AMC Outdoors > Features

Vacationland Revisited: Deep in the Maine Woods, a World of New Recreation Awaits

June 17, 2015
With its cabins, hikes, and views, AMC’s Gorman Chairback Lodge in the Maine Woods just might leave you starstruck.
Ty WivellWith its cabins, hikes, and views, AMC’s Gorman Chairback Lodge in the Maine Woods just might leave you starstruck.

At a mere 2,061 feet, Third Mountain hardly commands attention as one of Maine’s lofty massifs. In fact, it ranks 352nd among the state’s notable peaks. And that’s just fine with me. What Third Mountain lacks in altitude, it more than makes up for in quietude. From Monument Cliff, an inviting granite perch on its northern flank, I’m thoroughly content to enjoy the spectacular views of the 100-Mile Wilderness in comparatively rarified solitude.

It’s a languid afternoon at the tail end of summer, my favorite season for hiking. Gazing across a canopy brushed with the first coat of autumn, my eyes are drawn to the far more prominent White Cap Mountain (3,654 ft.), an unbroken, 4-mile ridgeline that leads north-northeast toward Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak and the northern terminus of the 2,180-mile-long Appalachian Trail. The trail itself winds along the ridge and, indeed, passes briefly underneath my feet here on Third. I ponder what it must feel like to be nearly 5 million steps into that journey, knowing the finish line is only a few more peaks and valleys away.

Just then, my rumination is broken by the rhythmic score of trekking poles scraping stone, harmonizing with the soft beat of lug-soled boots. Emerging from the pines is a lone thru-hiker. He’s lean, bearded, and bald as a barren summit, with kind, slightly melancholy eyes and a wide smile. I engage him in conversation, eager to hear about his pilgrimage.

His trail name is Zig, and I soon discover there is a Zag, too. Tom, Zig’s real name, describes having to part ways with his beloved dog and hiking partner after the pitbull mix suffered a leg injury in New Hampshire’s unforgiving White Mountains. The two flew home to Louisiana, but Zig eventually returned to finish the trail sans pooch. From his subdued tone and expressive eyes, Tom seems to be completing the journey as much for his devoted companion as for himself.

Shortly after Zig disappears into the woods, I’m joined on the cliff by two more thru-hikers whose story is a welcome reminder that mountains are never too high nor goals too distant. Drag’n Fly, a.k.a. Nan Reisinger, boasts an impressive mane of white hair that looks as though it was chiseled from quartz. Even more impressive is her age, a spry 74, and the fact that, roughly 100 miles hence, she will become the eldest woman to thru-hike the AT. Red-headed Freckles—or Carolyn Banjak, Reisinger’s hiking companion—is a mere 67 years young. We chat briefly, Drag’n Fly noting that Maine is both the prettiest and her favorite state along the AT, remarkable statements given the sheer number of miles and vistas the two friends from Pennsylvania have enjoyed and endured. As they resume their journey and I drift back into contemplation, I’m inclined to agree. It’s hard to beat the Maine Wilderness.

At least, that’s how I remember it from my initial visit, and it’s why I’m here now. Over the next few days, as a loose constellation of thru-hikers make their final strides toward Katahdin, I’ll continue my own pilgrimage of sorts. From my base camp at AMC’s Gorman Chairback Lodge & Cabins, near Greenville, Maine, I’ve mapped out a casual plan to revisit the 100-Mile Wilderness, which now contains a protected greenway stretching southwest from Katahdin and Baxter State Park, thanks to the efforts of AMC and other conservation groups.

It has been a dozen years since I first explored this region, and much has changed since then. In 2001, anticipating widespread and potentially damaging development following the decline of the area’s once-thriving pulp and paper industry, AMC embarked on a complex strategy to conserve land and to enhance the region’s nature-based tourism. In the intervening years, the club has renovated and reopened historic sporting camps, stocked ponds with canoes, established remote campsites, and cut new trails, with more to come.

My own strategy is to rediscover the wilderness that initially captivated me so many years before and to enjoy as many new recreational opportunities as I can.

***

I’LL NEVER FORGET that first excursion to this remote chunk of Maine. It was midwinter 2003, just before AMC acquired what was then called Little Lyford Pond Camps. The trip was a birthday gift, celebrating a girlfriend’s 40th year. After a lengthy journey to Greenville and a bumpy ride on what might generously be called a secondary road, we arrived at a makeshift parking lot abutting an impenetrable snow bank. From there, we bundled up to thwart the cold, clipped into cross-country skis, and ambled along the edge of the 100-Mile Wilderness for another 6 miles to reach the camp.

