We started looking for a moose as soon as we arrived in the Maine Woods. Around each bend in the road, across every marsh or pond, we expected to see the gangly outline of the state’s most iconic mammal.
So on our last evening, while walking a waterfront path below AMC’s newly rebuilt Medawisla Lodge and Cabins, my wife and I assumed a flash of motion across the pond had to be a moose. But no. It was a cat. A big cat, stalking its dinner along the rocky outlet where Second Roach Pond empties into Roach River. We couldn’t tell whether this hunter was a lynx or a bobcat, but either way, a moose could wait. This was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime sighting.
Outdoor enthusiasts and wildlife co-exist in Maine’s largely undeveloped center, occasionally crossing paths deep in the forest or along the waterways of the greater 100-Mile Wilderness—a rare remote pocket of densely populated New England. Within it, AMC’s Maine Woods Initiative (MWI) now spans 75,000 acres east of Moosehead Lake, with Medawisla Lodge situated in the northwestern corner. MWI in turn serves as the southern anchor of a 63-mile-long, half-million-acre corridor of conserved land, with Baxter State Park and the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument at the opposite end.
AMC made its first purchases in the Maine Woods 14 years ago, acquiring a sporting camp on Little Lyford Pond then adding the surrounding 37,000-acre Katahdin Iron Works tract. Since then, MWI has expanded to include the Roach Ponds tract, Baker Mountain and Silver Lake, a growing trail network, and three renovated or rebuilt sporting camps. Medawisla is the latest, and perhaps the biggest, upgrade thus far. Originally a seven-cabin camp built on the shore of Second Roach Pond in 1953, Medawisla today features nine cabins, two bunkhouses, and a lodge, all newly constructed by local contractors. There’s also an outdoor pavilion near the water, a sauna, and activities year-round.
Back in our cabin, as we settled near the window for an evening of cribbage, a splash in the pond caught my eye. I grabbed my camera and dashed down to the water. Surely this was a moose, and I wasn’t going to miss it. Fooled again. Instead, I was greeted by a tranquil scene: A beaver swam slowly back and forth, gradually making its way toward the surrounding birch trees, many already well-gnawed. Unperturbed, a loon paddled by. I watch them both for several minutes before turning back up the hill.
You can’t predict what the Maine Woods will unveil, but you don’t have to. Each month holds the potential for a host of highlights. I’m looking forward to the surprises my next trip brings (maybe even that moose); in the meantime, I’ve put together a season-by-season guide to the best Medawisla has to offer. Plan ahead but keep your mind and eyes open. You never know what you might see.
PEAK STARGAZING: JANUARY–FEBRUARY
With virtually no artificial light washing out the night sky, there’s no bad time to stargaze in the Maine Woods. But the very best nights are those when the moon isn’t full and there isn’t much humidity in the air, most likely to occur in the fall and winter. The first two new moons of 2018—the ideal time to view stars—fall on January 17 and February 15. Or, if you’re less interested in the stars than in enjoying the night air, the moon will be on its closest approach to Earth in January, creating two supermoons: January 2 and 31. That means the full moon will be at its largest, creating perfect conditions for a moonlit snowshoe. Check out AMC’s Astronomy Programs or ask the lodge staff for details on any star programs.
PEAK CROSS-COUNTRY-SKIING: FEBRUARY
Snow transforms the Maine Woods into the quintessential winter playground. Hiking trails become snowshoe routes; unplowed roads are groomed for cross-country skiing; and frozen ponds afford shortcuts to otherwise remote corners of the forest. Unlike AMC’s other Maine Wilderness Lodges, reachable in winter only by a 6- to 8-mile ski, Medawisla is accessible by car year-round.
That means novice skiers can practice their skills on the flat expanse of Second Roach Pond where, on clear days, Katahdin is visible to the north. From there, skiiers can progress to moderate trails leading into the forest and toward Trout and Shaw mountains. Keep an eye out for animal tracks in the snow and—if you climb far enough up Long Ridge Road, into the saddle between Trout and Shaw—look north for an unobstructed view of Katahdin.
More experienced skiers may choose to start or end a multiday lodge-to-lodge trip at Medawisla. For these longer treks, AMC staff will shuttle your gear by snowmobile, while you ski between any combination of AMC’s Medawisla, Little Lyford, and Gorman Chairback lodges, and the independently owned West Branch Pond Camps (lodge-to-lodge ski mileage, north to south: Medawisla to West Branch Pond Camps, 8.2 miles; West Branch to Little Lyford, 8.5 miles; Little Lyford to Gorman Chairback, 6.5 miles). AMC maintains nearly 100 miles of trails, regrooming more than 50 miles each day; check out AMC’s Backcountry Weather page for updates. Skis aren’t available at the lodge, so be sure to pack your own or rent gear at Northwoods Outfitters in Greenville.
PEAK FLY FISHING: MAY (AND EARLY FALL)
Turn-of-the-20th-century anglers endured an epic journey to fish for salmon and brook trout on Roach River: traveling first by train to Greenville then boarding a steamboat to cross Moosehead Lake before transferring to a horse-drawn wagon for the trek’s final, bumpy leg.
Now catch-and-release only, the river remains a popular fishing spot—with the added benefit of easier access. The best stretch meanders from First Roach Pond to the river’s outlet on Moosehead Lake, west of AMC’s property. Medawisla guests also can head east on Roach River, paddling across Second Roach (970 acres), Third Roach (577 acres), Fourth Roach (266 acres), and Trout ponds (139 acres; distinct from the smaller Trout Pond near Gorman Chairback). Unpaved Smithtown Road also leads east from the lodge to parking areas near Third and Fourth Roach and Trout ponds (off Trout Pond Road), with short portage trails connecting to the water. Although the landlocked salmon season peaks in fall and brook trout are most colorful then, trout are liveliest in spring, when the water is cold and they’ve worked up a winter appetite.
