Schuss, hooo, chunk.
Schuss, hooo, chunk.
The rhythm was everything - the sound, the center, the soul of the forest I skied through.
I gave as much thought to my breathing as I do when I’m tapping in front of a screen, but my body knew what to do. After five minutes it synced lungs with limbs, punctuating the slip of a ski and punch of a pole with the huff of breath that would keep the beat going.
Take away all that’s not needed, and what remains, grows. Absence enlarges everything in the Maine woods in winter: bare ground, bare trees, buried rivers and rocks, the world reduced to frozen waves of white and the gray skeletons of trees that lined my way.
I stopped, looked up, and saw the slice of sky that mirrored my path - a blue so bright it looked stripped from the middle of some late summer day. My breath slowed, stilled, and in the moment it matched the silence, I heard the distant laughter of my friends echoing down the trail.
Eleven of us were winding our way through four days in the 100 Mile Wilderness, generally considered the wildest section of the 2000+ mile long Appalachian Trail. We were doing it the “easy” way, making use of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s groomed lodge-to-lodge trail network between Gorman Chairback and Little Lyford lodges. But though the snowmobile-supported trip kept our packs light, our itinerary wasn’t. Six or seven miles of skiing or snowshoeing a day meant we were in for a workout before we had the chance to squeeze into one of our cabins for happy hour each afternoon.
My wife Dana and I had happily signed on to our friend Dick’s 50th birthday ski-tour in the same woods a year before. A passionate outdoor enthusiast with a penchant for planning, Dick had shepherded us both over most of New Hampshire’s 4000+ foot peaks, so when we he offered to extend his services to organize another trip to the wilds of our home state this winter, we came out of hibernation again.
Still, at 53, I’m always looking for an easy entry into any outdoor venture, and this year, I got my wish. All week long our group had traded worried emails and weather reports as the temperatures in Portland neared 50 each day. We’d eyed the landscape nervously during the three hour drive north, willing the white patches that lined the road to grow till they covered the land. Finally, just east of Greenville, we found the pocket of peaks and pines that had been hiding winter from the rest of the state. We stepped out of our cars at the trailhead onto packed snow under clear skies, and geared up in the crisp, 20 degree air. A mile of skiing on the wide-open Katahdin Ironworks Road was just the thing to work out the car-kinks before we turned onto the Trout Brook Trail.
Years on the trail have taught me that any large group expedition works best when the troops are given free reign, allowing each member to find their pace or adjust it to whomever they want to hang with for awhile. Dana and I found ours on Trout Brook with our oldest friends, Hutch and Mary. Hutch and I met in art school before the dawn of the digital age, cranking our Who LPs while we scribbled away our days with sticks of charcoal on newsprint pads. The distance between those days and the one on Trout Brook disappeared with the first dip in the trail, an effortless mile-and-a-half swath of snow that descended in the gentle series of turns that brought us to the western edge of Long Pond.
After the serpentine tunnel of Trout Brook, the three-mile ski across the pond felt like a glide across the moon. In that wide, white expanse we skied four abreast, trading news of our kids’ lurches into adulthood and burnishing the shared stories of our past. Level ground brought out the best in us, the flat pond the perfect surface for us to stretch, kick and glide, and to skate away from the cares that crowded to define our lives back home.
We followed the AMC’s surreal blazes, a line of thin pines planted in the ice that led all the way to the banks of Gorman Chairback’s grounds. I pushed as hard as I could to stay in front of Aubrey, Dick’s 15 year old daughter who led the others in our group who’d caught us a mile from the lodge. An hour later we were uncorking bottles at Conrad and Maria’s cabin, then gorged on pasta in the lodge before passing out cold by eight o’clock. When I went to the pond’s edge in the middle of the night I let my gaze drift across the water, then turned my eyes to a blue-black sky dusted with a shower of stars. Then one ignited, scribing a thin white arc into the night as it fell - a small gift I carried with me back into the cabin and my dreams.
Schuss, hooo, chunk.
The gang caught up with me the next day on the wooded trail to Little Lyford. I’d brought my notebook and a paperback, but my thoughts of an easy afternoon of reflection ended when I heard the guys were going for a hike after we settled in at the lodge. At 2341 feet, Indian Mountain is only half the height of many of the peaks Dana and I tackled each summer, but the day was more than half over when I finally strapped on my snowshoes with Dick, Hutch and Conrad. The trail up the mountain was well worn in the packed snow, a small blessing, since the sun had dropped on the other side of the mountain, leaving our side dark and cold.
None of us mentioned it, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt my testosterone spike when we hit the trail without the women. My three companions were in excellent shape, so I took the easy way out. Rather than try to keep up with them, I took the lead after we made a brief stop and pushed as hard as I could to put some distance between us. It was juvenile, of course, but at the end of a long day I had neither the energy nor inclination to banter with my buddies while I stomped up the hill. The truth was, I was less than happy to be there. I’d come along simply because I couldn’t bear to be the only guy left lounging in camp; it was simply easier for me to wound my body than my pride.
When I broke out of the woods on the summit’s Western Vista, however, my view changed. Horseshoe Pond shimmered below me, echoed by a half dozen smaller silver-white ponds nestled in the valley at Indian’s base. The rolling hills were more brown than white, but they faded towards blue as they disappeared into the distant mountains that spilled away to the north. There wasn’t one right angle in that panorama; no road or building to break the sweep of snow, hills and sky. Maybe it was simply the realization that it was all downhill from there, or the sudden warmth from the lateral light that lit my face when I crested the last rise on the trail, but I think mostly it was the absence of manmade things in that raw place that opened something inside me. I could almost feel the flutter of its release within my chest, some winged thing I never knew I’d carried up that peak, that woke and broke from me before soaring into the last light of the setting sun.
