There was nothing funny about the beauty of the hike: the woods were piney and fragrant, the sky overhead was a silvery shelf of clouds, and the steel-blue lake had been lapping gently beside us for the past few miles. Yet my whole family was laughing crazily. We'd been watching a lot of America's Funniest Home Videos recently, and we kept imagining ourselves as inadvertent comedians, getting whacked by a branch or falling butt-first in the mud. Eleven miles into a 12-mile hike, I think the technical term for this maniacal state is "punchy." My husband and I and our two children, Birdy and Ben, then 10 and 13, were fairly fit and good-humored, but we were also weary and mosquito- bitten, hungry, blistered, and (thank goodness) about to arrive at our destination: a backcountry hut.
But don't let the word hut fool you. We were staying at one of the rustically modern, off-the-grid ecolodges of the Maine Huts & Trails system (opened in 2008), which are attractive, spacious, impeccably clean, and staffed by supremely friendly people who make supremely good food. It's no wonder that our discomfort dissipated upon our arrival.
All told, the system comprises 80 miles of trails and four full- service huts (with eight more planned), spread over the lovely, lake-dotted landscape two hours north of Portland. Designed for cross-country skiing, hiking, and mountain biking, the trails are blissfully accommodating, meandering flatly over meadows and through woods, carpeted here by moss, there by gigantic, prehistoric- looking ferns, and dotted with gemlike wild strawberries (which we picked and ate) and rubbery, neon- colored mushrooms (which we left alone). Plus, since beds and meals are provided at the huts, and gear shuttles are available ($25 per bag), your load is light -- consisting, in our case, almost entirely of snacks, water, books, and bug repellent.
When I called in April to plan our July trip, the helpful staff mapped out a three-day option based on our interests and abilities. They described our second day's destination, Flagstaff Lake Hut, as "a total playground"and recommended we stay two nights, preceded by a night at Poplar Hut. After a mellow, three-mile introduction to the trails, we reached Poplar, where we were shown to our airy, pine-paneled cabin with two twin beds and a bunk bed for the kids. Families are usually housed in the same bunk room, but all guests (huts can house 32 to 44 at a time) share the large bathroom in the main lodge, with spotless, state-of-the-art composting toilets and coin-op hot showers.
They'll even give you the coins.
Breakfast and dinner are served family-style at large communal tables, and they are lively, excellent affairs. That first night, we ate roast chicken, fruit salad presented in a carved watermelon, and fresh- baked bread. Birdy, a vegetarian, was served a lentil loaf she loved -- they'll accommodate most dietary restrictions. There were frosted cupcakes for dessert, wine and beer for purchase, and good coffee, and everything tasted extra fabulous, seasoned, as it was, by the effort of getting there. After dinner, we availed ourselves of a cozy room full of games -- Scrabble, Monopoly, Jenga -- before falling heavily asleep.
The next morning we returned to the trail after a hearty breakfast of sausage and eggs, provided bag lunches in hand. It was the only truly difficult day we'd planned (the 12 miles to Flagstaff ) and although we were challenged by bugs and fatigue, we were cheered by moose tracks and four-leaf clovers, pretty views and simple games ("Which do you like better, storm clouds or white clouds? Fiddleheads or full-grown ferns?"), and by snacks and treats I'd brought from home. There is no cell service. When we were distracted, it was only by the shifting quality of the light.
Flagstaff Lake Hut, when we finally staggered in, was perfect: the sweetly solicitous, heavily tattooed crew bagged up some ice for Birdy's "twisted or maybe just tired" ankle, showed the kids to the D.I.Y. hot chocolate station, and staged an impromptu, instrument-filled hootenanny with our music-loving son, Ben. The food was nourishing and delicious, full of greens and herbs from the on-site garden. Over the course of our two-night stay, we swam and kayaked, and strolled out to the scenic point that is, as described, "half a beer's walk" from the huts to watch the sun melt dramatically into the lake, narrated by the loons. We played Trivial Pursuit, fell into the comfy beds, and fell in love -- with the hut crew and the water, with the peace and quiet, and each other.
The last day, after breakfast, we hiked to our car, two miles that felt easy now, and as we walked, the kids reflected on the experience. "I knew it would be nice," Ben said, "but it was awesome. I loved the coziness and the food and the huts themselves. But mostly I loved that everyone had so much free time because there was nothing anyone needed to do, nowhere else anyone needed to be." Keeping the world at bay for a little while? Amen to that.
July to October and late December to March, overnights at Maine Huts & Trails include three meals and start at $96 per adult and $56 for children ages 4 to 17 (kids 3 and under stay free). Off-season rates are lower, but meals are not provided. Discounts are available with a family membership. Gear shuttles and trail- head transportation are extra. 207-265-2400; mainehuts.org
While hut-to-hut trails are all the rage in Europe, there are only a handful of U.S. systems, including:
California: Yosemite High Sierra Camps comprises five high-country sites, offering meals and bag lunches. yosemitepark.com/high- sierra-camps.aspx
Colorado: The 10th Mountain Division Hut Association operates 34 partial-service huts (bring your own food; no resident caretaker) in the Rocky Mountains. huts.org/ Reservations/Family_Kids_ Trips.html
New Hampshire: The Appalachian Mountain Club's eight White Mountain huts are full-service in season; the ascents range from fairly easy (we hiked to Lonesome Lake when Birdy was 3) to steeply challenging. outdoors.org/lodging/huts
Contributor Catherine Newman and her family live in western Massachusetts.
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of FamilyFun