Steph Yiu

Staying off-the-grid in Maine

This month I got to cross an item off my bucket list: hike and stay with Maine Huts & Trails in Carrabassett Valley. Maine Huts & Trails is a network of 100 miles of recreational trail, along with four off-the-grid “huts” (really, lodges) to overnight at. In the winter you can fat bike, cross-country ski, or snowshoe to the huts. I was traveling with a group of four, and we chose to snowshoe/hike since none of us had enough experience to cross-country or fat bike with packs. Yep, packs! Because the lodges were only accessible by foot, and were pack-in, pack-out, we were each carrying 30-pound packs (or more, if you choose to schlep in fancy beer).

In the week leading up to the trip we started to prep with the hut packing list. It’s been a few years since we’ve done any major overnight camping, so we borrowed a decent amount of gear from our more outdoorsy friends (self-rescue kit, light compressible sleeping bags, Osprey hiking pack). But, because we ski often, I did have all the snow gear: Patagonia snowpants, Patagonia fleece, REI jacket, Hot Chillys base layers, Smartwool socks, Lole fleece-lined hat, Camelbak, Gordin gloves, Lifeproof iPhone case, L.L. Bean Winter Walkers, and adjustable poles. Over the years I’ve gotten nitpicky about my winter layers because it gives me more hours of playing in the snow! But, assembling all the gear made me realize how expensive winter activities can be. We were fortunate in that we already had most items and could borrow everything else.

Over the course of three days we completed a hut-to-hut hike, which meant we hiked in, stayed the night at Stratton Brook hut, hiked to Poplar hut, stayed the night, and hiked out. I would call what we did a “beginner” version of the Maine Huts & Trails stays. The total trip was around 13-miles, which at the outset I thought was no big deal… until I realized we’d be hiking uphill, with snowshoes, and packs. In other words, I’m way more out of shape than I realized!

On both days, we arrived at the huts tired, happy, and hungry after the hike. We were always welcomed with friendly faces, hot chocolate, coffee, and delicious food. As part of the overnight stay, we got bunks and hot showers, along with breakfast, packed trail lunch, and dinner. There were also no cell phones allowed in the main spaces – and no reception anyway, which meant we were truly off-the-grid for 3 days. To be honest, I didn’t even notice! The first night we were engrossed playing Loot with our friends, and the second night we were all about Bananagrams. Here are a few pictures of the lodges.

After the family-style dinner on both nights we were given eco-tours of how the huts worked off-the-grid. As a born-and-raised city dweller, I didn’t have any true outdoors experiences until my mid-twenties. It was incredible to learn how efficiently they managed to keep the huts functioning, even in the dead of Maine winters.

The huts themselves are heated with a wood gasification boilers, which heat both the domestic hot water and radiant floor heating. Because the huts are well-insulated (with triple-pane argon gas-filled windows), they use around 12-cords of wood per winter for the entire 44-person hut (10+ rooms, showers, kitchen, main living area and staff quarters). While most fireplaces or wood stoves I’ve seen produce ash and char waste, these wood boilers generate a fine dust. It all seemed to work pretty well, I was warm overnight and took a toasty hot shower first thing in the morning. I was worried about my water usage (you get 6-minute tokens), but quickly realized that you need way less than 6-minutes of hot water for a quick shower.

The huts also have alternate energy systems. Stratton Hut, which is the newest hut, is technically on-the-grid, but generates enough solar power that it feeds back into the grid. Poplar Hut uses hydroelectric power via a small station they built by Poplar Stream. For a while, it generated too much power – until Hurricane Sandy flooded the stream and took out their hydro station. They’re currently using generators until they replace the hydrostation later this year.

I was also amazed by the composting toilets! While most American toilets use anywhere from 1.5 to 7 gallons of water per flush (depending on the age), these toilets use 4-6 ounces of water per flush. Once flushed, everything goes into the compost. In the photo below, you can see the pipes from the toilets entering the compost from the top. It takes 5-7 years for the compost to make its way from the top to the bottom where they’ve opened the bin to show us the contents. Yup, I was horrified when he started opening the bin. As it turns out, the bottom contains just soil – no human pathogens. The process is so efficient that in 7 years, Poplar Hut has removed only 2 wheelbarrows full of compost from this container. More nerdy compost reading can be found here.

I also liked how the huts focused on local-spending and conservation. To create the huts they hired local carpenters and builders, and received donated furniture. They also used local resources for everything from the slate flooring, to the wood for heating, to the food they served. Also, like everyone in Maine, all the staff we met during the reservation process and the stay were friendly, helpful, and kind.

So, how was it to overnight there? Comfortable and fun! It was a nice mix of being outdoors, learning, and hanging out with friends. We had comfy bunks, clean bathrooms/showers, and good food. Even though Stratton Hut is the newer hut (built in 2012), I actually liked the vibe of Poplar Hut more (built in 2008). Maybe it’s because we only had 8 people staying overnight the evening we were there, but it felt more homey and we enjoyed meeting everyone. On our last morning there, we woke up to a few inches of fresh snow, which meant we had a lovely hike out. Fresh snow makes the woods so quiet and calm. It was the perfect way to end the trip.

After the trip, I was surprised by how much conservation learning I brought home. Because of the pack-in, pack-out mentality, I became acutely aware of how much trash we generate in our day-to-day lives, from granola bar wrappers to single-use coffee cups. When I got home, I listened to Alec Baldwin’s interview with the New York City Department of Sanitation (Pam Elardo is also a Northwestern Alum, woohoo!), and signed up for my local composting program. When I mentioned this to a friend, she lent me her Zero-Waste Lifestyle Book, which taught me about the recycling chain. With a tiny bit of research I learned that Whole Foods has #5 plastic dropoffs because lots of local programs don’t take #5 plastic (which is stuff like toothbrushes, plastic cutlery, and makeup containers). I also learned that a lot of manufacturers take back their items – I had a pair 5-year-old The North Face snow boots that were completely beat up and could not be donated. I would have thrown them away, but it took me 2 seconds to find out that North Face runs a Clothes The Loop program where you can return used items and they’ll give you a $10 credit. Companies like Patagonia let you trade in or buy “Worn Wear,” along with their repair guarantee.

I would definitely do this trip again – and I hope to bring a bigger group of friends with me next time!

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