Grand Falls Hut (Photo John Orcutt, orcuttphotography.com)
Grand Falls Hut (Photo John Orcutt, orcuttphotography.com)
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Two winters ago, I spent from mid-December to mid-January as the volunteer caretaker at Maine Huts & Trails’ most remote hut, Grand Falls. I went there to enjoy the magnificent wild location, see what it could teach me, get some reading and writing done, and support the organization. It became an adventure.

“Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” — Franz Kafka “Conversations with Kafka,” Gustav Janouch

December 15, 2017

Arrived yesterday noon with cross-country skis, snowshoes, backpacks and food boxes after a wild ride through new snow in a truck driven by an energetic, middle-aged back-to-the-lander, Darren, who’s the outfit’s maintenance guy.

I’m finally relaxing by the dining-room woodstove, enjoying its glow after a day and a half of trying to figure out how everything works. It already feels strange to be alone eight miles via a cross-country ski or snowmobile trail — once the snow gets deep — from the nearest deserted back road. Then it’s 25 miles to the tiny village of North New Portland.

The pocket satellite communicator I was promised for solo outdoor jaunts is being repaired. No cell service outdoors. But on the hut — it’s really a beautiful, almost-luxurious, lodge — there’s a satellite dish and an antenna providing internet and phone connections for the caretakers. And in a week Peggy and three of our grown sons will ski in for Christmas. She’ll stay after they leave.

December 17, 2017

Yesterday a raven croaked a cryptic greeting as it glided from treetop to treetop above me as I left the hut on a snowshoe hike to the rarely seen Grand Falls. It’s well named: about 40 feet high and three times as wide, it’s one of the largest waterfalls in the East.

On a previous trip in late winter, I had seen it frozen over. Now a lot of water is roaring over it, generating clouds that the west wind pushes up the Dead River Valley past the hut, a mile and a half distant. Sometimes I can faintly hear the falls from the hut.

Today I took my first ski outing. Sunny, breezy, very cold. I went up the service road to the Lower Enchanted Road, then down a lightly blazed forest trail to the trail above the river, then back to the hut.

In the forest I had to pick my way around and across blowdowns. Lots of deer tracks and scat. Undoubtedly, I was the first skier on that trail this season. Considering where I was, I was especially cautious on downhills.

Dropping me off in Kingfield, my younger outdoors buddy Colin told Sue, the huts’ volunteer coordinator, “He’s cautious.” Reassurance to her? But I know Colin thinks I’m too cautious.

December 18, 2017

I alternate reading Hemingway’s short stories with Thoreau’s “The Maine Woods,” giving myself a class in nature writing from stylistic geniuses.

In the big view from the dining room, early darkness transforms the light snowfall into waves of gray haze tumbling over the hillsides.

Frequently, I was anything but cautious in my youth. As a freelance writer, I have lived in a more economically risky way than anyone I know. But I’m aware my cautiousness has increased with age.

Of course, the body becomes weaker, but I’ve been lucky in health. My contemporaries, though, chant the dirges of age around me every day. These have had their effects on me, especially the deep bass notes of sicknesses and disabilities. An older friend calls it “the organ recital.” And friends are dying. And dead.

I love my friends, and I hate this negative scene. I want to fight this losing battle. It’s one reason I took up winter mountaineering in my late 60s. It’s a deep reason I’m at Grand Falls. Is there a partial antidote here? I do love Maine’s natural world.

But I spend too much time indoors. I must feed logs — many of which I have to split — into the furnace every few hours to raise the temperature of the huge water tank that heats the floor tiles through elaborate pipes. This task is a pain in the ass, especially during the night.

December 19, 2017

Rain is predicted for the 23rd, when Peggy and the boys plan to ski in. They have experience in bad winter weather, but still …

December 20, 2017

“This is a job,” I told Peggy on the phone. I have to split wood for the stove, too.

But I do get to write and read some. Now I’m reading Edward Abbey, a paperback of essays I found in the tiny hut library. The title, “One Life at a Time, Please,” is obviously a takeoff on Thoreau’s famous deathbed reply when asked if he was prepared for the next world: “One world at a time.” Hilarious Henry, humorist to the last.

