AMC Medawisla Lodge and Cabins Revisit

The Appalachian Mountain Club’s Maine Lodges offer amazing hospitality in gorgeous woodland settings that can’t be topped for their New England remoteness. After our family first visited Medawisla Lodge and Cabins on the opening weekend in July 2017, I wrote about our adventure.

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I returned this fall for the AMC Board of Directors annual retreat. I won’t hide my bias. I’m a huge supporter of not-for-profit AMC, and I am a big fan of our organization’s legendary mountain hospitality. Our historical strength has been in the mountains of New Hampshire, but we operate through the Appalachian region in New England and the mid-Atlantic. I’m an unabashed champion of the effort to grow our presence in Maine and New York. The resources generated by our lodging operations fund critical mission oriented efforts including conservation advocacy, climate science, outdoor education, land management, and youth opportunities.

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Medawisla is the crown jewel in AMC’s network of Maine lodges, but it isn’t necessarily better than the other two locations. All three, Little Lyford Lodge and Cabins, Gorman Chairback Lodge and Cabins, and Medawisla offer authentic Maine sporting camp experiences, though each one is unique.

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Medawisla is the newest and represents a more modern approach. One example is that each cabin has a propane stove rather than a wood stove. Though off-the-grid, the Medawisla cabins have electric power, including lights and outlets, whereas the cabins at Little Lyford and Gorman have propane lanterns and there is no electricity.

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It had been nearly 14 years since I visited Little Lyford. Back in February 2014 when Debbie and I skied into the camp with AMC friends, it was known as Little Lyford Pond Camps. That wasn’t long after AMC acquired the property, and prior to substantial renovations including the construction of a new lodge.

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Little Lyford was AMC’s  initial recreation hub in the middle of the Maine Woods Initiative, which at the time was a burgeoning broader land conservation effort.

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The AMC website offers a succinct description of our Maine efforts:

The Maine Woods Initiative is the Appalachian Mountain Club’s strategy for land conservation in the 100-Mile Wilderness region. The Initiative is an innovative approach to conservation that combines outdoor recreation, resource protection, responsible forestry, and community partnerships. To date, AMC has purchased and permanently conserved 70,000 acres of forest land, created over 120 miles of recreational trails, opened three sporting camps to the public, established an FSC®-certified responsible forestry operation, and developed a partnership with local Piscataquis County schools. 

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Debbie and I have been AMC volunteers dating back to the early 2000’s, and this is my third year serving as a director. I was thrilled to return to Medawisla and see its improved operations during my favorite season of the year. The foliage in west-central Maine peaked weeks ago, but there was still some color in the trees. Not all the leaves had fallen.

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There was snow on the ground when we arrived, and the Nor’easter that walloped New England on Saturday brought several more inches of the wet white precipitation on Saturday afternoon and evening.

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Last Thursday, I spent the day at work and then in the late afternoon, picked up Dalia at school, and then we went to Windham High School to cheer the Bolton Center School Cross Country Team (Boys and Girls) at their middle school league championships. Shepard is a 6th grader on the team and Debbie is the coach. I was home by 6:30 P.M., packed the car, and hit the road again. I was in Portland by 10:00 P.M. and stopped for the night at my Aunt Terry’s house.

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Terry is always a great host. She didn’t visit Medawisla with us in 2017, but she was with us on the first part of that trip to Baxter State Park. After arriving in Portland, I didn’t stay up long. In the morning, we chatted a bit before I did my regular morning Huddles by phone. I had to answer some emails and do a little project work before we parted company.

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I drove to Greenville and got there in about three hours. I stopped a few times on the way, including once for gas. Each time, I checked my messages and did a little work knowing that once I got to Medawisla, my connection with civilization was going to be a bit weaker.

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Just past Greenville, I stopped at Lily Bay State Park. The gate was closed, but I parked at a turnout a little farther up the main road. I pulled out my bicycle and changed into riding gear. I rode 25 minutes back towards Greenville until I reached the high point where there were great views of Moosehead Lake.

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On the return trip to the car, I made a detour into the park and rode down to the lake’s edge. My ride took 65 minutes and then I hopped back in the car for the final 45 minute drive to Medawisla. I got there about 2:30 P.M. in time for the official start of the meeting.

