Inside of the first hut in the Maine Huts and Trails system. Photo by Ramona du Houx

March/April 2008

By Ramona du Houx

As the sun streamed down through a crystal-blue sky, cross country skiers and snowshoe enthusiasts blazed their own trail on the first portion of the Maine Huts & Trails (MHT) system which led to the first finished hut at Poplar Stream Falls. From babies to baby boomers, the trek into the hut complex proved to be an unforgettable experience on ribbon-cutting day, February 16.

“It has the perfect multiuse mix,” said John Connelly who came up from Falmouth with his wife for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. He ice skied in, which is skiing like an ice-skater, from side to side to gain speed and momentum. “The trail has the width to ice ski, it’s great.”

Despite brushing fresh snow off her ski pants from a slight fall, Nicole Connelly also praised the trail, “I love it, even though I did a digger.”

The well-groomed trail that meanders through the woods, by a river and a waterfall, is a comfortable journey. For the adventurer who wishes a workout, the different paths that converge at the hut complex provide different workout levels. The direct trail had just the right mix of modest hills and turns that kept people smiling, despite the ten-degree temperature, and gave families a great time outside in nature.

“I’m hot,” said Sarah Daly, snowshoeing with her father and sister; the night before they had spent in a trail hut. “It was a blast. We stayed up all night and played games.”

The main hut includes a community lounge, kitchen/dinning area, showers, bathroom facilities, and lodging for up to four staff members. Three adjacent cabins are equipped with bunk beds and can accommodate over 40 guests. The Poplar Stream Falls facility, in Carrabassett valley, is the first of a 12-hut network that will be built along what will be a 180-mile recreation corridor stretching from Bethel to Moosehead Lake.

“This is the first chapter of a 12-chapter story. Today is a celebration of community, of people and of special places,” said MHT Executive Director Dave Herring. “We are creating a place for people to recreate in nature. I see it as a special resource, for visitors from Maine and around the world to enjoy responsibly.”

MHT was founded by Mainers who share a vision for preserving Maine’s beautiful, remote areas. Their goal is to preserve some of Western Maine’s best backcountry for the purposes of conservation and environmentally sensitive economic development, and to ensure public access for generations to come.

Larry Warren, a founder of Western Mountains Foundation and visionary of the Huts & Trails system, has worked on this project for over 21 years. “We believe that nature-based tourism, experiential education, and quality destination resort facilities will create significant opportunities. It is already. Last night kids were just sitting around here playing games like scrabble while parents looked on. They were having a ball. I feel great about it,” said Warren (photo below).

As for the next step, “We’ve been working closely with LURC for approval of the next hut on Flagstaff Lake. The strong support of a lot people is making this project happen. We’ve raised $5.5 million, 95 percent of that from private philanthropy. This movement started from just a PowerPoint presentation. Now that we have evidence of what it’s all about,” he said gesturing to the hut, “we are optimistic we will be able to succeed with more fund raising for the future. Now we are in a position where we can demonstrate we can deliver.”

Warren’s vision didn’t materialize overnight. It took years of planning, research, dedication, negotiations, building relationships, and a steadfast belief that the project would help Western Maine’s communities in a myriad of positive ways, preserving the Western Mountain experience for generations to come.

“In the planning of this Maine Huts & Trails we spent a lot of time with the Appalachian Mountain Club, The Tenth Mountain Division huts system out in Colorado. We had the managers of the Milford Track in New Zealand come here. We had Martin Grimnes of Harbor Technologies in Brunswick consult us on the trails in Norway. He showed us what’s going on and how significant this kind of trail system is to Norway. We’ve identified that the huts are the cutting edge of creating interest for nature-based tourism and an ecotourism model that can benefit communities that have the opportunity of having year-round, seasonal outdoor activities. It ties together all of Western Maine’s sporting camp communities, all of Western Maine’s classic cross-country skiing activities, all of Western Maine’s alpine ski communities. What it does is, rather than have these communities compete, we now have a common resource to rally around, promote, and to share a customer base, whether it’s in-state or out of state.”

That thought was echoed by Greg Drummond of Claybrook Mountain Lodge. “Now that it is happening I can see how great a benefit it will be to the local economy. It’s far better to have people who used to compete working together. This could be big.”

Ecotourism is on the rise and a key component to the state’s economic development. According to the Maine Office of Tourism, in 2004 visitors to Maine generated $13.6 billion in sales of goods and services, 176,600 jobs, and $3.8 billion in total payroll. Tourism is Maine’s largest industry. Governor Baldacci’s Council on Maine’s Quality of Place recommended establishing an interstate trail system that would connect all the trails communities have started up around the state into a statewide, interconnected system.

“As you can see it’s not just a cabin in the woods. It’s about environmentally sensitive economic development in the state, education, and outdoor recreation,” said Chairman of MHT Bob Peixotto at the ribbon cutting. “Today you can ski 15 miles between here and Flagstaff Lake. Every time I’m out on this trail I see cars in the parking lot and people on the trail and I know we have created a new resource. We conservatively estimate 400 people have used the trail, so far.”

The project has already involved the local community. The wood for the tables made for the MHT dinning area was forested by sustainable methods and crafted by a local business, W. Mitchell of Farmington.