“One Life” was Abbey’s last nonfiction book in his lifetime. He inspired me when I was young. He made the kind of work I did as a writer and environmental activist seem cool.

I have several slight connections to him. One occurred when I was at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1971. I skied into Mineral King Valley in the High Sierra and wrote pieces for the newspaper and the Sierra Club Bulletin opposing the development by Walt Disney of this gorgeous, remote valley into a huge downhill-ski resort.

Because of the Sierra Club’s efforts, the development never came to pass. My experience with Mineral King led to my campaigning with others to save Maine’s Bigelow Range from a similar fate, which also was successful.

In the same issue of the Bulletin (now entitled Sierra), Abbey had an article. He used the simple argument of beauty to urge the preservation of the wild canyons of southeast Utah. I used the same argument on behalf of Mineral King — and later for Bigelow.

But nowadays beauty isn’t enough. Many environmentalists feel they must oppose economic development with an economic argument, such as income from recreational use.

The very farthest-in-the-south sun has emerged from the clouds, making the snow shine. “My darlings,” I said aloud to the sky, the snow, and the snow-saturated trees. I love them all. That is my longtime, secret mantra.

Winter Solstice, 2017

Bigelow is on the horizon, a snowcapped profile 10 miles to the south. I am truly embedded in the Maine mountains.

I urged Peggy and the boys to delay coming in until Christmas Eve day because of a now-predicted substantial snowstorm ending in freezing rain.

Darren’s daughter Amy dropped off more supplies. “Today probably is the last time I’ll be able to drive in except on a snow vehicle,” she told me. I was happy to get the InReach satellite device.

December 22, 2017

An exceedingly sad day. After reviewing the worsening forecast, I wrote an email late last night to Peggy and the boys telling them not to come for Christmas. A foot of snow on the way — it has already started — then frozen rain, then more snow for days ahead. Even the major highways will be bad. Peggy called immediately and agreed, to my gloomy relief.

Feeling lonely for the first time, I cut down a small fir. I will have some kind of Christmas.

December 23, 2017

Following delicate tracks in the snow down to the Dead, I observed that the deer always took the most efficient course over the contours of the trail.

As with the river, Spencer Stream, a major tributary, is more frozen over with my every trip to it, the ice now in white, green, and even brown swirls, a universal organic pattern that Thoreau exclaimed about in “Walden.” Ironically, he saw it in the half-frozen mud of a railroad embankment. His ecstasies are such a contrast to Hemingway’s subterranean understatements.

Snow has now been falling for eighteen hours.

This will be the first Christmas I’ve ever spent alone and the first in more than 40 years that Peggy and I won’t spend together. Depressing. And I haven’t seen Adam, who lives in San Francisco, for a year. Peg took a bus to Boston today to have Christmas with the boys. I’m glad but jealous.

I planted my tree in the reading room — precariously, in a bucket of sticks and damp wood shavings. Using wreath materials Sue gave me, I decorated it with whitened pinecones, red glass balls, and Old Man’s Beard collected from spruce trees.

I emailed a photo of it to my family and a few close friends, with a note: “Because of the weather I’m unexpectedly alone for Christmas — REALLY, REALLY TOO BAD! An imitation of Donald Trump’s self-pitying tweets.

Peggy replied: “The tree looks BEAUTIFUL, Lance!” Nice try, Peg.

Christmas Eve, 2017

Break a leg in the summer woods, you hurt. Break a leg in the winter woods, you die. That’s my distillation into a corny maxim of my winter-wilderness cautiousness. I’ve seen people in deep trouble on ski-backpacking trips, and I’ve had my own troubles.

When the sun briefly appeared this afternoon, ice gleamed on every twig of the bent-over birches. So lovely, so cold.

Christmas, 2017

How many people spend Christmas Day cleaning showers, sinks, and floors? A lot of people, probably, with whom I now feel more solidarity.

The saving grace for me of this day is what’s all around me, the “stern, but gentle, wildness,” as Thoreau describes it. And this is a comfortable building.

Lifting a glass of red wine, I made my traditional Christmas-dinner toast, alone for the first time: “To Jesus!” I respect immensely that wise revolutionary, but not what men have made of him.

December 26, 2017

Not until 8:20 a.m. did the sun rise over Basin Mountain and its clear-cuts — those flaws in my idyllic view. Smoke flowed across the hills from the white, windy fires of the snow-covered trees.

