A View from the Hill: My great big Maine ‘wilderness’ adventure

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Ah, wilderness.

Sort of. But not really.

My son and I decided – well, I decided, and dragged him into it – to book a little cabin deep in the North Maine Woods in January. 

Andrew MarstersI picked out a cozy hut at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Little Lyford Pond camps, about 12 miles north of Greenville. The picture on the website showed a dog and a woman lounging on a bed. They looked happy.

We drove to Greenville on a Sunday morning, bought some sandwiches, then headed for the AMC winter parking area, from which trails fanned out to Little Lyford and other camps, all of them only accessible by skis or snowshoes or, for the staff, by snowmobile.

We hadn’t done this kind of skiing in years. I had some old equipment and my son rented some. We were rusty, out of shape, and a little shocked to stand at the top of a long, steep trail that fell away from the parking area, the start of a seven-mile trek to the camp.

“Is this a good idea?” I asked him. He shrugged. He’s become familiar with my bad ideas over his 44 years. Awkwardly, we made it to the bottom. Our legs burned from the effort of trying to go slow.

My son was anxious about getting to the camp before dark, even though it was only noon. We had light packs with extra coats and energy bars and headlamps. The bulk of our gear had been taken in by staff on a snowmobile, which is why I said earlier that this is not exactly a wilderness experience.

Just as we were weighing our options, a snowmobile driven by one of the camp managers came toward us, heading for the parking area. I recalled the warning on the website: “Get an early start. It starts to get dark at 3:30 p.m. in January. … Better to get to camp early and explore than to ski in the dark on unfamiliar trails.”

I flagged her down.

“Are we OK?” I asked, half hoping she’d say, “No, go home, idiots.”

Instead, she said, “You’re fine. You’re in good shape.” We felt otherwise. “Be sure to take the Hedgehog trail,” she added before zooming off.

She was right, we were fine, although we missed the Hedgehog trail and didn’t realize it until turning back was no longer an option. But we were on a wide, groomed trail and could see on the map that it eventually would lead us to the camp.

So we skied on and began to enjoy the immense silence of this huge area known as the 100-Mile Wilderness, 75,000 acres of which have been preserved by the AMC. The silence was broken only by snowmobiles that whizzed by at 60 miles per hour on their way from I don’t know where to the parking lot.

A few hours later we were checking in at the camp. “You made good time,” the camp manager who had said we were fine remarked.

In our cabin, we fed the fire, which is the only heat, lit the two gas lamps, which are the only light, and napped before dinner.

Meals are usually served family-style in the lodge, but due to COVID-19 precautions, we had to bring our food back to our cabin, where we ate at a tiny table next to the woodstove. I found a Scrabble game in the lodge and brought it back to the cabin, where my son walloped me.

And so life went for the next two days. We skied. We snowshoed. I led him onto the lake that I had been advised not to go on and one of his legs went through up to his knee in freezing water. He wasn’t amused.

We skied out on his birthday. Well, he skied, I snowshoed, because my ski binding was frozen. It was a lovely day, with a little bit of soft new snow that had been crisscrossed by various types of wildlife. 

We tackled that big hill up to the winter parking lot, and that was it. I started chatting with a staff member who pulled up on a snowmobile. He told me that he had been passed by recreational snowmobilers going over 100 mph.

Probably wouldn’t see much of this wilderness at that speed, I thought. “I don’t understand what fun snowmobiling could be,” I said.

Which is when a woman nearby invited herself into the conversation. “I’ll tell you what they see in snowmobiling,” she shouted. “They think it’s FUN!”

We got in the car and my son shook his head.

“You don’t come to Greenville, Maine, and start criticizing snowmobilers,” he said. “You just don’t do that.”

We went back to the city.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning Maine journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.

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