A minute later Hutch and Dick were by my side. I resisted the urge to embrace them, swallowed, and stepped back to make room on the small exposed ledge. They turned to catch the end of the day for a moment, then swapped cameras and smiles with me as we tried to capture the view and our mood. We descended and followed Conrad to the side trail he’d taken to Laurie’s Ledge. The view directly below us wasn’t quite as spectacular as the Western Vista, but the real show was much farther away.
My friendship with Hutch had been one of the twin magnets that pulled me north to live in Maine so many years ago. I saw the other from my perch on Laurie’s Ledge, where it hovered like a blue ghost on the horizon. Mt. Katahdin was 60 miles away, but it still dwarfed everything in that land. I could see the rocky peaks and ridges I’d climbed for thirty years, now blanketed in snow. It looked foreign and familiar - the solid gray granite wall I’d studied for so many hours from the banks of the ponds it shadowed in August was something different when viewed from the distance of the north woods in winter. There, and then, my steadfast old friend was faint and frozen - a white-capped wave of blue so pale it almost vanished into the sky.
Of course the hour before dinner that night was twice as happy after the extra miles we’d put in that day. We drank and shared our story around the wood stove, but it was the women who really warmed us while they let us crow about our ascent. We didn’t talk much shop. We were here to turn from vocations to avocations, and though writing was the former for Maria, and the latter for me, she was generous enough to indulge me when I brought the subject up. She was just about to publish her third novel while I was still struggling to revise the mess I dreamed might be my first. Maria seemed to understand when I told her that I was less interested in being published than simply crafting a piece that matched my vision for it. She listened closely, than shared a simple line that speaks to just where I am in my writing life, and just where that life might lead. “Honor your apprenticeship,” she said.
We drained our glasses before moving to the main lodge to feast on the AMC’s hearty helpings for the third night in a row. By then we’d gotten used to being pampered by the tireless and cheery staff, who ferried bowls of soup and vegetables and platters of meat to our tables throughout our long and noisy meals. It turned out we’d need that nights fuel for our longest day on the trail.
“Optional” was how Dick had advertised the next day’s trek to Gulf Hagas, the three mile long gorge cut by the west branch of the Pleasant River. But not even Aubrey, or her BFF Emily (who had skied in with her parents, John and Sue, the day before) wanted to miss the chance to see the “Grand Canyon of Maine.” I’d hit the trail in the Whites with Emily before, but was really just getting to know John and Sue on this trip. As we skied and spoke together, that happened quickly. As usual, new friendships grew more quickly when they were planted outdoors.
After a quick ski down to the Head of the Gulf Trail we planted our skis in the snow and buckled into our snowshoes for our hike to the start of the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail. The slower pace of snowshoe travel changed the group’s dynamics, keeping us closer together as we tramped deeper into the woods. We climbed a ridge and stopped for lunch along our first wide open view of the gulf. We wolfed sandwiches while looking down upon the frozen river, a long white ribbon that wound through the gray slate cliffs that lined it on either side. Here and there its smooth surface was pocked with black inkblots where the snow had melted, but the water was still glazed with a sheet of ice that screened the rushing current below. Looking at the freshet framed within one of those white-framed windows was like a glimpse into some other time: a warm spring day a month or millennia in the future or past when the river boiled cold with the rush of melted snow drained from the peaks that lined its course. It was a sparkling reminder of the fullness of that moment: a reservoir holding all that came before and after that fleeting instant on the ledge.
We played peek-a-boo with the gorge for the next hour or two, hiking up and down the serrated rim trail until we turned back into the woods. The hike back was long, and I struggled with the bindings of my snowshoes before I finally kicked them off and tucked them under an arm. Then I did what I do at the end of any long day on the trail: put my head down and tried not to think about the distance between myself and home. But I lifted it at the sound that floated to me from the woods. The two teens may have been at the back of the pack, but you could hear them a mile away. Aubrey and Emily came out of the forest singing in unison at the top of their lungs and put the smile back on each weary face. I felt as young as them by the time we came to the sign at the top of the hill that marked the entry to Little Lyford. Then I tucked low with my friends as we laughed and sailed on our skis down the long sloping road back to camp.
Tired as we were, we stayed in the lodge long after the crew had cleared the tables and gone to bed, playing games, raising glasses, and maybe just a bit of hell on our last night in the wild. When I got up later that night the fuzzy haze of my dreams seemed to frame the world outside. Then I realized the edge of every cabin and tree had grown soft from fresh falling snow.
It was still snowing when we toed-in for our final ski out after breakfast, but our path that day was the wide white highway of the Katahdin Ironworks road. The open space seemed to energize us, each skier spreading out to find the pace they preferred for the three hour journey back to our cars. I skied with Hutch for all of twenty minutes before he found his. He must have had an hour on me by the time I climbed the final long, cruel hill to the lot. I think Conrad, Maria and Dana might even have forgiven me by then. I’d looked at the map and led them up an even longer hill an hour earlier before Conrad finally turned us around.
The last of the snow was gone from my yard when Dick dropped Dana and I off at the end of that day. I put my skis in the garage and wondered whether or not they’d be out again this year. If not, it’s okay. I’ll be the first to crow over the first crocus that pokes its purple head through the brown grass of my lawn in a month. And I’ll embrace everything that comes after it, hiking and biking and paddling through the bright green flash of another summer in Maine. But all the time, I’ll have an eye on next year.
Because what Maine’s north woods offer in winter is white space, an empty world full of promise for anyone willing to brace themselves against the cold and to lean into that land. A place to race the wind and setting sun instead of the things we fear will overtake us, or slip forever from our grasp. A place to earn the kind of comfort that comes only when comfort is abandoned for the chance to test ourselves. A place where no summer day will ever feel as warm as a winter night by the fire with friends.