nordic skiing illustration

Out of the Cold

After a difficult year, my son and I headed into the wilderness and found what we needed most: each other.

At the sight of the first hill, my stomach dropped. If this were a downhill ski resort, it would make for a sweet bunny slope. But this was the edge of Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness and we were on cross-country skis, my little boy and I. There was no chance we’d be making elegant turns down it. Even the beginner pizza-pie method of going down a hill wasn’t easy on a dull-edged set of light Nordic skis. I was already nervous about making him ski nearly 8 miles into our lodging for the night. Was I going to get one of us seriously hurt within sight of the parking lot?

I looked over at him. He had just turned 10, and was wearing a Baltimore Ravens hat: purple, polyester, and probably not keeping his head particularly warm. But his dad lives in Baltimore, and my boy loves that team. The temperature was in the low 20s and dropping along with the sun. Even our big woolly Goldendoodle, Gryffindor, looked cold. Dolan had skied with me a handful of times in the previous couple of years, mostly on flat coastal trails back home in Midcoast Maine, and, mostly, with limited enthusiasm. He had some understanding that this was the deepest into the Maine wilderness I’d ever gone in my 50 years. He had no idea that this was the biggest hill I’d ever tried to go down on Nordic skis.

“So,” I said, stabbing the snow with my ski pole. It was deep and packed, the perfect snow if you wanted to go fast. “Take it easy and don’t be afraid to let yourself fall if you start to get anxious. Use your poles to slow yourself down.”

His blue eyes took it all in. There was not a soul in sight, just low cloud cover and a frozen quiet.

mary and her sonIt was the first day of spring, which seems like a karmic joke, but entirely keeping with the awful winter we’d endured, weather-wise and personally. The vista in front of us, hills half dark with evergreen, half white with snow, was a dreamscape of winter. We’d had so much snow so far in 2015 that our destination, Little Lyford Lodge & Cabins, had prolonged its winter season an extra week to capitalize on last-minute bookers like us. Normally the staff would be kicking back, taking a little time off before the true spring season began in May.

The Appalachian Mountain Club—a conservation and outdoor recreation organization—owns about 70,000 acres and three lodges, including Little Lyford, in and around the legendarily back-and-knee-breaking last big stretch of the Appalachian Trail known as the 100-Mile Wilderness. For thru-hikers on the AT, that means no roads, no cars, no safety net, nowhere to buy a Gatorade or restock on granola. In the winter, these trails are passable only by snowshoe, ski, and snowmobile. We’d dropped our bags at a hut next to the parking lot, and shortly, one of the staff members from Little Lyford would arrive via a snowmobile equipped with a trailer, pick up our bags—stuffed with bedding and more warm clothing—and zip them out to our cabin. We just had to get ourselves there.

I reached behind me to make sure I had put our water bottles in the side pockets of my backpack. With nearly 8 miles ahead of us, we’d get thirsty. Then I looked up to see Dolan shooting down the hill. No attempt to slow down, no screams of terror—he just went for it. I kicked off and followed. At the bottom, we grinned at each other in the cold.

This whole cross-country skiing business had been my thing, the way I walked the dog in winter and got my exercise, but I wanted Dolan to experience it as I had, a fleet-footed way to explore a wilderness that might otherwise be closed off to us. Snow had a way of smoothing out the woods, making easy paths where there were none. It drew me in like the ocean in the summer. I wanted him to feel that way, to see no limits in it.

I was born in Maine, and lived there until I went to college. But then, for close to 25 years, I spent only a few summers and mostly long vacations there. In my 20s, I fell in love with the California landscape and thought for some time that I might never move back to Maine, or only when I was very old. I would tell people in Northern California that Maine was beautiful but a little tame: the coastline gentler, the hills softer, life less exciting.

I may have talked down to my home state somewhat. Indeed, I may have known nothing at all. Because I had never even seen Moosehead Lake until the drive here, when Dolan and I came down the last stretch of Route 15 toward its southernmost tip. Maine’s biggest lake was, as Henry David Thoreau wrote upon seeing it in 1853, “a suitably wild-looking sheet of water, sprinkled with small, low islands, which were covered with shaggy spruce and other wild wood.”

I felt pulled north with a desire to see the lake in its entirety. But to get to AMC’s conservation lands and its network of lodges, one enters Greenville and immediately takes a right out of town, passing a series of quaint Victorians and then soon bumping along a dirt road for 11 miles to the trailhead. I was planning on using M&M’s as a lure for Dolan, but the company of our dog would be the ultimate encouragement. Gryff never gets tired, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

Dolan and Gryffindor on the trail to Little Lyford

It turned out I didn’t need lures or enticements. We stayed on the groomed main trail, which is rated as the least-challenging way into Little Lyford—the distance is the hard part—and is wide enough for snowmobiles. We hadn’t seen a single snowmobile yet when we stopped for our first snack. Suddenly, we heard a series of yipping sounds, which lifted into a chorus. Gryff went into high alert. I’d heard coyotes out west, but never so many at once. And there we were, small boy and mother, on skis.

“What is that?” Dolan asked.

