Deep in the Maine woods, eco-friendly huts shelter skiers and hikers

The entrance to Flagstaff Lake Hut, on Flagstaff Lake in western Maine.
The entrance to Flagstaff Lake Hut, on Flagstaff Lake in western Maine. (Maine Huts & Trails)
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By Diane Daniel
Sunday, March 28, 2010

We were looking for a silent, snowy and achingly beautiful winter weekend. Five hours north of Boston, in the western Maine woods, we found it.

Even better, we spent two nights in off-the-grid full-service comfort deep in those woods, thanks to one of the most ambitious environmental projects in the state: the Maine Huts & Trails system, a nascent network of year-round hiking, biking and skiing trails connecting alternative-powered, eco-friendly huts where guests can spend the night.

At the trail head to our destination, Flagstaff Lake Hut (it's really more like a lodge), my husband and I watched in envy as Sue Talhouk and Barry Robinson of Portsmouth, N.H., snowshoed up the 1.8-mile trail pulling their gear-laden sled behind them.

"We saw someone doing it and thought we'd give it a try," said Talhouk, who later deemed their easier-than-backpacking luggage transport a success.

We weren't strong enough skiers to stay upright while carrying gear, so we, too, donned snowshoes. But we had to load ourselves up like pack mules with backpacks that were made even heavier with our skis and poles strapped to them.

The hour-long trek was taxing, but the rewards were many. Glacial blue snow, stands of birch trees blending into the gray sky, bright evergreens punching through the monotone, a woodpecker rat-a-tatting in the trees . And the best? Reaching a lodge surrounded by trees instead of cars.

When we checked in, Brittany Jenkins, one of the three young women running the show that night, paused while rolling out a batch of tortillas for dinner to give us the rundown.

"We're all about conservation," she said. "Please turn lights off when you're not using them, conserve water and only use as much toilet paper as you need to.

"If you need to shower for longer than six minutes, you'll have to put in another quarter," she said, handing us our two free ones.

We had just enough time to unpack, take quarter-length showers and grab cold beers before 6 o'clock dinner. Sitting family style at gorgeous Maine-made dining room tables, the hut's 20 guests shared house-made curried chicken, curried eggplant, tabouli and Jenkins's tortillas. Afterward, most of us followed Jenkins to the basement for a fascinating tour of the energy-saving systems. A wood boiler heats water, solar panels create electricity, geothermal heating keeps the rooms warm, and a state-of-the-art composting toilet system (not remotely stinky) keeps human waste to a minimum.

Both mornings we were thrilled to find fresh snow covering the trees and trails, making for perfect skiing and snowshoeing conditions. The first day, we bolted outside to ski after a hot breakfast. A mercifully flat two-mile trail followed the lakeshore (you can swim in the lake in the summer). We heard only birds, not the usual buzz of snowmobiles.

We met Talhouk and Robinson along the way and compared notes.

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