One sign you’ve picked the right time for a snowshoe getaway in Maine is when you’re greeted by Olympia Snowe as you arrive in the state. Not U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine but her namesake, a 122-foot tall snow-woman looming over the town of Bethel. There she was, beaming with her snow tire eyes, batting her eyelashes made out of skis, and waving her arm, which was a 15-foot spruce tree. There was more than enough snow to make Olympia the tall curvy and proud snow-woman she was. This certainly boded well for snowshoeing.
And this was in Bethel, just over the New Hampshire border. In the four hours it took to drive to drive beyond Bethel to The Birches resort on remote Moosehead Lake, the snow cover got deeper and deeper.
It was Easter weekend, late March, and Maine was still reeling from one of its toughest winters in memory. Through Rumford, Farmington, Skowhegan and Dexter, remains of barns and outbuildings that had collapsed under the weight of the snow littered the landscape. The freeze and thaw cycle left the road heaved and wrinkled like a cheap rug. A could have used a bicycle helmet as my truck bucked and banged its way on Route 23 north. Early spring in New England is ugly.
By the time I reached the pretty resort town of Greenville on Moosehead Lake, it was back to midwinter. The snowcover turned gleaming fresh and white, and blew in little whirlwinds beneath signs warning of moose on the highway. The access road to The Birches in Rockwell felt like the base of a canyon, hemmed it as it was by huge snowbanks.
The Birches looks pretty much like I imagine it looked in 1930, when a logger named Oz Faye and his crew built many of the buildings. The main building looks sort of pieced together from the outside. It was surrounded by small log camps that looked at once rustic and comfortable. Faye anticipated people would want vacation retreats deep in the Maine woods.
Oz was right judging by all the snowmobiles buzzing around The Birches when I arrived. Turns out the place is a haven for snowmobile enthusiasts, which makes up the bulk of The Birches winter business.
There was a line of them gassing up in front of the main lodge. Snowmobile trails crisscrossed the woods surrounding The Birches main office and the whine of sleds, as many enthusiast call them, was everywhere. Others blasted across the lake and several used a pressure ridge just offshore on Moosehead Lake to launch themselves airborne. It looked fun.
Amid the din, a skittered down an icy slope, opened a stiff wooden door and into the warm glow of the main office. A few men sat on barstools made of tree trunks, sharing laughs and drinks. A young woman at the front desk directed me to a cabin just 20 feet away from the main office.
It was easy to imagine I was old Oz Faye in the cabin, living alone in the Moosehead Lake woods. It was only as big as many modern living rooms, but you felt at home immediately. A Birches worker had stoked the wood stove and the room glowed with smoky warmth. There was a utilitarian but complete kitchen, some comfortable chairs surrounding the wood stove, a small bathroom and two beds in a bedroom, one of them immense and inviting.
You wanted to curl up with a good book, but there was snowshoeing to do and lots of snow to do it. I quickly gathered my gear and headed out.
First I moved along the shore of Moosehead Lake, but soon got tired of the whine of snowmobiles racing back and forth. I wondered if there was any place to get some peace and quite around here, where the animals aren’t spooked, where I could follow their tracks and hear nothing but the wind.
I needn’t have worried, climbing some gentle hills away from the lake the snowmobile noise faded behind the roar of the trees rocking in a stiff north wind – the remnants of a blizzard the day before. It turns snowmobiles have the run of only a small portion of The Birches
Birches co-owner John Willard Jr. said he deliberately separated snowmobile trails from the cross country and snowmobile trails specifically to get people who want to escape the din of snowmobiles the opportunity to do so. In the summer, Willard said he plans to cut some three-foot wide trails for snowshoers in the winter and single trail mountain bikers in the summer.
The resort is aptly named as the forest consists largely of birches, interspersed with hemlock and spruce. The birches here are not those spindly specimens you see carefully and tastefully placed in front of suburban McMansions. These are solid trees, rocking and rolling and roaring in the wind, their thick trunks intricately patterned in shades of gray. These birches are built Maine tough.