Online, I saw that many reservations had been cancelled because of the weather. But not every one …

After my afternoon feeding of the furnace, I came back upstairs and washed my hands at a sink in the bathroom area. For a half-second, I thought I saw in the mirror a slight female figure smile as she silently passed behind me on the way to the toilet compartments. An apparition, I almost seriously thought.

I went to the kitchen. When I went into the dining room, a dark-haired, pixyish girl had materialized, curled up on the couch by the stove. She was 13, she said, and had skied here far ahead of her parents.

She was correct: Her parents and her 13-year-old cousin didn’t show up for an hour and a half. Others of their party will arrive tomorrow.

After 12 days, my solo was over. Did I really want company? Now I must tend to guests.

December 27, 2017

When the rest of the extended family appeared today, they included a 6-year-old and 9-year-old on a sled. My cautiousness again reared its hoary head: I doubted the wisdom of bringing in little kids on such a viciously cold and blustery day. But they had survived and soon were scampering about.

“Ah … Lance, there are dead flies in my bunkroom,” one of the newcomers informed me.

I picked up dozens. Guests brought their own food and cooked for themselves, but I still had to provide services. This group, in fact, treated me like a servant, never speaking to me unless they wanted something. That was a new role for me.

December 28, 2017

“The Maine Woods” is remembered for several great literary passages, especially Thoreau’s depiction of the higher elevations of Katahdin:

What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?

That contact is what I have most sought in life, especially in my life in nature.

It also can be expressed in Hemingway’s symbolic way, his mixture of sadness and joy when contemplating the beautiful earth and the short and sometimes ugly time we have on it:

He felt a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them. In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic.

Today, the sun rose from the river’s bigger, corresponding river of vapor. From the valley’s trees the wind blew streams of snow into that higher river.

Now, alas, because of the daytime subzero temperatures, the remoteness of the road and her concerns about her car, I agreed with our close friend Pusti, who was going to drop Peg off at the trailhead tomorrow, that she shouldn’t do it. Darren then was going to bring her to the hut on a snowmobile. Since the weather is forecast to be bad for the foreseeable future, Peggy won’t be coming in.

December 29, 2017

Darren emailed that it was 22 below at his house. One of his snowmobiles wouldn’t start. I hiked down to the river — it and the falls fascinate me — but it still hadn’t frozen over. I jogged back to keep warm, my balaclava accumulating a coating of frost from my breath.

December 30, 2017

When I got up at 3:30 last night for the furnace feeding, I found the 13-year-old girl’s mother lying on the couch next to the stove.

“I need to be near the toilet,” she said weakly, looking up.

The flickering light from the stove in the dark room gave the scene a pitiful cast. Her plastered-down, straight, blonde hair accentuated her mournful appearance.

She had fever, chills and body aches. Her daughter and nephew also had vomited, but both were now in their bunks, sleeping. Her husband was tending to them, keeping the stove going and trying to catch naps on the reading-room couch. All I could do was suggest they rethink their intent to depart in the morning.

As another extremely cold day dawned, I talked things over with them. The kids were feeling better, and the mother no longer had a fever. But she still felt poorly and asked if I could arrange for a snowmobile to take out the sick people. The father mentioned that he had to get back to New York today because he had business clients to see tomorrow.

I called Maine Huts & Trails headquarters.

“This is the ‘no service’ season,” one of the managers said. “We don’t do things like that. They’re supposed to be on their own. If it’s an emergency, call 911.”

Whoa, a bit inflexible, I thought. But I relayed the message. The second I quoted the words “on their own,” the father jumped up from his chair.

“We’re going!” he emphatically told his crew. “Get your things together.”

“Look, you can stay here as long as you want for free, as far as I’m concerned,” I told the sick woman. “Why not give it a day and see how you feel?”

But the hard-driving businessman had to get back to his clients.

On the phone I consulted with practical Darren.

“Why don’t I lend them my walkie-talkie?” I suggested. Darren felt that would work.

A couple of hours after their departure, a male voice came over the crackly radio: “We’re three miles from the road. Everything’s okay. Thanks for everything.”

Maine Huts & Trails’ director met them at the trailhead and retrieved the walkie-talkie.

