July 11, 2011

Huts offer hikers havens

‘It’s like luxury in the woods,’ says Yarmouth woman of new lodge

FLAGSTAFF LAKE -- The distinct aroma of cooking garlic and onion wafted from the kitchen at Flagstaff Lake Hut, greeting guests who had hiked to the remote lodge in the western Maine mountains.

click image to enlarge

R&R: Jane Morris, left, and Meg MacDougal take advantage of the time before the dinner bell to catch up on some reading in one of the community rooms at the Flagstaff Lake Hut in Carrabassett Valley last week.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Meg MacDougal and Jane Morris, just back from a day of hiking and canoeing on the lake, sat in cushy chairs in one of the lodge's rooms, reading while they waited for a hard-earned dinner.

"It's not camping; it's like luxury in the woods," MacDougal said, her partner nodding in agreement.

Settling in for their final night's stay at the lodge -- one of three in a trail and hut system built by the nonprofit agency Maine Huts and Trails -- the couple from Yarmouth was already starting to plan a return visit to this northern Somerset County destination.

Then, MacDougal caught a whiff of the smells coming from the kitchen. Lodge staff prepared quiche, orzo with peas, steamed vegetables, a green salad and, for dessert, fudge brownies.

"The food is outstanding -- that's going to be amazing," she said.

This full-service wilderness lodge experience is what the system founders envisioned when they started building the energy-efficient huts in 2008, according to Conrad Klefos, the agency's marketing director.

And with a big spike this year of people staying at the lodges, the agency is working on a plan to reach its goal of building a continuous 200-mile trail system that connects 12 huts from Bethel to Moosehead Lake, he said.

There are 30 miles of trails connecting three huts: Poplar Stream Falls Hut in Carrabassett Valley, Flagstaff Lake Hut, and Grand Falls Hut, just north of Basin Mountain.

A total of 45 miles of cross-country skiing and hiking trails are expected to be finished by this fall, according to Klefos.

The agency has raised more than $8 million in donations to reach this point, with the overall project expected to cost more than $20 million, he said.

But revenue from overnight stay packages and other sales at the lodges is projected to double this year, giving the agency confidence it may soon be able to expand using money earned by running the system, Klefos said.

Based on one person paying to stay in a bed one night, overnight stays are on pace to reach 6,000 this year, which is nearly twice as many as in 2010, according to Klefos.

That jump is because more people are finding out about what the lodge experience offers, with the system gaining attention recently from a national magazine and more advertising, he said.

"The word 'hut' is a bit of a misnomer; they're basically million-dollar lodges," Klefos said.

Full-time staff cooks for guests and hikers, cleans and manages the lodges during peak winter and summer months, with self-service seasons during a few spring and late fall months.

MacDougal and Morris said they just moved from Cambridge, Mass., to Yarmouth to raise their family.

MacDougal's parents live in Maine and they bought the couple a system membership, which features overnight package deals, she said.

Despite doing some research about the lodge on the system's website, the couple admitted to being shocked when they arrived last week.

"It's a lot bigger than we expected," Morris said of the lodge.

They especially like the lodge's energy-efficient features, according to Morris, who is a neurologist.

"We love the green features," she said.

The lodge has a manager, called a "hutmaster," who gives each guest a tour of the energy-efficient technologies.

Chris Nilon, hutmaster at the Flagstaff hut, showed the couple solar panels that provide electricity, and a wood boiler used for radiant heat and hot water, Morris said.

(Continued on page 2)

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