance to learn more about local history or wildlife. The organic menu, starring regional ingredients, is top-notch, with family-style meals that include vegan options. (Breakfast, dinner, and brown-bag lunches are included in the overnight fee, while beer, wine, and hard cider can be purchased.)

The detached sleeping quarters accommodate two to 14, and are fairly Spartan with platform beds and thin foam mattresses (though Lauri and I had no trouble getting to sleep). The bare-bones rooms encourage visitors to migrate to the common areas.

“We want people getting together,” said a hut caretaker during a daily tour.

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The MH&T system is the quintessential “play hard, rest easy” escape for rugged adventurers, but with enough diversity to make for a fun family outing. Depending on the selected route, the 80-mile network can present a stern test of endurance, or a leisurely spin (or hike, or cross-country ski).

When Lauri and I arrived on Friday, we raced against a setting sun to reach the Poplar Hut before dark (there is no vehicle access). The packed-dirt access road was the most direct line, but steep. After four hours in the car, pedaling straight uphill was a shock to our systems.

Our reward? A refreshing shower, a sumptuous Mexican feast prepared by our caretakers, and a relaxing evening sitting around a campfire beneath a dazzling canopy of stars. An added layer of clothing to fend off autumn’s chill was a welcome trade-off, since we could relish the night skies without any nagging insects.

This is why fall rules here. Stunning foliage, cooler temperatures, and the absence of bugs adds to the year-round attraction of spectacular settings and views, great food, and a keen sense of solitude.

The MH&T system is the vision of Larry Warren, former general manager at Sugarloaf. Ultimately, plans call for a backcountry network of 12 interconnected huts from Bethel, near Sunday River resort, north to Moosehead Lake. It’s an ambitious project, incorporating 200 miles through some of Vacationland’s most dramatic forested areas.

The organization is about a third of the way to reaching its goal, with the fourth hut — Stratton Brook, perched on a hilltop overlooking the Bigelow Range — opening in 2013. The system proved popular with winter enthusiasts right away, and MH&T officials hope to create a four-season destination. A key component is continuous trail improvements, providing better access and views year-round.

“When we’ve established a strong record of guest overnights throughout the year, we’ll expand towards Rangeley,” said Charlie Woodworth, MH&T’s executive director. “We anticipate this happening in the next two to three years. We’re close to securing an easement for our fifth hut site, which will be located in Caribou Valley.”

As an added bonus, MH&T is the only North America system that offers shuttles between huts, so you can bring extra gear, knowing it will be waiting at the next hut. That’s a real benefit in autumn, with its fluctuating temperatures and potential cloudbursts. If you’re a creature of comfort, that extra gear ought to include a firmer mattress pad, a good sleeping bag, and a cozy pillow.

Flagstaff

Flagstaff

The next morning, Lauri and I set our sights on Stratton Brook, 13 miles away. Following a hearty breakfast, we stuffed our lunches into our CamelBaks, hopped on our mountain bikes, and barreled downhill along the original Maine Hut Trail before connecting with the Narrow Gauge Pathway.

At one trail juncture, another mountain biker popped out of the woods, greeting members of our group. “That’s our town manager, Dave Cota,” said the rider beside me. “He likes to say, ‘Recreation is our industrial park.’  ”

We detoured to the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center, with more than 50 miles of choice trails snaking around the base of the ski resort. The center also houses Carrabassett Valley Bike, a full-service shop that can fix most mechanical problems, no matter how bad you crash.

The trails are classic New England: rooty, rocky, and relentless. The MH&T network is, in large part, being developed jointly with the dedicated members of the Carrabassett Region chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association. The serpentine trails on both sides of Route 27 reveal an artistic flare, combining an engineer’s eye with the precision craft of expert stonemasons and landscapers. The bermed, switchback trails, particularly the new Oak Knoll Trail, have the requisite “flow” that enhances momentum, even for those pedaling uphill.

At Stratton Brook, after another delicious dinner — braised beef served with locally grown vegetables, a rich cabernet sauvignon, and strawberry shortcake — some ibuprofen, and plenty of water, I drift off to dreamland. The next day, Lauri and I are compensated for our earlier efforts with a casual ride along another leg of the trail, featuring a magnificent view of Sugarloaf from Crommet’s Overlook.

Weeks later, I joined an L. L. Bean-sponsored trip to MH&T that included a kayak paddle along the Dead River to the Grand Falls Hut — highlighted by the striking 40-foot Grand Falls a short hike away — on day one, and a more robust hike to the Flagstaff Hut, on a small promontory overlooking the man-made Flagstaff Lake, on day two. Day three was a lengthy paddle across Flagstaff Lake, and a subsequent pedal to Poplar Hut.

When I finally got back to my car, I was exhausted, and energized. I stopped by the Carrabassett Coffee Co. in Kingfield, to get a few pounds of choice beans for my bride. But I knew I’d be back. After all, I have unfinished business with Newton’s Revenge.

MH&T offers a number of specialty weekends, including yoga retreats and guided hikes, bikes, and paddling trips, and you can book by group. Members (individuals can join for an annual fee of $50; families for $75) get a discount on just about everything. For details, visit mainehuts.org.

Brion O’Connor can be reached at brionoc@verizon.net.
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