I learned this in an email I saw on a break from six hours of scrubbing toilets, mopping floors, and cleaning everything in sight to try to disinfect the place. Guests were coming in the evening.

December 31, 2017

Twenty minutes to the new year. All the people who arrived yesterday have gone to their rooms — imagine, before midnight! — after a wonderful, convivial, potluck New Year’s Eve dinner, to which I was invited and contributed champagne that I had hoped to use at Christmas with my family.

We ate ricotta, crab cakes, mushrooms, salad, and the pièce de résistance, a blue-and-white supermarket ice-cream cake that miraculously had been carried to the hut intact.

Two of the guests were friends of my sons, and that contributed to the warmth of the occasion. In total, there were eight 30ish, outdoorsy, urban professionals — five from D.C. and three from Boston.

And one 59-year-old Maine man. An outgoing, bespectacled engineer, he had ridden here alone over the snow on a fat-tire mountain bike, hauling a small trailer with his gear.

New Year’s Day, 2018

“Happy New Year!” I had said to the empty room at midnight, toasting the universe with champagne. I felt much happier than 24 hours previous.

When I got up in the middle of the night, the full moon, at its perigee, was shockingly bright. The trees cast long shadows on the snow, and the snow on the tree branches glowed. I fell into a trance. Contact!

The day was cloudlessly clear, well below zero. I prevailed upon the bicyclist to start early, thinking of his age and — this astonished me — his having brought only one blanket instead of a sleeping bag.

The cold “makes me nervous,” admitted a woman from the Washington contingent as the two groups started off together.

One of them called me that afternoon, once they were in their cars and had returned to cellphone coverage. All were safe, including the bicyclist.

January 2, 2018

My body has ached a bit constantly from the daily physical labor. But my aches swelled today.

In the late afternoon, I skied to the Grand Falls overlook. Water still poured over the lip of the falls, though now its shoulders of white ice had grown gigantic.

On the return I began to feel incredibly weak, like something fundamental was changing within me. My theories ran from sugar depletion (cooking and eating by myself had been boring) to a heart attack.

Back at the hut, I ate an energy bar and some chocolate (Theory 1), but that made my stomach feel much worse. I asked a new guest to take my pulse (Theory 2), but it was regular and not extremely high.

I called my M.D. son Asa with my worries. After listening to my symptoms and theories, he gave his diagnosis: “Dad, it’s just a stomach virus.” I had caught it from that ill-fated family.

After vigorous vomiting during the night, I got some sleep on the reading-room couch, to be near the toilets.

January 3, 2018

I looked forward to a tranquil day of recovery. It was as deeply cold as ever, with the wind still blowing hard. But tranquility was not to be. The guide of a group of snowmobilers called and wanted to bring his sports to see the place. I brewed coffee.

The guide, Mike, was a talkative, 50-ish man originally from Maine who lived in Texas most of the year but ran his guiding service from a lodge on a remote pond north of the hut.

As we chatted, I realized it was time to stoke the furnace. Excusing myself, I went down the cellar stairs … and met the appalling spectacle of a rainstorm from the exposed overhead water pipes spraying on the heating-system computer, wood furnace, propane heater, and stacks of wood.

I rushed upstairs and told the snowmobilers what had happened.

“Let’s see!” Mike declared commandingly, and he, his adult son, and I rushed downstairs.

Mike immediately went to the circuit box and shut off the hut’s electricity except for the cellar lights. But none of us could determine where the leak originated. I rushed back upstairs to call Darren.

At the top of the stairs, I ran into a couple of college-age sisters who had just arrived. I only had time to open the door of the drying room to show them where damp clothes could be hung …

And that’s when I discovered why we hadn’t been able to locate the leak in the cellar: A shower was going on here, too — the source of the water below.

When I called down to let them know, guide Mike and son now charged upstairs and began taking down ceiling tiles and wall boards near the drying room’s big radiator, soon finding the pipe that had ruptured from the cold. Then they found a valve that shut off the water.

Most of the hut’s electric circuits could be switched back on. But not the current to the soaked computer. High tech, high vulnerability.

Darkness was approaching. Mike and his group had to leave. I thanked him and his son abundantly.