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The lodge operations have come a long way since that first weekend in 2017. There is an established “croo” and they were awesome. The croo’s cooking was excellent–I’ve never had better food at an AMC facility. At the  Maine lodges, the food itself has become a draw. The staff was very accommodating of my vegan diet. They not only served me sides, but they made unique vegan offerings that mimicked each course served to the omnivores.

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The board meeting itself was very productive and educational. With the Maine theme, we talked a lot about the forest economy and the tourist economy. Both are key to the state’s fortunes. AMC has done a lot to spur economic development in Piscataquis County through sustainable forestry and through recreation. Both efforts are core to our mission.

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We got to hear from expert leaders involved with economic development, forestry investment, higher education, and the outdoor apparel/gear business. We also learned more about the evolution of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. AMC’s focus has been on the 100 Mile Wilderness, which is the last (or first) 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail extending to/from Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park.

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These lands have been heavily used as an industrial forest over the last two centuries. The timber, paper, and pulp industries are much smaller and the communities in this region have fallen on hard times. Many mills have closed. However, the remaining ones are seeing new investment. Folks in Maine realized long ago that the economy can’t just be dependent on logging, but needs a boost from other sectors, including tourism.

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Though I grew up in Connecticut, half of my family’s roots are in Maine, so I’ve always been an interested observer. My mother grew up in Upper Frenchville in Aroostook County, the northernmost part of Maine. I have many cousins, aunts, and uncles who still live in Maine. My grandparents are gone, but I always enjoyed visiting them. It was a long drive–500 miles–from my home to theirs, but it was through a beautiful landscape. I miss those days of piling in to the back of our family car and heading north.

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On Friday night, we got to look through the lodge’s telescope. It was a “homemade” model, but not a hack job by any means. It was made by a noted scientist and it was awesome. It was only a few days after the full moon and it was clear, so we got a great look at the surface and all its craters. AMC is working on International Dark Sky designation for our Maine project and facilities. This would be a great accomplishment as Dark Sky destinations are sought out by astronomy buffs.

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At Medawisla, I saw some of the local landscape. I got out early both on Saturday and Sunday morning for short runs on the nearby trails. They were cut with cross-country skiing in mind, so they were wide and easy to follow. There are many old logging roads in the area that are also used as trails, especially in winter. In the north country, there has always been conflict between motorized and non-motorized recreation. Both are important to Maine. I won’t wade into this debate, but it’s worth noting that there is a shift towards more non-motorized activities including hiking, cycling, skiing, paddling, and fly fishing. ATV’s and snowmobiles are still seen all over the state, but their popularity is reported to be waning as demographics change.

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On Saturday afternoon, some of us ventured out and toured the other two lodges. We first drove to Gorman Chairback Lodge and Cabins and walked around. Then we drove over to Little Lyford Lodge and Cabins. They are about eight miles apart, but separated by rough and unplowed logging roads. The entire trip took about three hours. By the time we got to Little Lyford, it was snowing heavily. These facilities close during the shoulder season as they prepare for winter and as the roads become impassable. Both Gorman and Little Lyford will reopen right after Christmas, whereas Medawisla (the access road is plowed) will remain open. Gorman and Little Lyford are a bit more rustic than Medawisla, have their own character, and are in beautiful spots. In the winter, you park about eight miles away and the only way to get to the camps is on your skis or snowshoes. Staff hauls in your extra gear using the snowmobiles.

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AMC is fortunate to have an amazing team of full-time employees. The entire Maine Woods Initiative “croo” that hosted us were informative, helpful, inspiring, and gracious. They are passionate about their work and great representatives for AMC’s conservation, education, and recreation mission. A trip to Maine would be well worth your time and effort.

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I was disappointed to not get out on Second Roach Pond like we did in the summer of 2017. I wanted to paddle some, but the lake was already iced over and conditions weren’t good for water-sports. My only other regret from the weekend is that I didn’t have time to try the Medawisla sauna. Now I have another good reason to go back!

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It was great fun cheering for the Bolton Center School XC Team and their coach @trailrunningmom at The Panther Fest. Go Bulldogs! #crosscountry #trailrunning 🏃🏽‍♀️ 🏃🏿
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