By Roland Leiser and Ed Kreuser
OK, it’s a bit of a journey to get here but diehard cross-country skiers will find Nordic nirvana at The Birches, a rustic resort in Maine’s north woods. One of the state’s 25 cross-country ski areas, according to the Maine Office of Tourism, The Birches provides 35 miles of groomed trails on 11,000 privately-owned acres bordering giant Moosehead Lake.
Remote yet easily accessible, the area is known for reliable snow cover, says John Willard, president, whose family has owned the property since 1970. That’s a plus for eastern skiers ready and willing to make the trip. In the past 33 years, there was only one February in which the trails lacked snow and this happened for only three to four days, he remembers.
What sets The Birches apart is that it offers X-C skiing to overnight lodges known as yurts in the remote areas of the forest. A yurt, for the uninitiated, is an enclosed heated shelter for up to four persons, but more on that in a moment.
The Overlook yurt, an easy 1.2 miles, is the nearest to the main lodge but for longer trips, intermediate skiers head for the Three Sisters yurt about 2.4 miles away or the Poplar Hill yurt on Brassua Lake, about 5.3 miles distant. The yurt’s design originated in far-off central Asia where nomads would build a lattice framework and cover it with animal skins. The Birches’ version is a five-sided structure with a canvas cover, a skylight, a wooden floor and a wood door. For an overnight visit, we ventured out to the Poplar Hill yurt, which contained a bunk bed, a futon with sheets and blankets, picnic table and a wood-burning stove for heat. An outdoor toilet, the non-flushable kind, is nearby.
Yurts are available for both day and overnight trips and it’s possible to spend an entire visit skiing from yurt to yurt and staying the night in each one. Some visitors actually do that and return to the lodge “almost daily for meals and or showers and hot tubs,” Willard explains.
Typically, a resort employee on a snowmobile precedes the overnight visitor with the skiers’ luggage and sleeping bags (required). He prepares the evening meal and leaves snacks for the morning. A propane gas stove is available to make coffee. The yurts are 16 feet across side to side and nine feet high in the center. General manager Roland Seavey recalls a family that “loaded up a pile of suitcases” for a simple overnight visit and he still laughs about it. You don’t need to bring much.
The yurt excursions attract from 100 to 125 visitors a year, largely “camping types who like the quiet and enjoy being alone,” Willard says. Women X-C skiers usually visit in groups. Sunday through Thursday is ideal for skiers since the resort is popular with sno
wmobilers on weekends. February, March and early April are best months for skiing because January tends to be cold, really cold. In other recreation options, visitors can rent snowshoes and head out on the trails or try downhill skiing at Big Squaw mountain 15 miles away.
The resort’s 16 trails are appropriate for all skill levels. If visitors want to learn how to ski, The Birches will provide instruction and rentals (Fischer and Salomon equipment). Once the kick and glide technique is down pat, you can actually ski up trails that pitch slightly downward. During our four-day visit in March, we did gradual uphills and downhills and some flats but our favorite was the 2.5 mile-long Baker Trail. Densely forested at the outset, it recalled the trail at low elevations on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.
The resort’s grooming machines flatten the trails on one side and carve two parallel tracks on the other. Another option, good for bragging rights, is to ski the mile across frozen Moosehead Lake from the shore to Mt. Kineo. This past winter the lake froze to a depth of more than three feet. That was strong enough to support the weight of snowmobiles and drivers, not to speak of Willard’s 1,180 pound ski-equipped Piper aircraft.
A forestry graduate, he identified the trees in his vast domain as white pine, hemlock, birch, maple, ash, fir and spruce. On other nature topics, we observed lots of animal tracks but except for a squirrel or chipmunk, we never saw anything big. Our guide pointed out moose and deer tracks but we never sighted any of the animals.
Generally, the trails are easy to follow but we found a sign or two at junctions that were unclear and confusing. Excellent new trail maps have been printed and new trail signs will be posted this summer. Unfortunately, the moose rub their horns on the signs and signposts and damage them, according to Willard.
Since The Birches also caters to snowmobilers with miles of dedicated trails, we could hear an occasional sound of engines. And there are some places where X-C ski and snowmobile trails cross. If Willard catches a snowmobiler on a X-C trail, he gets really….well, this is a family-viewed Web site. To maintain services for the X-C skiers, he needs snowmobilers. Without them, he says, The Birches could not survive as a X-C only resort. Snowmobilers account for 70 percent of the resort’s business and X-C skiers or people who ice-fish on the lake about 30 percent.
If skiing to a yurt isn’t your thing, visitors can ski the trails during the day and return to the resort afterwards. Lodging includes 15 cabins plus rooms in the main lodge with a shared bath. In the cabins, guests can prepare their own meals in a full kitchen and purchase groceries in Rockwood, two miles away. Our cabin included on the first level, a bedroom, kitchen and full bath, a heater and wood-burning stove and the second level contained two beds and a half bath. Cabins range in size from one to four bedrooms.
A winter package meal plan includes breakfast and dinner in the lodge’s restaurant, which serves up excellent dishes with a gourmet touch. There is a comfortable lobby with a 30-inch TV and a sitting room with fireplace. In the winter peak season (Jan. 16-March 15), a two-bedroom cabin for four persons will cost $145 per night weekdays and $173 per night on weekends and holidays. Travel agent bookings are accepted. A yurt trip is $139 a person a night including equipment rentals. For sore muscles, guests can utilize the lodge’s outdoor hot tub and indoor sauna; Willard has built an 18 by 60 foot fitness center scheduled to open in May.
Different options are available to reach the resort. Fly to Bangor, Augusta or Portland and rent a car. We rode Amtrak’s night train (the Twilight Shoreliner) between Washington, D.C. and Boston, which included checked baggage service. In Boston, we changed to the Portland-bound Downeaster, arriving mid-day.
After a short bus ride to the airport, we rented a car for the 174-mile, four-hour drive to the resort. Rail travelers must transfer from Boston’s South Station to the North Station to board the Downeaster but Amtrak is considering a shuttle between the two stations.
Rockwood, ME 04478-0041
Credit cards accepted.
Maine Office of Tourism: www.visitmaine.com
Amtra: www.amtrak.com 1-800-USA RAIL (to bypass recorded message say “agent”)
Author Roland is a veteran travel journalist and Ed, a retired Foreign Service officer, is beginning a travel writing career.