The brilliant Mainers have blended hiking trails with off the grid bed and breakfasts. But can three brothers survive each other?
By Patrick Doyle | Photography by Jose Azel
My goal was pretty simple: One last trip to Maine. My wife and I had lived in Boston for two years, and whenever we tired of the city’s crowds of frat boys sporting kelly green Sawx hats and fist pumping to the Dropkick Murphys, we fled north to the quiet beaches and laid-back campgrounds of Maine. Now, on the verge of leaving Boston, I wanted to take in the pine-scented Vacationland with a send-off backpacking trip.
Unfortunately, my only option for company was to invite my three younger brothers—they were usually up for anything. The problem was that while all four of us are fairly mild-mannered on the individual level, any combination of two or more Doyle brothers often results in a volatile chemical reaction. At the Doyle house in the ’90s, games of Monopoly generally ended with someone angrily flipping the board; driveway basketball was cut short by round-ball punting; and the building of snow forts served merely as a warm-up to hurling shards of ice at one another. As we have aged into adulthood, things have generally improved. Then again, a recent dispute over a yard game nearly resulted in blows.
Still, I needed some companions, and so I made the calls. Dennis couldn’t make it, on account of the recent birth of his second son. Fair enough. Ryan, a medical school student, could fit it into his schedule, but would have to pack a study guide for his imminent board exams. And Matt, who was on break from college and had just wrapped up his summer job, was in.
Three-quarters of the Doyle boys. A quorum, if you will. I started planning a three-day, two-night trip in western Maine. With any luck, it’d be A Very Short Walk in the Woods and not the more likely, I Hope Nobody Gets Punched in the Maine Woods.
In 1971, a young Bostonian named Larry Warren moved to western Maine to work at Sugarloaf, a rapidly growing ski resort at the time. Warren fell in love with the hills, lakes, and rivers of the surrounding Carrabassett Valley, a region that was hurting economically as the lumber industry contracted. Warren’s idea: build a system of trails and huts to conserve the land and reap recreation dollars. It’d be a localized version of the huts operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club in New Hampshire or the storied refugios in Europe, which can house and feed 150 yodeling hikers a night.
It took decades to realize the dream, but Warren’s Maine Huts and Trails opened its first lodge in 2008, helped by donations from individuals, foundations, and New England outdoor companies like New Balance and L.L. Bean. Today, there are four huts on 80 miles of trail. The system lives on land comprised of conservation easements, leased private holdings, and state park parcels. And unlike some of the older hiking-only trails in New England, the Maine Hut & Trails system is open to hikers and mountain bikers, plus boaters in the late spring, summer, and autumn. Cross-country skiers and snowshoers visit in the winter months. About 11 miles separate each hut, which are all off the grid and powered by solar panels, hydropower, and propane backup. No mere lean-tos, the huts boast electricity, composting toilets, and hot showers. In winter and summer, the hut staff cooks hot breakfasts and dinners for guests, as well as packing a brown-bag lunch for the trail. You just bring clothes and some water, and start walking.
The Maine Huts were vital to my planning since they preempted Doyle Clan arguments over the perfect campsite. Also, neither Ryan nor Matt had ever been backpacking—ever. I booked a three-day, two-night trip for mid-August.
A few weeks later, Ryan and Matt arrive in Boston with two crushingly oversized expedition backpacks. Between the two of them, they’ve packed a half-dozen pairs of gym shorts, several pairs of blue jeans, a few gallons of water, and enough granola bars to feed a llama for a week. Ryan has a pillow. In their packing I sense the influence of my mother, a lovely woman with zero outdoors experience. Ma Doyle has been known to ask, “Did you bring a jacket?” when it’s 80 and sunny out. I throw half of their supplies in a corner.
The next morning, we make the four-hour drive up to the Carrabassett Valley, where we drop our car at our intended exit. A Maine Huts & Trails driver shuttles us on back roads 15 miles to the northeast, so we can make our hike a point-to-point. Our first destination is the Flagstaff Hut, on expansive Flagstaff Lake. It’s a glorious summer day, in the 70s and sunny. The trail traces the shore of the lake—two miles between wild blueberry bushes and hemlock trees. It’s hiking more in the spirit of Thoreau’s strolling than some jarring, heavily burdened march.
