Cross-country skiing from yurt to yurt

One doesn't trek to the hinterlands of Rockwood, Maine, in the dead of winter to be pampered by pretentious staff. Nor do travelers to The Birches Resort at massive Moosehead Lake always come just to unwind. They come, rather, to be part of a community.

"We're family," explains Mike Williams, a Maine native who left his job as a trucker to join the staff. "Out here, a traffic jam is two cars."

The only jam I found myself in was untangling my skis after a fall on a slippery wooded trail. Only 10 minutes into a two-day, yurt-to-yurt cross-country skiing adventure, and already my ego was thoroughly bruised. My trusty ski guide, former world-class competitor Bill Murphy, was quick to lend a helping hand - with a smirk. Normally, visitors don't have the privilege of skiing one-on-one with Mr. Murphy, but The Birches does provide a guide to familiarize skiers with the 40 miles of groomed trails before letting them explore on their own.

A few days of unseasonable February warmth had transformed three feet of powdery snow into a crusty meringue, but mile after mile of meandering trail had been dutifully groomed.

The morning's workout made us eager for lunch. That's when I caught my first glance of a yurt. Of Scandinavian origin, yurts look like a cross between a gazebo and a tent. Industrial-strength canvas covers an octagonal wooden frame, providing enough room for a wood stove, futon, bunk bed, and picnic table.

Few things are cozier than being lulled to sleep by the muted sounds of wind-thrashed hemlocks rippling against a yurt's stretched canvas. The steady pulse of an overachieving wood stove softens hard-worked muscles and offers the promise of a heavenly nap.

Those had been my thoughts, anyway, as I tucked into the yurt's cot for a post-lunch nap. But between Murphy's intermittent snoring and the high-pitched growl of snowmobiles, my bid for bliss was postponed.

Overcast skies gave way to flickering sunlight as we coasted through dense forest in the

afternoon.

"I can't believe how good this day turned out," Murphy remarked as we edged up the final hill to the Three Sisters Yurt, my digs for the night.

As we pried off our skis after a six-hour tour, I ignored thoughts of napping and looked forward to the trip's signature event: a seafood feast, cooked on premises. Our chef was Mr. Williams, who greeted us at the door. Hoisting bags of food like prize-winning bass, he tantalized us with tonight's specials: "Clam chowdah, corn bread, and lobstah," he said, beaming.

Contending with the hiss of a Coleman stove struggling to boil the lobster pot, and my interest in the corn bread, Williams tried in vain to teach me heat maintenance 101.

I figured the kindling and logs he jammed into the stove would last the night. I figured wrong. (As I whined the next morning about shivering in bitterly cold predawn darkness under 10 layers of blankets, Williams gently teased me for forgetting about the extra kindling and failing to adjust a simple knob.)

Ah, this was the life - 11,000 acres of pristine wilderness, good company, and great food. Alternating bites of moist corn bread with butter-dipped lobster we christened "Maine snow lobster," we filled up fast. Then just as I loosened my belt, Williams brought out a round of freshly baked pies - apple, rhubarb, and peach.

Bellies stuffed and service complete, the two men returned to the main lodge. I stood outside for a moment and listened, straining to hear faint calls of wolves, owls, or even a breeze. I was totally alone. Admiring the glowing yurt, my gaze shifted upward and stopped cold.

Clear and luminescent above my breath's mist, a million stars teased the upward ambitions of the surrounding pines. I was ashamed at my earlier pining for a Jacuzzi. This moment was the best experience of my trip - and I could've left Maine at that moment fully satisfied.

But I hadn't been snowmobiling yet. I was scheduled for a second day of skiing, but my yearning to ride a sled (as it's commonly called) grew from vague interest to die-hard desire as Williams chauffeured me to the lodge for breakfast on his snowmobile. I still had misgivings about noxious fumes and raucous noise, but Murphy persuaded me to try it. The resort offers quick lessons for beginners and even multi-day guided tours across the frozen lake terrain.

My novice caution soon gave way to reckless abandon as I followed trail guide Arthur Roberts through a wooded course fit for a video game. Squeezing the throttle to a wind-blistering 50 m.p.h., I couldn't help but let out a few whoops and hollers. (Such antics and speed are not recommended for weekend riding, when the trails are crowded.)

My newfound confidence quickly sank, however, as we encountered a who-knows-how-deep water hole. Ever the fastidious mentor, Mr. Roberts tested the waters, sending a spray of icy water in his wake. "Your turn," he said, removing his helmet to reveal a big grin. Sensing the story potential, I ripped across the abyss, completely forgetting I had removed my helmet mask. Nothing like a splash of icy water to wake you up. "Soopah," Roberts said, genuinely proud.

My only stops were occasioned by scenery that demanded photos. Though nearby Mt. Katahdin, Maine's legendary finish to the Appalachian Trail, was obscured by nearby hills, the lake region was stunning.

Thirty-seven arm-stiffening miles later, we arrived in Pittston Farm, a winter oasis near the Canadian border. Though it is nominally a convenience store and refill station, the hordes of sledders who filled its antler-adorned walls came mostly for the local gossip.

Back at The Birches, I explored the lakefront cabins I had given up in favor of the yurt. Unpretentious and comfy, they offer weary bodies a soft bed, but little privacy or pampering.

But people don't come to The Birches to eat cereal on their cabin porches in slippers and a bathrobe. They'd rather be in the dining room, chatting with cheery waitresses over a heaping pile of waffles.

As might be expected, the menu relies more on comfort and quantity than haute cuisine. A caveat: Don't order the home fries unless you're really hungry.

From ice fishing to snowmobiling, skiing to relaxing, The Birches offers a wide selection of winter recreation, and the staff is genuinely friendly.

I left the resort with great difficulty - literally. The balmy weather had turned the sandy access road into a quagmire. So if you make the trip, pack your camera, and don't forget the SUV.

For more information, call The Birches at 800-825-9453, or see www.birches.com

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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