Summer’s End: Fall Comes On Stage

Maine woodland
Maine woodland

It’s finally happened.  The heat and humidity that have been making me lazy are gone. It was 45 degrees here in Maine this morning, and the sticky wet thickness in the air went vamoose.

I want to move again. Before breakfast, and not yet 6 AM, I am out the door and trekking down through the acreage of newly mowed fields around my house to re-establish an overgrown trail.

I placed myself on a fitness program this year to average an hour a day, walking fast or riding hard, almost exclusively in the woods here on the Maine coast.

The forest in part of town is riddled with ancient roads and snowmobile trails.

Cleared trail
Cleared trail

In cases when these places are used when there is snow, foot powered passage during the summer and fall seasons is relatively possible.

Abandoned road
Abandoned road

For the past two weeks, I have been clearing trees and brush from a mountain biking loop that is now up 10 miles long. Just to be clear, that’s 10 miles from rolling our my garage and back in.

Wild blueberry field
Wild blueberry field

It is over superb woodland, granite ledges, through wild blueberry fields, beside ancient spreading oaks and maples, with the chance to hop off the bike at then end and take a dip in one of couple of crystal clear ponds.

Levensellar Pond
Levensellar Pond

It won’t last. The light is already dying.

First time in Levensellar this summer, maybe my last?

Maine Huts and Trails- wrap up

My bunk room morphed up to warmer last night.
The crew told me the building was so well insulated that a person’s body heat was often sufficient to turn things around.  The bunk houses are heated to around 60 degrees in the off season as well, as there is a caretaker for each hut. However since it is not a full season with a dedicated hut staff to stoke the fires in the basement on a regular around the clock schedule, there might be small fluctuations in heat (never below 50, between 57 to 65), depending on the outside temperatures. Hot water prevails, as well.

In the morning, I made myself drip coffee from the pile of filters and fresh ground Carabasset the boys set out for me before they went up last night.  Normally, breakfast is served st 7:40, but I suggested that they sleep in, courtesy of me!
At 8 sharp I was sitting in the dining room in front of a hot plate of eggs, sausage, and toast.

Flagstaff Dining Room
Flagstaff Dining Room

Lunch fixin’s were set out for me to make my own peanut and jelly sandwich, accompanied by a brownie and granola bar.

Flagstaff Lake shoreline
Flagstaff Lake shoreline

The morning light illuminated the shore and the few leaves that remained on the deciduous trees.

I’m heading back today.  On the way in here, it was unsafe to listen to music via earphones and iPhone- too many pulp trucks thundering down Long Falls Dam as well as  the gravel Carriage Roads to be distracted by tunes. I needed to hear these trucks coming. They don’t slow down at all and the roads are narrow.
This is the last weekend for MH&T to offer their full service meal plans as part of the package here (at regular rates).  Twenty folks are coming in today to stay for this last serviced  weekend- a ” yoga group”.
From October 29 until December 19 daily rates drop more than 50%, down to $35 for nonmembers and $30 for members. For that price, you get everything this place offers except the meal plan.  Guests are free to bring in their own food and use the kitchen.
In sum, I enjoyed my stay here. The facilities are unique- interesting and comfortable. I liked being taken care of. The shower was hot, the couch and reading chairs were super comfortable.
One of the parts I liked about the trip into here along the trail from Sugarloaf/Route 27 was crossing the Appalachian Trail at the exact same place that I walked over on my 2007 thru-hike.

Two thousand miles on AT from Georgia to here!
Two thousand miles on AT from Georgia to here!

It brought back positive memories.
People need to know that the terrain that surrounds the MH&T trail is mostly low country, and right now is surrounded by fresh logging activity.

Fresh logging visible along trail into Flagstaff
Fresh logging visible along trail into Flagstaff

It’s often not so scenic. Don’t get me wrong- in the warm weather the deciduous leaves will hide the freshly cut slash and stumps. Conversely, when the area is blanketed by snow the skiing, snowshoeing, and even mountain biking will be framed in a more natural situation.
I could be wrong, but there is one more reason why MH&T lets their crews go for the next month and a half.  It’s deer hunting season in Maine, and folks will definitely need to be wearing hunter orange if they travel these woods in November.  This looks like prime hunting territory.

This is quite an undertaking- these ” wilderness hotels” that are steadily coming online up here.  I am really pleased to finally experience what they are all about.
I appreciated the care and attention that the staff gave me here, even though I was the only client.
I plan to be back here before the rates double up and return to normal just before the Holiday season.