Darren came on his snowmobile within a couple of hours, but there wasn’t much he could do. The specialist at the Kingfield heating company who had installed the hut’s system had to come here to fix things. This sort of event had never occurred in the 10-year history of Maine Huts & Trails.

Thus, we wouldn’t have heat except from one woodstove. The forecast was for 20 to 30 below at night.

January 4, 2018

Last night the two sisters hauled mattresses from the bunkhouse into the reading room to be near the stove. I continued to sleep in the staff room because I had a cold-weather sleeping bag.

Today, the dining room cooled slowly but significantly. The hut has great insulation, but its big windows weren’t providing solar heating because of, yet again, a multiple-day snowstorm beginning.

When I checked, I found that all the guests for the remainder of my stay had cancelled.

January 5, 2018

The girls left yesterday. Last night I slept on the reading-room couch so I could keep the stove fed.

Much of today was taken up hosting Darren and the heating-system specialist, who after a couple of hours got the backup propane burner going. Like the wood furnace, it heats the water tank. But he couldn’t restart the wood furnace because he had to send for parts for the wet computer.

January 6, 2018

At first light I got up to go to the bathroom. The firs outside the dining-room windows were alive, wiggling, shaking off their snow in the wind. The tall pine in the foreground swayed as little whirlwinds of snow spun beneath it. Again, I was entranced. Such a privilege to see this.

The National Weather Service website told me the windchill was 40 below. Asa, in Baltimore, had emailed: “I’m jealous of real weather.” He wasn’t entirely kidding. It’s exciting to go out in it — up to a point.

January 8, 2018

It’s finally warmer, not below zero. The clouds are sprinkling snow. Again, the great silence. I love it.

January 9, 2018

In the late afternoon, as I began a last ski tour, the same raven — or so I fancied — that had greeted me on my first trek from the hut croaked me a farewell. I hadn’t seen or heard a raven since that first encounter.

Two inches of new snow made for fast skiing on top of the well-packed trail. The Dead still had open water, reflecting darkly the blue sky.

I decided to ski past the falls turnoff up a hill through a grove of fir and spruce to the footbridge over the river above the falls. As I started skiing down the drop to the bridge, I was almost shocked to see a gray-haired woman in an orange shell starting to ski up it.

“Hi. Are you going to Grand Falls Hut?” I inquired, skidding to a stop beside her. “I’m the caretaker. I didn’t see online that anyone had reserved.”

“Oh, I just reserved, for two nights,” the tiny, red-faced, 60-ish woman said. “It was a spur-of-the-moment decision.”

Truly: She only had a daypack and, as far as I could see, was another person with no sleeping bag.

I wanted to take pictures of the bridge and river, so I told her to make herself comfortable at the hut. When I turned back, I decided to ski fast to see if I could catch up with her.

This wasn’t easy. I could see by her tracks that she was a very good skier. She didn’t check herself on a steep downhill that I always checked on. She was helped by her low center of gravity, though I wondered if all my cautious skiing alone in the wilds had slowed me down more than I had realized.

I caught up with her not far from the hut. She lived on the coast, was a lifelong skier, and was a nonstop talker. As we prepared supper together, it was pleasant to have someone to talk with on my last night.

She hadn’t, in fact, brought a sleeping bag and was forced to ask for several of our blankets — the remaining few that I hadn’t let the sick people use.

“I go light,” she said.

Perilously light. Break a leg in the winter woods, and ....

January 10, 2018

The snowmobile ride out with Amy was my first. As much as I hate snowmobiles, I must confess it was a thrill. It was a shock, though, to enter the outside world. The hut, river, falls, and forest had become my reality.

This month in the woods did teach me something — I relearned something — and it renewed me. The beauty that surrounded me prevailed over my considerable day-to-day labors, my lonely Christmas, the stomach virus — over such typical negativities in life — and even to some degree over that chronic darkness of seeing friends crumble and die that I had carried into the woods.

Contemplation of beauty is an antidote, an elixir. I’d do this month in the woods again, just not alone at Christmas. In gratitude, I’m going to go down fighting for the beauty of nature, as nature inevitably takes me down.

As for caution, to hell with it! Well, no. I’m still going to take proper gear when I go on solo ski tours.

My New Year’s rededication, each year now, is: Contact! Contact!