FLAGSTAFF LAKE — The distinct aroma of cooking garlic and onion wafted from the kitchen at Flagstaff Lake Hut, greeting guests who had hiked to the remote lodge in the western Maine mountains.
Meg MacDougal and Jane Morris, just back from a day of hiking and canoeing on the lake, sat in cushy chairs in one of the lodge’s rooms, reading while they waited for a hard-earned dinner.
“It’s not camping; it’s like luxury in the woods,” MacDougal said, her partner nodding in agreement.
Settling in for their final night’s stay at the lodge — one of three in a trail and hut system built by the nonprofit agency Maine Huts and Trails — the couple from Yarmouth was already starting to plan a return visit to this northern Somerset County destination.
Then, MacDougal caught a whiff of the smells coming from the kitchen. Lodge staff prepared quiche, orzo with peas, steamed vegetables, a green salad and, for dessert, fudge brownies.
“The food is outstanding — that’s going to be amazing,” she said.
This full-service wilderness lodge experience is what the system founders envisioned when they started building the energy-efficient huts in 2008, according to Conrad Klefos, the agency’s marketing director.
And with a big spike this year of people staying at the lodges, the agency is working on a plan to reach its goal of building a continuous 200-mile trail system that connects 12 huts from Bethel to Moosehead Lake, he said.
There are 30 miles of trails connecting three huts: Poplar Stream Falls Hut in Carrabassett Valley, Flagstaff Lake Hut, and Grand Falls Hut, just north of Basin Mountain.
A total of 45 miles of cross-country skiing and hiking trails are expected to be finished by this fall, according to Klefos.
The agency has raised more than $8 million in donations to reach this point, with the overall project expected to cost more than $20 million, he said.
But revenue from overnight stay packages and other sales at the lodges is projected to double this year, giving the agency confidence it may soon be able to expand using money earned by running the system, Klefos said.
Based on one person paying to stay in a bed one night, overnight stays are on pace to reach 6,000 this year, which is nearly twice as many as in 2010, according to Klefos.
That jump is because more people are finding out about what the lodge experience offers, with the system gaining attention recently from a national magazine and more advertising, he said.
“The word ‘hut’ is a bit of a misnomer; they’re basically million-dollar lodges,” Klefos said.
Full-time staff cooks for guests and hikers, cleans and manages the lodges during peak winter and summer months, with self-service seasons during a few spring and late fall months.
MacDougal and Morris said they just moved from Cambridge, Mass., to Yarmouth to raise their family.
MacDougal’s parents live in Maine and they bought the couple a system membership, which features overnight package deals, she said.
Despite doing some research about the lodge on the system’s website, the couple admitted to being shocked when they arrived last week.
“It’s a lot bigger than we expected,” Morris said of the lodge.
They especially like the lodge’s energy-efficient features, according to Morris, who is a neurologist.
“We love the green features,” she said.
The lodge has a manager, called a “hutmaster,” who gives each guest a tour of the energy-efficient technologies.
Chris Nilon, hutmaster at the Flagstaff hut, showed the couple solar panels that provide electricity, and a wood boiler used for radiant heat and hot water, Morris said.
There is also a composting system in the basement and a well is used for the showers and bathrooms, which feature composting toilets.
Almost all the food served is organic and purchased within 50 miles of the lodge, Nilon said, as he helped with cooking Thursday night.
Overnight rates vary based on the season and other factors and can range from about $30 in the off-season to $90, when packages include full-service and prepared meals. The lodges also sell alcohol and food to guests as well as to people using the trails.
Yankee Magazine included the system in its travel guide edition naming the best of Maine list for 2011. The Flagstaff Lake Hut was named best lakeside lodging, and the system was named the best hut-to-hut hike.
Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington also recently donated a yurt to the system, which plans to install the gift and other shelters as rest areas along the trail, according to Klefos.
The trail system is striving to become an eco-tourism destination in the northeast, and hopes to provide a boost for Maine’s economy by attracting visitors and creating jobs, Klefos said. It crosses the Appalachian Trail and connects two major ski resorts: Sunday River in Bethel and Sugarloaf Mountain Resort in Carrabassett Valley, he said.
The agency started with donations from a variety of Maine businesses and individuals, and has staff running the agency and managing system, according to Klefos.
Nine people work at the three huts, with several other seasonal workers and volunteers managing the system, according to Nilon.
Nilon, 31, of Buckfield, left Maine after college because he couldn’t find work in his field. He graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in parks recreation and tourism.
After working at national parks in the Midwest, he found out about Maine Huts and Trails from friends and decided to apply this summer season to become a hutmaster.
“It was just time to come back to Maine. It’s nice to have this opportunity here,” Nilon said.
David Robinson — 861-9287