Bridge along Narrow Gauge path
Bridge along Narrow Gauge path

I have viewed enough YouTube clips to know that I want to ride my Pugsley along the groomed snow pack.

First time out on Maine Huts and Trails

Yesterday, I changed my plan to backpack up here when the weather report scared me. Last week’s unseasonably warm Indian Summer is history.
It’s 1:30 in the afternoon and I’m here at the Maine Huts and Trails Flagstaff hut complex.   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  This is my first time with Maine Huts and Trails, where they staff sustainable outdoor hotels in the forest.  It’s 31 degrees out, with  strong wind off Flagstaff Lake that’s pushing the cold even deeper today.
Snow flurries are scurrying about outside the insulated walls and windows of this main lodge- recently constructed on eastern shore of Flagstaff, a man-made lake that is the fourth largest in Maine.
I have camped in this area in all seasons, including one winter trip inside a heated wall tent about a mile from here when the temps dropped to 20 below, with an even colder wind off the lake that refrigerated the air around the tent’s wood stove. No amount of stoking could raise the heat in the tent to a comfortable level.

My original plan was to hike on the Appalachian Trail for a few days, in an area where I enjoy hanging out. I stayed at the local “hiker oasis”- the Stratton Motel last night, so that I could get an early start. My plan was to walk southbound on the AT from Route 27, then  up and over the side trail to Sugarloaf summit. I like going up and over Sugarloaf- it’s the original Appalachian Trail route after all.   I hoped I could get out of the elements and bed down  in the now decrepit and supposedly vermin-infested Summit building. Today would have been a 12 mile day if it all worked out. But several factors combined to change my mind.

Cold– how about nights in the 20’s?
Snow– flurries.
Uncertainty– about whether staying in the Sugarloaf summit building was still possible. It has been gloom and doom about the place for at least the past 5 years.  In the warmer weather many options exist for sleeping, but right now I don’t want to either stand around in the long hours of dark and freezing cold. I envisioned getting way up there and finding the doors nailed and locked shut. Spending tonight up high in a little flimsy tent is definitely not on my Bucket List. I have not so fond memories of a yet another very cold, miserable December night-  up on Bigelow-  that does not need repeating.
Two other factors pushed the hiking into the “Nope” zone. Both were unsettling.
Both involved a connection to Sue Critchlow , the proprietor of the Stratton Motel/ Maine Roadhouse.
The first was a 2012 article from the Boston Phoenix where Sue was one of the local Stratton/ Rangely residents who was quoted heavily concerning the history of weird hovering lights in the area. Shades of extraterrestrial visitation.
The second was the 2013 mysterious disappearance of 66 year old Appalachian Trail hiker Geraldine Largay, who left the Poplar Ridge Lean-to shelter near Rangeley on Monday, July 22, after checking in with her husband via text message as she headed toward the Spaulding Mountain Lean-to, eight miles north. “Inchworm” (her AT trail name) had already hiked from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, almost 1000 miles, with her final destination the AT terminus at Katahdin. She was last seen by three male hikers that afternoon near Lone Mountain, about three miles from the Spaulding shelter. To them, Largay, seemed fine.  Then she vanished, launching one of Maine’s largest missing-person searches in memory. For 11 days, hundreds of people on foot as well as  ATVs and horseback, along with a helicopter,  airplanes, and nine search dogs failed to turn up any perceptible trace of her passage.

Read more about the puzzle, including the mystery phone call Creighton stated she received from a woman who told her that she wanted to get word to George Largay that his wife would be late in meeting him.   Full story here.

So, instead on a night out in the cold, mulling about the strange events here in drama city,  I biked 19.2 miles from Route 27 today, where I put in at the trailhead parking for Maine Huts and Trails. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I had the official map for this route, but needed to study it frequently, as it was my first time out on the route. There were plenty of signage, but this same complex of trails is used by snowmobiles, all terrain vehicles, hikers, cross country skiers, and snowshoers. There was at least one intersection where there were four choices to decide upon. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Sort of complicated.

Sizing up the day at 7:10 PM tonight- it turned out great. I am the only guest here tonight, sleeping out in a three person dorm room in another cottage that is heated, but definitely not over 60 degrees. I spent the bulk of the afternoon on a big leather couch, about six feet out from a wood stove perched on a field stone hearth, where the warming flames of cowboy TV were visible through the glass doors. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Two of the staff and I ate supper together- a stir fry over rice with homemade bread, brownies, and peanut butter cookie, capped off with a glass of cold milk. They even materialized a bottle of Allagash White for me ( $5).