When we finally slid down the entrance road to the main lodge, we’d burned through most of our calories and the full measure of a day. We were cold, tired, and seemingly a million miles from nowhere. Thankfully, at trail’s end, we were enthusiastically welcomed by Little Lyford’s then-owners and escorted to our rustic cabin, where a freshly stoked, crackling wood stove filled the room with precious warmth. It was just as I had imagined it: cozy, alluringly romantic, and perfectly simple. A few gas lamps for light, a pitcher of water standing next to a small basin, some good books to read, and a comfortable bed.

I was utterly enchanted.

Perhaps it was the distance and effort required to reach the camps. In any case, that first day rekindled my quest for adventure, calling to mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s assertion that “life is a journey, not a destination,” although reflecting upon the adage now, amidst the tranquility of the Maine Woods, I’d say both are true. For me, Little Lyford was a well-earned retreat from my otherwise harried world and an exciting point of departure to discover one of the last vestiges of genuine wilderness left in New England.

Shortly after that trip, AMC acquired Little Lyford and poured heart and sweat, not to mention considerable resources, into what evolved into the Maine Woods Initiative, the club’s largest investment in conservation and recreation in its then-127-year history. A dozen years on, I’m happy to find Lyford with a much-improved lodge and bunkhouse but otherwise as rustic and inviting as I remember: still cozy, still warm, still entirely captivating.

***

ON A CRISP, sundrenched Saturday, I join a cheerful cluster of fellow guests at Gorman Chairback’s main lodge for a hearty, AMC-style communal breakfast. The morning’s menu includes enough food to fuel an expedition: creamy oatmeal, scrambled eggs, home-cooked potatoes, piles of French toast, and an endless stream of strong java. Along with Little Lyford Lodge & Cabins, Gorman is one of three historic sporting camps now owned and operated by AMC. (The third, Medawisla, is currently undergoing renovation and is slated to reopen in 2017.) Gorman Chairback is situated at the edge of Long Pond, near the southwest corner of AMC’s 70,000 acres of conservation and recreation land. Originally created as a private camp in 1867, Gorman Chairback reopened under AMC management in 2011 and now features a relaxing central lodge built using the latest green-construction techniques, a bunkhouse that sleeps 10, and a variety of cozy cabins that collectively accommodate 50 visitors.

Casual introductions aside, our morning conversation is largely devoted to the day’s itineraries. Zach and Sarah Whitridge, a young couple from Portland, Maine, are setting off with their 2-year-old son, Asa, to explore the pools and waterfalls of Gulf Hagas. Renee Rose, a native Jamaican now living in Brooklyn, is participating in a weekend photography workshop. Others are mapping out a lodge-to-lodge day hike from Gorman to Little Lyford, gearing up to fly fish for wild brook trout, or perfectly content to mill about the camp, basking in the sunlight and serenity.

I’ve opted for a leisurely paddle across Long Pond. As ponds go, it’s a sizable body of water, totaling more than 600 acres and stretching roughly 3 miles east to west. In this liquid-rich region, it’s among two dozen enticing ponds: East and West Chairback, First and Second Little Lyford, Mountain Brook, Lost, Horseshoe, Grassy, and Baker ponds, to name a few—many of which have canoes free for guest use.

My canoemate this morning is Bryan Wentzell, AMC’s Maine policy and program director, who has graciously agreed to join me for a few hours. “Maine is where it’s happening,” he tells me. “We’re creating these recreational opportunities for people to connect with a really wild landscape.” As a native Mainer with deep family roots in the North Woods, Wentzell embodies the organization’s commitment to outdoor recreation and resource protection.

Plus, he loves to fish. As we chat and make our way against a slight headwind, Wentzell intermittently casts for trout, while I eagerly scan for the moose reportedly sighted earlier that morning, grazing at the shoreline. Meanwhile, a raft of loons is having a pronounced conversation of its own, and soon we’re joined by a bald eagle, gliding overhead and trolling for breakfast.

We negotiate our way through the First Narrows, a shallow, boulder-strewn passage midway down the pond, before pulling starboard to explore the Coyote Rocks campsite, one of two spots on Long Pond where you can sleep under the stars. The site is tucked along the north shore, protected by an island, and sheltered beneath a canopy of white pines on a rise above the waterline. There are two tent pads, a small fire pit, an outhouse, and a picnic bench. Simple, secluded, perfect.