The Birches has 10 miles of cross-country ski trails (shared by snowshoers), but I like to bushwhack, and The Birches has 11,000 acres on which to do so.
Leaving the trail, I went off to find animal tracks. The late season snow was perfect. It was a good four feet deep, so I wasn’t getting tangled up in underbrush. The snow was compacted and hard, aside from a four-inch layer of powder on top, so I glided through the woods, making easy progress.
I found some deer tracks and I followed those. The tracks headed off into some low hemlocks. The animal was maybe trying to find a place to bed down. The tracks looked a little old, so I abandoned those.
Off trail at The Birches, it’s almost impossible to get lost. Mount Kineo loomed to the east across Moosehead Lake, and one can study the bays, points and hills surrounding the lake to get your bearings.
Continuing on through the woods, I’d hoped to find moose tracks but came up empty. I did find the tracks of some small animal that had recently wandered through some underbrush. I followed the animal’s path, which ended abruptly with a small depression in the snow at a relatively open area. Next to the depression was a pattern in the snow, the mark of the wing of maybe a raptor that had swooped down and nabbed the animal. Life and death in the Maine woods.
It was evening now and I was famished. I hustled back to a well-groomed trail and headed back to camp and got ready for dinner. The main dining room is bright and expansive, with a tall roof supported by ancient, thick logs. It was decidedly informal. Most of the guests and diners when I was there were affable snowmobilers. Though sledders, as they sometimes call themselves, predominate.
Office manager Kathy Ladd said even so, the resort gets a fair number of cross-country skiers, and the proportion of snowshoers, particularly women, is rising quickly.
She said I picked the right time of year. Northwestern Maine can be brutally cold in January, sinking to 30 below at times. In March, the cold eases a bit, the snow has often reached its greatest depth of the winter, and there’s more daylight to enjoy the woods.
At was typical in the winter, though the numbers of snowshoers, particularly women, who want to explore the place is growing fast.
In New England, resorts can become too cute, too precious, pretentiously putting on “aren’t we special” airs as they ooze a fake rustic ambience. . The Birches seem immune from that. It might be the clientele, the overall philosophy of the place or something about Moosehead Lake, “The people here are down to earth,” Willard said, referring to both customers and employees
The customers were hungry that Saturday. Snowmobiling or snowshoeing all day in the cold work up an appetite. A group of large men spent much of the evening continually ordered food, cheerfully provided by a pleasant middle aged woman who in her Maine accent took diners’ “ordahs” and offered corn “chowdah.”
The corn chowder maybe could have used a bit more spiciness, but was hearty and satisfying. I had prime rib, ordered medium. It was the first time in ages in any restaurant where the prime rib came just as ordered. Nice and pink on the inside, but not raw either. It was huge and tasty, and I was stuffed by the time I finished. So much so that I passed on dessert.
The meal had me ready for bed – early. It was barely 9 p.m. I wondered if the snowmobiles would keep me up as they were still going full throttle on the lake. But between my fatigue, the coziness of the cabin and the big comfortable bed. I read some of the background on the place,
John Willard Sr. of Manchester Ct. bought The Birches in 1969 . He continued to slowly expand and build the resort, with help from his sons John Jr. and William. The Willards bought 11,000 acres of wilderness surrounding The Birches in 1993, vastly expanded the area guests could explore.
The two sons took over The Birches when Willard retired. The senior Willard died in 2002.
The Birches Resorts have sister companies, Wilderness Expeditions Inc. and Moosehead Wildlands Inc .The various entities ensure that practically any outdoor pursuit is possible at the Birches. Depending on the season, you can whitewater raft, kayaking, take a canoe camping trip, participate in wilderness adventures, take yak excursions, jeep tours, and take seaplane tours on the lake.
The resort remains very much a family operation, with a third generation – John Willard’s teenage children, now working at The Birches. I didn’t read any further. I was out like a light.
Next morning, the wind was still blowing, the snowmobiles were already zipping around and the snow beckoned. Maybe spring would never arrive at The Birches. There were few complaints.
The Birches Resort, 1 Birches Road, P.O. Box 41, Rockwood, Me., 04478