From 10/28/2013 to 12/19/2013, MH&T stops cooking meals for guests, but the Huts remain open, with a caretaker on premises. For that time period $35 a night ( $30 for members) gets you all the amenities ( yes for hot shower), including the use of the kitchen – $70 for a cold weather weekend of exploring in this area is a screaming deal. You could get up and over on the AT for a day hike up the Bigelows, walk the shore of this Lake a bit, or bring bikes up and ride around in the woods.  Then hit the hot showers, use the kitchen, enjoy safe drinking water out of faucets,  have electric lights to read by, and sleep in a heated room on a mattress.

Long Falls Dam Road is plowed all winter.  It’s important to understand that you cannot actually drive into any of the four available Huts. You have to hike, bike, ski, or snowshoe in.  The 1.8 mile traverse into Flagstaff Hut from the TraiIhead parking lot is the shortest trip in to any of the huts.  It’s a whoop on a bike.

Tom Jamrog’s letter to the editor..

Needed: a big push for Maine Woods tourism

By David Vail

(Aug 23): It’s the height of Maine’s summer tourist season and based on anecdotal information, things are not booming. This is not surprising considering soaring gas prices and consumers’ general sense of vulnerability. Yet another reason for Maine to get serious about energizing its tourism industry, especially in the North Woods where new economic engines are urgently needed.

Maine Woods tourism extends back beyond H.D. Thoreau’s mid-19th century sojourns. In its heyday a century ago, the Moosehead Lake region alone had 20 hotels accessed by three rail lines. Although the Great Depression and automobile touring ended that golden age, post-World War II decades were marked by renewed tourism growth. Traditional outdoor adventures and hospitality services were supplemented by new attractions, such as alpine skiing, snowmobiling, white water rafting and fall “leaf peeping.”

Maine’s hinterland, despite its storied history and natural beauty, shows numerous signs of economic and community distress. Compared to the state’s relatively prosperous southern and coastal counties, the six “rim counties” (Oxford, Franklin, Somerset, Piscataquis, Aroostook and Washington) suffer from persistent low incomes, high poverty rates, high unemployment, youth out-migration and rapidly aging populations.

One challenge is to frame strategies for economic sectors with the greatest potential to lead rural Maine toward sustainable prosperity. Tourism has that potential. It directly generates over 10 percent of rim county employment and 8 percent of income. Including multiplier effects, tourism accounts for one in seven rim county jobs.

With a few exceptions, rural Maine’s natural attractions and gateway towns have underutilized supply capacity. On the demand side, our nature, culture and heritage have the potential to attract significantly more visitors, especially high spending experiential tourists. However, sustainable tourism growth will not happen automatically through “the magic of the market.”

Responding to rural Maine’s serious economic challenges, Gov. Baldacci and the Legislature have accorded tourism unprecedented priority in the loose collection of programs that pass for a rural development policy.

Pursuing a “world-class” reputation, the state has recently launched numerous tourism ventures, including the Maine Nature Tourism Initiative and a university Center for Tourism Research and Outreach.

The private and nonprofit sectors, with substantial state support, have also been innovating. Theme-based recreational trails have proliferated in rural Maine, for instance the Kennebec-Chaudière International Heritage Corridor, the Maine Birding Trail, the 180-mile Maine Huts and Trails, the Maine Fiber Arts Trail, the Piscataquis Waterfall Trail, the Maine Ice Age Trail and the fast-growing all-terrain vehicle trail network.

Investments in downtown revitalization, resort upgrades and new resorts will help brand the Maine Woods as an amenity rich destination.

Although these ventures show promise, most are piecemeal, geographically scattered and too small to create the “buzz” of a world-class destination. In this era of Internet bookings, the Maine Woods competes for visitors not only with nearby rivals, like the Adirondacks and White Mountains, but also with world-renowned international destinations like the Canadian Rockies. Furthermore, Maine’s cultural and heritage attractions are modest compared with competing Northeast destinations, such as the Hudson and Lake Champlain valleys. In sum, the Maine Woods destination may have world-class potential, but we’re not there yet. The region must re-invent itself as a destination and re-conceive its brand image to thrive in 21st century conditions.

