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. 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?
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. 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. 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.
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.