Back around Thanksgiving, if you recall, the news was filled with reports of the “busiest travel days of the year.” By airliner and by car--occasionally tossing in “by train” for good measure--reporters assured us that most of America was on the road despite the snowstorms. The charming assertion, ever hopeful, is that a happy family and a good dinner is worth traveling for. The other assumption is that snow doesn’t help.
None of the news reports I saw happened to mention travel to a Thanksgiving dinner on snowshoes.
We were a party of seven, soon to be one family, with Emily and David’s 2020 wedding on the drawing board. Months ago those two had suggested to their elder relatives (who are not on snowshoes all that often, since passing along the meter-reader’s job) this excursion and festive backcountry meal. Honestly, the vagaries of weather and the uncertainty of work obligations made it all seem rather unlikely. As the season approached, however, things surprised us by falling into place and we started to form up solid plans. David’s mother made lists of supplies down to the salt and pepper. Paul dug out his snowshoes, hunted for his old backpack which hadn’t been used since the Grand Canyon when the kids were little, and stopped by Reny’s for an orange hat. Eric promised his coworkers he’d work Christmas Eve if he could take Thanksgiving off. I began saving poultry drippings for a generous mess of gravy.
The plan was to combine efforts and construct a full-scale, from-scratch Thanksgiving dinner at the Stratton Brook hut on the Maine Huts and Trails system, near Kingfield, not far from Sugarloaf. From the trailhead parking area it’s a four mile hike to the hut, much of it easy going. “Hut,” by the way, is a singular misnomer. The building is a lovely, off-grid lodge, big enough to feed and sleep forty-some. We just happened to have the whole place to ourselves, meaning we could take long showers, mess around in the kitchen, and monopolize the wood stove.
The morning before Thanksgiving Day we assembled at Emily and David’s in Portland. Both are Registered Maine Guides, and although they normally concern themselves with kayakers, they were soon taking an inventory of gear, checking our snowshoes, squinting at the weather apps, and supplying whatever items anybody might lack. David had gone out and bought a cheap plastic sled the day before, and Emily borrowed some snowshoes for Eric somewhere.
I showed up with a bag of homemade chocolate doughnuts and immediately made it clear that I would be a complete idiot with regard to packing light when the purpose of the trip was good eating. The trail wasn’t that long, and it would be worth it. Besides, I figured, there were seven of us. We could work a little harder. I didn’t know the half of it.
Emily advised us that ideally nobody’s pack should weigh more than 25 pounds. Well, I’m not sure; I was already planning to carry in fresh potatoes, home-grown on Matinicus, in defiance of common sense. Trip-leader Emily said (because trip leaders say this kind of thing,) “We’ll get together and see what everybody packed, and I’m going to have each person take one thing out of their backpack.” With seven hiking together, each person doesn’t need their own everything.
Several of us didn’t like squash, so we didn’t carry any. That helped keep the weight down a good bit. But everybody seemed to have their own plans and some quiet smuggling was taking place. Nobody really let Emily search their packs.
David secretly brought an iPad up, so he could surprise his mom by streaming the Macy’s parade while she readied the turkey. Yes, there happened to be cell signal (who’d have thunk it?) David also carried in the 11-pound bird. I brought a tiny bag of Penzey’s Northwoods and Bavarian seasonings for the turkey skin. That might have weighed half an ounce.
There was a can of cranberry sauce for tradition’s sake, and a can of pumpkin, and two fresh eggs for Tammy’s pumpkin pie. I told her that if I’d had that duty I’d most certainly have to start with three. She assured me she could get her two eggs up the trail just fine. I had milk and heavy cream for my chocolate pie. I had flour enough for a batch of yeast rolls, a bag of fresh string beans from Hannaford’s, and a pound of butter, as well as the aforementioned potatoes and some other goodies. Somebody else brought Brussels sprouts.
I also had a water company sample bottle, intended for well testing, full of Bailey’s Irish Cream.
David had a snow shovel strapped to his backpack, which we didn’t need. I had first aid stuff, which we didn’t need. Emily snuck in a couple of small board games despite her own admonitions, and Paul had books, which he didn’t need. There were plenty of decent detective novels at the hut, and there were board games. I’d brought a whisk for making the gravy and the pie filling, and Tammy brought a foil roasting pan, neither of which we needed; the hut’s commercial kitchen offered anything a cook might wish for.
Two of us had carried in bacon, which we did need, and we ate bacon all morning as we prepared the main meal. Later, somebody produced a can of olives and a block of cheddar and some crackers. How civilized! (and, presumably, heavy). Eric brought out a little bottle of good Scotch which he shared with Doug. At the edge of dark, as the snow fell, we served each other a beautiful meal, Tammy’s turkey roasted to perfection. Nothing was what you call store-bought. Emily had smuggled in three small ornamental gourds for a holiday table centerpiece (this going entirely against her own advice about sensible packing). She also shouldered the heaviest pack, and pulled the sled up the steepest part of the trail—on a wonky snowshoe. Maine Guides are tough.
Doug and Emily spent an hour after supper repairing her snowshoe, but that was our only significant failure, and I suspect they enjoyed the engineering challenge. For two nights we relaxed and cooked and ate and idled. Two of us had brought knitting. Eric kept the wood stove going while Robin, the Maine Huts and Trails volunteer caretaker, tended to the wood-fired boiler which provided ample hot water for the shower and warmed the bunkrooms. We all ate pie for breakfast on Friday, instead of our planned oatmeal, and although Robin the caretaker declined our offer of Thanksgiving dinner she did welcome a slice of pie.
For part of the year, a stay at any of the four Maine Huts and Trails huts includes meals prepared by staff. Our hike in, with the makings of our feast, was intentionally timed for when we’d be doing our own cooking, but that is not always necessary or even possible. For many a summertime hiker, a night at the hut requires little but a reservation.
Snowshoeing back to our vehicles on Friday, on eight inches of new fluff, Eric had a bag of returnables swinging off his pack. I had a Nalgene bottle with the leftover gravy, too valuable to abandon. Everybody carried a turkey sandwich. Emily had another Nalgene half-full of chocolate pudding. The sled was loaded with the turkey rack and the trash. Pack in, pack out. The neglected oatmeal went back down the trail, and Eric took the ornamental gourds back to Vermont for a friend, and Doug still had his Oreos. Oh, well; it’s a good idea to have plenty of cookies on the trail in case of a backwoods survival situation!
I told Emily that I was eager to go back. “How about New Year’s Eve, maybe?” She said she’d heard the huts were a popular spot, and we wouldn’t likely have a kitchen all to ourselves that night. We’ll be back some time, though, for sure. Maine Huts and Trails made it possible for us to enjoy our holiday “up to camp” without actually owning and maintaining a camp.
I would encourage anybody to check out the Maine Huts and Trails website https://mainehuts.org and, if you enjoy hiking, trail biking, Nordic skiing, or snowshoeing to seriously consider a trip to the rather beautiful other side of our state, making use of these welcoming accommodations. Or, consider a financial contribution. Maine Huts and Trails needs us!
Eva Murray lives on Matinicus