We need a “big push” — with three core components — if tourism is to play a lead role in revitalizing Maine’s rural economy and communities. First, our dispersed mountains, lakes, wild rivers, trails and other natural attractions must be more effectively woven together into a Maine Woods whole, renowned for outstanding and varied recreational experiences. Second, cultural and heritage amenities must be upgraded, networked and integrated with outdoor recreation to shape exciting itineraries for travelers seeking a rich and varied experience. Third, tourism service quality needs to reach the standard of excellence demanded by quality conscious tour arrangers and travelers. Service excellence is also the key to creating more livable wage tourism jobs. At present, fewer than half of tourism jobs pay a livable wage or offer health benefits. Yet we know quality tourism jobs are possible, because our best practice guide services, outfitters, sporting camps, hotels and restaurants already offer them. The foundation of a win-win strategy, then, is top quality service, leading both to greater profitability and better employee compensation and satisfaction.

The 10-million-acre Maine Woods is the largest contiguous forest east of the Mississippi. It contains regionally and nationally recognized destinations: the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail on Mt. Katahdin, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, Rangeley and Moosehead Lakes, and the 1,500-mile ITS snowmobile trail network. The area of protected lands has grown to over 1.5 million acres. Building on these special assets, we can shape a world-class Maine Woods destination where the whole is greater than the sum of its many not quite world-class parts.

David Vail teaches economics and environmental studies at Bowdoin College and is a Maine Center for Economic Policy board member. He recently advised the Governor’s Council on Maine’s Quality of Place and serves on the advisory committee to the University of Maine’s Center for Tourism Research and Outreach. To learn more about tourism strategy for rural prosperity, visit the MECEP website at mecep.org.

 

My response:

Growing up on a Massachusetts farm, I moved a lot of rocks as my family  cleared fields for crops. Back in the 1950’s many folks  in town laughed at my grandmother’s prediction, “ Someday, people will pay good money for these stones”.     She was right, so today we see expensive pallets of lichen encrusted  field stones stacked through the New England countryside as residents pay to have these genuine stones nearby.

In  David Vail’s Guest Column “ Needed: a big push for Maine Woods tourism”,   Mr. Vail is encouraging us to realize that  “Investments in downtown revitalization, resort upgrades and new resorts will help brand the Maine Woods as an amenity rich destination”.  

Greenville is considered the gateway to the Maine Woods.   I am still floored when I drive down Indian Hill approaching town where there stands an deteriorating, empty McDonald’s franchise that gave it up years ago after there wasn’t enough business to sustain it.  I’m not convinced that now is the time to put more “ world class amenities”  into the North Woods in an effort to  “…attract significantly more visitors, especially high-spending experiential tourists”.  

I live here a few miles away from Route 1 where there are ample resorts, and more than one tastefully vitalized downtown.   I shudder to think of how my own  wilderness  experience would be seriously degraded if we merely transplant this whole deal up into the North Woods.  

Believe it or not , there are people  out here who deeply crave a true wilderness experience, desiring a few precious days to canoe, walk, or snowshoe in undeveloped nature and lay our bodies down to rest beside waterfalls, brooks, or on mountaintops.  It is getting difficult to even find these types of  experiences even in the Maine Woods, as snowmobiles, ATVs, and motor boats fill our waterways and paths, thawed or flowing.  Any such plan that  Mr. Vail, or any others  propose needs to recognize that there are people like me out there, who would prefer to swat away at black flies and mosquitoes and labor up and down the gut busting mountains on the Appalachian Trail in Western Maine rather than stroll along the recently cut over lowlands on the 180-mile Maine Huts and Trails corridor.  I want to sleep out in the forest in my little tent, and not in  an upgraded version of an Appalachian Mountain Club  hut, where I can hope to climb to to the last third high bunk and get my supper and breakfast to me for just $96.12 a night ( current rates for one person AMC bunk space on weekends).  

Mr. Vail compares Maine’s assets to those of the Canadian Rockies and Norway’s fjord country.  I personally think that is stretching it.   To some, Mt. Katahdin’s majesty may approach or even equal the grandeur of those two destinations. Thankfully,  we are blessed by the vision of Percival Baxter, whose strings-attached gift of Baxter State Park ensures that no paved roads will be established to allow us to place one one of these “new resorts”  up on the edge of the Tableland.  

Mr. Vail, please think of folks like me when you draft the final stages of just what this “big push” will look like .  I know I won’t be able to afford those rates.  Americans, and many wealthy Europeans , want it all and want it right now, but if we can somehow leave a few of those ancient stones unturned, people will someday pay good money to just stand on them.