I’m braced for Doyle Clan bickering, but instead, we walk amiably, pointing out toads and birds along the trail. We arrive mid-afternoon at the hut, which sits a few hundred yards up the hill from the water. Our three hut keepers—all in their 20s—show us our room in one of the outbuildings. There are a dozen bunks, but since it’s a less-crowded Sunday, we have it to ourselves for the night. While Ryan pulls out a book to study for his exams, Matt and I paddle a canoe in the lake. A few hours later we’re cracking open crisp Geary’s Summer Ales and sitting outside in Adirondack chairs.
The Flagstaff Hut is the easiest to hike into, and since it’s right next to the lake, it’s popular with families. Tonight is no different, and four families join us in the open dining room. We tuck into barbecue pork, white beans, coleslaw, and salad. Far superior to dehydrated backpacking fare.
After dinner, one of the hut keepers gives us a tour of the energy-saving features of the buildings, as well as the solar panels and garden, before proudly showing off the hut’s prized possession: Clivus, a massive composting toilet in the basement that turns organic matter at the hut—yes, everything—into soil.
Later, we walk to a viewpoint to watch the sun drop into the lake.
After a breakfast of herb frittata, bacon, and home fries, we heft our packs and head south toward the Poplar Hut. The first few miles are a bit swampy, but bridges have been helpfully constructed through the area. We eventually turn right onto the smaller Hemlock Trail, which winds its way through thick stands of evergreens on a hill overlooking the lake.
This is by far the longest hike of my brothers’ lives, but neither complain. Instead, they’re secretly bent on outlasting one another, and both refuse to ever request a rest. I’m left calling for water breaks every couple of miles, which is fine with me since my home-brewing obsession means I’m carrying a few pounds of extra beer weight (for product testing purposes, mind you). This is the new friendlier Doyle Clan. The sole dispute, in fact, is probably my doing. For some reason Matt’s acquired a proclivity to hike two feet behind me, which is not just annoying, but leads to a pileup whenever we stop. I threaten blows if he doesn’t stop tailgating.
Because our packs are light and we’re in no rush to build a camp before nightfall, we find ourselves talking. Sports. Films. Matt and I spend 30 minutes “helping” Ryan study for his exam. “How do you fix a hernia? What are the intricacies of toe amputations? Is there a resurgence of electroshock therapy? Elephantiasis—discuss.” We also, almost unbelievably, talk about a few real things: Ryan’s upcoming proposal to his girlfriend; Matt’s plan for a career in computer engineering. I tell them about leaving my full-time job and departing Boston.
At around the halfway point, we come to an intersection. Two paths diverged in a green wood, yada, yada. I counsel that we stick with the trail on the right and, outdoor rubes that they are, they go along with me. About a half-mile in, we discover that we’re mistakenly on the Appalachian Trail. I am dubbed Magellan for my navigation skills. We study the map and decide to continue on, as the AT connects back to the Maine Huts Trail. We pass a few determined-looking solo thru-hikers—who, if they’ve hiked all the way from Georgia, have already come more than 2,000 miles, and have just 173 left. They are not interested in banter.
On the AT, we find a campsite by the water, and settle onto logs and rocks to eat our brown-bagged lunches. Matt discovers a paperback novel wrapped tightly in a plastic bag and tucked next to the log, left, we imagine, by one Appalachian hiker for another. Loons call out on the lake.
We arrive at the Poplar Hut in mid-afternoon. We’re just the right degree of worn out. Sinking into leather chairs in the hut’s lounge, we gorge on zucchini bread and iced tea. After showers, we dawdle over a dinner of roast chicken and salad, drinking more Geary’s—tomorrow’s hike is but a jaunt—and talking to the only other guests, an Australian couple and their daughter, a student at the University of Maine. We discuss American and Australian universities, medicine, and politics. Tim, the hut keeper for the night, joins us, and unwittingly shows us Doyles a ring-toss game he has rigged up on the screened-in porch to pass time. A metal ring is attached to the ceiling by a long string. To win one must swing the ring across the room and get it to land on a hook on the far wall. We play for an hour, heckling one another caustically and sending the foreigners scattering, until we too crash into our bunks.
Nobody gets punched.
If You Go: In summer and winter a night at a Maine Hut runs $96 per night per person for non-members. The price includes three meals—two hot, one cold. During the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn, the price drops to $35 per night, but you’re on your own for food. mainehuts.org