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Making the best of it in the Maine huts, corn snow and all

Cross-country skiing on trails in Maine’s Carrabasett Valley that are maintained by Maine Huts and Trails.
Cross-country skiing on trails in Maine’s Carrabasett Valley that are maintained by Maine Huts and Trails.(Gina Vercesi for The Boston Globe)

Until last season, I’d never heard of corn snow.

Granted, I’m a newer skier, but during the past few years New England had seen so much powder that I didn’t believe all the stories my husband told me about tough, East Coast conditions.

A quick Google search offered enlightenment. “Corn snow: snow with a rough granular surface resulting from alternate thawing and freezing.”

It was Lani Love-Cochrane who introduced the term. My friend Debbie and I were headed north for a two-day cross-country ski trip in Maine’s Carrabasett Valley and conditions weren’t stellar. Love-Cochrane, a registered Maine guide, would be leading our adventure. We were bound for Poplar Hut, one of four eco-lodges nestled deep in a northwest pocket of Vacationland operated by the Maine Huts and Trails organization.

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Last season’s winter-that-wasn’t had served up months of thaw-freeze cycles with a heaping portion of rain on the side. Snow normally pounds the Maine Huts corridor in the second half of winter and the setting for our mid-March trip should have been a wonderland. Sadly, normal wasn’t in the forecast.

“It’s disappearing fast,” said Love-Cochrane about the waning coverage, “and the next couple days’ warm temps won’t help.”

Despite my concerns about the conditions, I’m generally glass-is-half-full kind of gal, preferring to think of travel as the adventure that happens in spite of pre-made plans. In that vein I decided to surrender to whatever the weather gods had in store. This wasn’t my first trip with Maine Huts and Trails and I knew the coming experience promised to be about much more than skiing.

We met Lani at the Airport Road trailhead in Kingfield, home of Maine Huts and Trails’ headquarters. After lacing our boots, we stuffed anything we didn’t want to schelp on the trail into our backpacks, which we stowed in a wooden lean-to. For those of us uneasy on skinny, edge-less Nordic skis, the gear shuttle is a huge perk. Just tag your bags and a bearded mountain man on a snowmobile will take them from the lean-to and deliver them to the hut. Your dry woolens will be waiting for you upon arrival, along with a hot, coin-operated shower — quarters are in a small bowl on the bar — and a local craft beer.

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There might even be pie.

Maine Huts and Trails drew inspiration from other hut-to-hut systems around the world, primarily those throughout the European Alps, New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, and the Milford Track in New Zealand. But it’s the Maine Huts’ multi-use capacity and three-season access that really sets it apart. Fall and summer along the 82-mile trail system sees mountain bikers, hikers, and paddlers, while winter is prime for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and fat tire biking. What’s more, for backcountry greenhorns, the organization offers a variety of guided trips throughout the year — and if one of those doesn’t fit your schedule they’ll work with you to create a custom adventure.

Slinging our skis over our shoulders the three of us squelched across a grassy field to the trail, optimistically clicking toes into bindings.

“Two days ago this was all snow,” Lani said as we navigated muddy patches of thaw approaching the first small hill.

Lani went ahead, showing us how to avoid the bare spots. My attempt to duplicate her route failed and I found myself facedown in the slush with the wind knocked out of me having landed on the big camera I’d slung around my body messenger bag-style. With bruised ribs and ego, I lay there a moment assessing the damage to my lens and person before getting back onto my skis, sheepishly brushing off mud along with expressions of concern for my well-being.

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Things improved significantly after that and though my upper region smarted from the impact, we noticed that the remaining snow had resisted the sun’s winter-killing rays deeper in the shady woods. The two-mile route meandered parallel to Poplar Stream, its banks edged by thick ledges of ice. Debbie, Lani, and I had become fast friends, our conversation interrupted only twice en route to the hut — once when we stopped to shed layers having warmed up from the skiing, and once by the thumping crescendo of a ruffed grouse in the forest.

After a couple hours, Poplar Hut came into view — a cozy beacon with a wood stove and a fabulous hut-hostess named Melie, who, we later learned, baked the meanest wild blueberry pie imaginable. The day still relatively young, we stashed our stuff in our bunkroom, changed into our snow boots — delivered earlier by snowmobile — and donned snowshoes from a large bin on the porch for a hike down to Poplar Falls. The Maine Huts trail offers great skiing but to get a real feel for the area, spend some time exploring the narrow arteries winding through the woods.

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Later, settled around the fire, we popped the cork on a bottle of Malbec and Lani decided to stay for dinner — hearty stew, freshly baked bread, and that beautiful pie. Afterward, she fired up her headlamp for the ski back to her car. Being a registered Maine guide makes one brave.

Walking to our room, the sky glittered with stars in the cold, black night. Debbie and I, snug in our bunks, chattered like two kids at a sleepover. As a proponent of getting outdoors year-round regardless of conditions, I’ve always told my kids, “There’s no bad weather, only the wrong clothes.” Such was the case with our March trip. Could it have been snowier? Sure. Did that make a difference? Not one bit.


Gina Vercesi can be reached at gdvercesi@gmail.com.