“Coyotes,” I said, trying to sound blasé when all I could think was, Are they going to tear my beloved dog apart in front of us? I loved The Call of the Wild, but I wasn’t eager to live out a scene from it in front of my son. “Sounds as though they’re hunting. Maybe they got a deer,” I said as I tucked the candy back into the backpack. “Let’s move it along, shall we?”

We skied as fast as we could until we couldn’t hear the yipping anymore. I skied behind Dolan, protectively, and admired the way he was kicking. No slowing down, no whining, just steady progress toward our goal. The only timeline we were on was beating nightfall and reaching Little Lyford in time for 6 p.m. dinner. We passed signs for Gulf Hagas, a gorge often described as the “Grand Canyon of the East.” The wide trail we were on, the Katahdin Iron Works Road, continued farther on to the east. If we had more time, we could have skied along it all the way to a charcoal kiln and blast furnace that are the only remnants of a once-booming iron works deep in the Maine woods. Opened in 1843, Katahdin Iron Works employed 400 people at its peak. It closed in 1890 and has been a historic site since 1965.

We passed snowmobilers who seemed to be coming from that direction. It was nice to spot people, but there was also something slightly daunting about how small we were in comparison, just two humans on pairs of wooden sticks. The riders lifted gloved hands at us, nodding slightly beneath their layers of swaddling. I was relieved soon after when our directions took us off of the big “road” and onto trails where snowmobiles were forbidden. Here, we passed families coming out and a few couples. “Only about another mile!” one shouted out to us. Instantly, I relaxed. We’d hit that point on a journey where you know you can outrun trouble, where you stop feeling so alone and start to re-enter, for lack of a better term, civilization.

I leave every campsite relaxed, happy, and saying, Next time, we have to go for twice as long.

I’d never even considered driving 120 miles inland to go cross-country skiing; coastal Maine is full of beautiful, accessible trails. But I started noticing photos on social media of acquaintances’ trips into AMC’s Maine wilderness area. I’d seen photos of women I admired but didn’t know well with their sons, all about Dolan’s age, leaning on their ski poles, looking hardy and happy. Those pink-cheeked sons and sporty moms had made me wistful for both that kind of camaraderie and my own backcountry experience.

Sometimes being a single mother can be lonely, and often, it is draining. I never want to be the kind of parent who passes up an adventure because the responsibility lies with me to get us prepared, out the door, and into a well-packed car. I leave the driveway for every camping trip exhausted from planning and telling myself I don’t have to do this. And then I leave every campsite relaxed, happy, and saying, Next time, we have to go for twice as long.

But in winters, we tend to hunker down, focusing on Dolan’s hockey practices and games and the mundane questions of winter, like one big shovel after a storm, or one at the midpoint and another at the end? We’d had rough winters before, like the one where I shattered my wrist and needed surgery, or the one where our bathtub fell through the floor of our 1875 farmhouse-style home. But this one had been particularly brutal. The year before, I’d finally let down my protective barrier, the one that kept me from dating in any serious way since Dolan had been born, and just after the new year, we’d found out together that my choice had been, to put it mildly, a bad one. Both Dolan and I had been hurt, he, in his innocence and longing for a nuclear family, perhaps even more than I had. Right around the same time, we’d had one of those heating system disasters that Mainers live in fear of, the kind where pipes freeze, boilers crack, and you’re suddenly Googling to find out exactly what the penalties are for tapping into your retirement account.

But we were getting through it, and I was conscious—as we shushed along together in happy tandem, whooping on the downhills and huffing together on the uphills—that every glide into the woods represented a journey back to our unit of two, to our mother-and-son team.

We were elated by the time we began the descent into Little Lyford, and as we saw the tiny village awaiting us, that joy only grew. There was a bunkhouse, a chalet-style dining hall, and then a row of small log cabins. Dolan rode a plastic toboggan all the way down the path to land just in front of our cabin, Wolf Star. It turned out to have been a favorite of a man named George Bliss, who spent the better part of 26 hunting seasons at Little Lyford in the first half of the 20th century. (AMC bought Little Lyford in 2003, when it was just beginning its major conservation and recreation effort, the Maine Woods Initiative, but for most of the century, it was a private sporting camp.) We rushed to try out the sauna, grabbing the last open time slot before a simple but delicious dinner, and were in bed, warm and cozy in front of the woodstove in Wolf Star, before 9 p.m. No phones, no iPads, nothing but books and the dog curled up at our feet and a tired, fulfilled contentment.

We vowed to come back the next year, even after we skied out the next day in conditions that teetered on dangerous: 8 degrees, with winds gusting to 30 mph. We took with us the memories of how our water bottles froze in our packs. How we didn’t stop to eat our lunches at all because it was too cold. How we conquered a twisty, hilly route back that was geared toward expert Nordic skiers. And we’ve kept that vow. There was the year we skied out in the rain, feeling like the snow might vanish into puddles under our feet before we got to the car, the year we skied for nearly an hour in the dark, arriving just as the friendly staff put dinner on the table. What new memories will await us this year? I know only these things: At the end will be the big hill, and we will have to go up it, steadily, together, knowing we can do it.


Mary Pols is a feature writer for the Portland Press Herald. Share your own family memories with her at marypols@gmail.com.

Illustration by Marc Aspinall; photography courtesy of Mary Pols

Originally Published March 2018