“They said they had someone working on them for the last six or seven months,” said Peixotto. “We want to continue to stimulate the economy. We’ve provided significant construction for the area, spending around $750,000 in the local communities, buying goods and services. Starting this year we will be working with local schools, getting students out on the trails, learning about their surroundings while getting healthy. They will be learning the natural history, flora and fauna of the region, and the stories of people who have lived in the Western Mountains for generations . . . The hut is also a model of environmentally sensitive economic development with a self-sustaining hydro-energy power system, solar panels and composting toilets.”

Two more huts will follow to create a 4-season, 36-mile, 3-hut complex destination by the summer of 2008. Eight more will be built to complete the 180-mile journey through Maine’s wilderness. State government officials were on hand for the first hut’s ribbon cutting at Poplar Stream Falls and have taken an active interest in the project. The governor’s son, Jack Baldacci, skied in for the event.

The Appalachian Mountain Club’s hut system in New Hampshire generates an estimated $70 million annually for its White Mountain communities. Once finished the MHT system is conservatively expected to have at least a $50 million impact for the Western Mountains.

Last September Governor Baldacci asked, “What’s not to like about this project?” MHT is growing Maine in the right way for a sustainable future in ecotourism, preserving Maine’s quality of life while bringing in significant tourism revenue.

“We think with the opportunity to promote nature-based tourism with an ecotourism model could be significant not only on a statewide basis but on a national and an international basis,” said Warren. “We think it will put Maine on the map.”

Prices for staying overnight begin at $55. Hearty, delicious, home-cooked meals are available, made fresh on the premises.

For more information and to make reservations call:

(877) ME-HUT2HUT or e-mail lodging@mainehuts.org.

Maine Huts & Trials practices environmental stewardship—

With the opening of the first hut at Poplar Stream Falls not only has Maine Huts & Trails (MHT) started a unique trail system that incorporates sustainable forestry practices, MHT has also created an environmentally friendly home-energy system.

“For so long western Maine has been valued on a per-cord basis—what’s the stumpage worth? Well the Maine woods, the trees, the forest, the experience, is worth a lot more than the value of the stumpage. Sustainable forestry doesn’t have to compromise the forest products industry. With nature-based tourism, they can work together,” said Larry Warren, founder of MHT. On the morning of the MHT Poplar Stream Falls hut opening, Warren and his family skied into the site from Flagstaff, on land where MHT uses sustainable forestry practices. “We’ve leased a corridor from the Penobscot Indians that’s a 100-foot bumper on either side. Now, just outside that area, there are logging operations working. You don’t see it from the trail but they are there. The experience we had skiing in from Flagstaff this morning was second to none, peaceful, serene, exhilarating. We couldn’t tell there were logging operations happening. The revenue opportunities of the Penobscot Indians have been significantly enhanced with what we pay in lease fees. The trees that fall due to natural circumstances are cleared away, keeping the trail fresh. It’s a win-win situation.”

Because of the growing awareness nationally about global warming, more consumers are looking for wood products that have been forested with sustainable practices. Many of these homeowners are also searching for alternative methods for heat. Unlike 80 percent of homes in Maine that rely on one source of energy, oil, for heat, the MHT system has multiple systems that work together, or separately if need be, to supply all the hut’s complex energy needs.

“If we need to burn wood we have a furnace. The water is also heated by solar panels and a mini hydro-system. The hydro-system is an 800-foot turbine that takes water from the stream. That produces about five kilowatts of electricity which powers all our lights; the battery pack stores the energy, and additional coils go into the hot-water tank. When we don’t have enough hydro, perhaps when the stream freezes up, then we use the other systems. So we have a lot of different systems that work together to produce all our energy needs,” said the architect John Orcutt.

When you enter the main building, it’s hard to tell where the heat is coming from, for it surrounds you evenly. There are no visible radiators and no draft, for the building is insulated as tight as a drum. The main secret to the even heat is literally underfoot. “The gasification boiler is stocked up once a day, and it heats the water that is fed into pipes that heat the floor by radiant heat,” said Orcutt. “The toilet system here is a self-composting system. There’s no septic system required; once a year we take out a bushel of ash in terms of waste. And that’s all there is to it.”

Not everyone will be able to afford or have the access to a stream for a hydro-system but many of the other components that make the self-sustaining, energy efficient hut system can be incorporated into average homes and businesses across the state.

“The solar panels were about a thousand dollars. If people have a water source to do the hydro, in the long run it would be worth it. We’re off the grid. We’d like this to become a model,” said Orcutt. “We want to start educational tours. Schools, people who want to do something like this in their own residences, or businesses could come and see how it all functions. And we could help people by giving them the information they need to know about how to do this.”

Orcutt’s designs look as though nature planed on the buildings to be where they were constructed. The roofs reach up to the sky like pine trees. The complex itself is like a cluster of trees. Inside the buildings, wood is everywhere, and its fresh, light varnish is uplifting. Wide windows allow the sun to stream in, warming each room. Modestly, Orcutt gives credit for the design and functionality of the hut system to all the board members. “It really was a team effort; we discussed it together at every stage of the development,” he said.

“We were very careful about the siting of the buildings, removing as few trees as possible, making sure that we’re in a situation that drains well, that doesn’t create any environmental negatives at all. Everything here is meant to complement the natural surroundings. How the sun comes into the site plays a pivotal role,” said Orcutt. “The entire trail system is designed the same way, using what nature has given us to work with, using the drainage that is there and the topography that is there. We’re really environmental stewards.”