It’s a good reminder that, for all of its vastness, the 100-Mile Wilderness is eminently accessible. There are several hike-in or paddle-in campsites throughout the property, with more in the works. Which isn’t to say you can’t go off the beaten path, if you so desire. Wentzell recounts one solo kayak excursion that had him portaging and bushwhacking toward the far reaches of the Roach Ponds, a spectacular chain of lakes and ponds at the northern end of AMC land. “I felt like I could have been in central Alaska,” he recalls. “There was nobody else on the lake. Nobody.”

After pushing off from Coyote Rocks, Wentzell and I spend the balance of the morning paddling Long Pond from end to end, soaking up the scenery and talking about what’s next for the region. With the help of grant funding and community partnerships, AMC is working to create a new network of recreational trails around Medawisla, and, with mountain bikers in mind, has already cut and opened a single-track path on nearby Trout Mountain, in the heart of the Roach Ponds region. Eventually, enthusiasts not only will be able to hike and ski lodge-to-lodge, but to pedal uninterrupted from Medawisla, in the north, to Little Lyford and Gorman Chairback, in the south.

***

I’VE SAVED THE best for Sunday. The weather report posted in the common room at Gorman Chairback calls for a bluebird sky, with temperatures in the high 70s: a perfect day to dip my toes into cool, refreshing Buttermilk Falls. If I’m inspired, I might even commit to the full plunge—cautiously, of course. I don’t want to get carried away. After all, Buttermilk is a remote and powerful waterfall that pools and plummets into a narrow, rock-strewn gorge ominously dubbed The Jaws. Then again, that’s exactly why I’m here, in the Maine wilderness: to be refreshed, inspired, and carried away.

Buttermilk is one of several falls located within Gulf Hagas, a deep, 3-mile gorge cut by the West Branch of the Pleasant River. The Gulf is a main attraction in these parts and a National Natural Landmark, often referred to as the Grand Canyon of Maine. It’s accessible year-round by trails stretching north to Little Lyford and south and west to Gorman Chairback. That said, to reach the Gulf and hike its entire Rim Trail is a serious undertaking, covering more than 10 miles round trip from either lodge.

At the recommendation of Shannon LeRoy, an experienced outdoorswoman and manager of AMC’s Greenville office, I’ve decided to couple my hike to the falls with a side trip to a little-known pond situated just off the Head of the Gulf Trail. The organization leaves a canoe there for guest use, so I grab a paddle and a personal flotation device and drive to the trailhead. After a short walk, I spot the unmarked side path. Less than 100 yards in, the route opens onto Lloyd Pond, an enticing spot surrounded by reed grass and the skeletons of trees that have slowly succumbed to the water’s pull. As promised, the canoe awaits. I slip it into the shallows and take it for a serene, quietwater paddle before continuing my journey into the Gulf.

I’ve visited Gulf Hagas in the depth of winter, during spring runoff, and now in summer, too. It never fails to impress. The gorge’s walls rise as high as 130 feet above the river, which churns and drops 370 vertical feet along its 3-mile path, cascading over slate rock worn smooth and plunging over spectacular falls, including Screw Auger, Billings, Stairs, and Buttermilk.

By the time I reach the latter, I’ve built up a good sweat and an appetite. I find a nook above the falls to enjoy a riverside lunch in the sun, dipping my toes in the cool water. Once I’m done eating, I commit to the full dip. You can’t do wilderness halfway.

***

IF THERE’S ONE signature that, for me, most aptly encapsulates the 100-Mile Wilderness, it has to be the night sky. Writ large across an indigo canvas, a luminous confluence of stars reflects the relative absence of human intrusion, restoring a sense of scale and proportion to nature that has long since faded in urban life. Out here, unfettered and unobstructed, the Milky Way’s depth and magnitude is at once intimate and overwhelming. My meager attempts to capture it seem both hubristic and futile.

Still, I try. With camera, wide-angle lens, and sturdy tripod in hand, I slip away to the shoreline at Long Pond on my last evening at the lodge to witness the magical twilight hour. A crescent moon that has been lingering on the western horizon quickly disappears behind a crimson band of light. I set up my rig with grandiose plans to collapse the fourth dimension into two on a digital sensor the size of a matchbook. I know it can’t be done. If the heavens were meant to be harnessed, there would be no room left for awe. But I trip the shutter anyway, again and again, if only to capture a fraction of its beauty—and to frame a gentle reminder that wild places like these are worth trying to record precisely because they can’t be.


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