Elsewhere on the property, AMC has replaced old culverts with bridges, opening up 33.5 miles of stream, with more to come by 2020. (Unfettered fish passage strengthens the native population by increasing genetic diversity) Guests can rent fly rods for $25 per day ($50 per stay) but may want to stock up on flies in Greenville; try Maine Guide Fly Shop or Indian Hill Trading Post. Fishing regulations vary from one body of water to the next, so review the rules and purchase a Maine fishing license in advance. Check for upcoming AMC fly fishing workshops.
PEAK HIKING: LATE JUNE
Hiking is legendary in the Maine Woods year-round, but there’s something special about early summer, when mud season and black flies are history and daytime temps haven’t yet reached their sticky zenith. Options range from an easy evening stroll on the 0.8-mile Hinkley Cove Trail to a rugged trek through the famed 100-Mile Wilderness stretch of the Appalachian Trail (AT).
For something in between, the twin summits of Shaw Mountain are a 3-mile hike from the lodge or a 1.1-mile climb from the parking area on Lower Shaw Mountain Road. For an AT teaser, try 3,654-foot White Cap Mountain, accessible via the Logan Brook Trailhead near West Branch Pond Camp, 5.9 miles south of Medawisla. Other nearby treks include routes around Second Roach Pond and up Long Ridge. AMC’s Maine trail crew continues to expand the network around Medawisla; ask the lodge staff about the latest additions.
PEAK PADDLING: JULY–AUGUST
Most visitors driving to Medawisla will trace the picturesque southeastern edge of Moosehead Lake, followed by the shores of First Roach and Second Roach ponds. That is to say, this is a region covered by big bodies of water. At Medawisla, guests can pull a canoe, a kayak, or a stand-up paddleboard from the racks and set out on 970-acre Second Roach. For a longer adventure, consider a multiday paddle. Roach River and Smithtown Road provide access to the Roach ponds and a series of remote shoreline campsites: two on the eastern end of Second Roach, two on Third Roach, one on Fourth Roach, and another on neighboring Trout Pond. Each has a picnic table, a fire ring, and a privy. Campsites are free and first come, first served.
PEAK ROAD TRIPPING: FALL (BAXTER) AND WINTER (KATAHDIN WOODS & WATERS)
Medawisla is the closest of AMC’s three Maine camps to the 209,500-acre Baxter State Park and the adjacent 87,500-acre Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument (KWW). Via Golden Road, it’s 44 miles from the lodge to Baxter’s Togue Pond gatehouse and 87 miles to Swift Brook Road in Millinocket, which leads into KWW. Baxter, of course, is home to Katahdin, the northern terminus of the AT, and to lots of other great hiking and camping destinations. Its parking lots, however, have limited capacity. Spring and fall are your best bets; learn more about park access and regulations.
KWW, designated a national monument in 2016, doesn’t have the same dramatic landscape as its neighbor but provides a similarly remote experience. Thirteen tent sites (most situated along the East Branch of the Penobscot River), four shelters, and two huts (Haskell and Big Spring Brook) offer free lodging, although reservations are required. This could change in the future; visit the monument’s website for updates. The huts, equipped with wood stoves, pots and pans, and sleeping platforms, make great stops on multiday ski trips. See photos of my own backcountry trek, and learn more on Baxter.
PEAK WILDLIFE WATCHING: VARIES BY SPECIES
The dirt roads, wetlands, and waterways of the Maine Woods provide excellent wildlife watching all year, but some seasons are better for certain species. Here’s a quick guide to spotting the region’s most popular critters.
• Year-round: Moose, beavers, and bald eagles are relatively common sights all year. Paddlers at dawn or dusk may see moose feeding around the edges of ponds and beavers patrolling near their lodges; for more evidence of beavers, look for trees they’ve chewed down and for the occasional flooded roadway. Much of a bald eagle’s diet consists of fish, so watch for these birds of prey near ponds.
• Winter: Bobcat and Lynx are among the most elusive residents of the Maine Woods. Although you might get lucky, don’t expect to spot either. What you might spy are their paths in the fresh snow. Cat tracks won’t show evidence of claws (as opposed to fox and coyotes), and their toes are spread apart, creating a more circular print. Winter is also a good time to see signs of otters, which reside in many of the same places as beavers but are more shy. Look for their tracks and slides (long depressions left in the snow from gliding on their bellies) along the river.
• Summer: Loons return from winters spent on the ocean once the ice melts on backwoods ponds. Chicks hatch in July and August, and the loons migrate back to the Atlantic in fall. Medawisla guests often see and hear loons from the cabins; paddlers should take care not to disturb birds nesting along the shore. Worth noting: Audio of loon calls recorded on Second Roach Pond was used in the 1981 film On Golden Pond.
LEARN MORE: MEET THE NEW MEDAWISLA
The original Medawisla, a traditional Maine sporting camp catering to hunters and anglers, opened in 1953. AMC bought the camp in 2006 and purchased the surrounding 29,500 acres three years later as part of the organization’s ongoing effort to balance sustainable recreation, land conservation, and forestry in the Maine Woods. (Learn more about AMC’s conservation work in Maine.) After hosting guests for six years, AMC closed Medawisla in 2012 to begin reconstruction. The new Medawisla Lodge and Cabins opened on July 1, 2017. Some highlights:
Medawisla’s 2017 season continues through December 3. The 2018 season runs December 28, 2017, through March 31, 2018, and May 10 through November 30, 2018. Request a reservation, plus find information on guided programs and more recommended activities.