CARRABASSETT VALLEY — On a clear December day, hikers and skiers dot the snow-covered trail leading them through an evergreen forest below the Bigelow Mountains.
They are on their way to the access point for 80 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails and huts winding through northern Franklin County and maintained by nonprofit Maine Huts & Trails.
“It’s not a Nordic center; it’s a backcountry adventure,” said Ellen McDevitt, the hut master at the newest hut in the system, which opened Wednesday in Carrabassett Valley.
Stratton Brook Hut is accessible only by foot — or by ski — via a 3-mile trail off Route 27, while just miles down that same road is one of New England’s largest downhill ski centers, Sugarloaf Mountain.
The hut, which is really more of a hotel-in-the-woods offering comfortable beds, hot showers and home-cooked meals to skiers passing through, is the fourth to open in what eventually should become a 12-hut system.
“It’s about four or five hours to get between huts. The average person can do it in one day,” said Mac Watts, 56, of Skowhegan, a cross-country skier who said the best part of the hut-to-hut system was being able to relax with a beer and a nice meal at one of the huts after a day on the trails.
The huts are run by small staffs of three to four people who cook, take care of the building, groom the trails and live on-site. Stratton Brook has 44 beds, where guests can stay in dormitorylike accommodations with rooms of six or eight people.
McDevitt, 23, is a 2011 Dartmouth College graduate who studied history but said she was looking for a job in “backcountry hospitality” when she stumbled upon Maine Huts & Trails.
She worked last summer at the Poplar Hut and last winter at the Flagstaff Hut.
A typical day, she said, starts around 5:30 or 6 a.m., when she wakes up to start the boiler to heat the hut.
All the huts operate on solar energy panels, although the Stratton Brook hut also is connected to power lines, architect John Orcutt said Wednesday at a ribbon-cutting for the new hut. The hut opens to the public Dec. 21 and will be open seasonally in winter and in summer, for hiking and mountain biking.
“During the day we generate all the power we need. If we generate excess, we sell that back to the power company, so there’s a benefit to having that connection,” Orcutt said.
Because the hut is closer to a road than others, he said it is more environmentally sustainable to connect to the power line and sell back extra power as opposed to having batteries and a backup generator to store power.
“Our point is to show people this area and promote the area,” said Orcutt, who designed the hut with views of the Bigelow Mountains to the east and a view of Sugarloaf Mountain to the west.
The founder of Maine Huts & Trails, Larry Warren, who opened the first hut in 2008, said at the ribbon-cutting that his goal for the system is to enhance the enjoyment of the outdoors for both local people and tourists and to do so in an environmentally friendly way — or, in the words of McDevitt and her supervisor, Sky Purdy, the goal is “backyard hospitality.”
At Stratton Brook, food comes from mostly local farms and is brought in via snowmobile in the winter, McDevitt said. Sometimes, although it is rare, she said she has had to haul food to the lodges by foot.
The wooden chairs in the dining room, each carved with a profile of the Bigelow Mountain Range, were made by a local carpenter, Ian Reinholt, in Kingfield.
One thing that is not done at Stratton Brook, or any of the Maine Huts & Trails huts, is making snow.
Purdy, 27, the operations manager who oversees all the huts, said that unlike most cross-country ski centers where the trails run in loops, the Maine Huts & Trails trails are linear. Snow making uses a lot of resources that would be counterproductive to the system’s efforts to be self-sufficient, and it would also be hard to distribute the snow on the linear trails, he said.
“Our staff are also our snow makers,” he said, adding that three years ago when there was a low amount of snowfall, the staff was sent to shovel snow from the woods onto trails for the annual ski marathon it sponsors.
“Right now, though, we have more snow than we did last year in the middle of January, so we might be able to get an earlier start on the season,” he said.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368