Story & photos by Everett Potter
It was dusk as I watched my old friend and fishing companion Frank Schaeffer cast a fly for brook trout on the Appalachian Mountain Club’s (AMC’s) Little Lyford Pond in Northern Maine. Now watching Frank expertly cast a fly rod on Little Lyford Pond was not unlike having the good fortune of stepping inside a Winslow Homer painting. Dappled with lily pads, fringed by thick woods, and with forested mountains rearing up nearby, Little Lyford is not only scenic but was providing an evening meal of weeds to a cow moose and her calf, who stood about 100 yards from where we were fishing. There are no houses on the pond, which lies amidst nearly 100 square miles of Maine wilderness. So it’s not all that hard to imagine yourself here in the 19th century, when “sports” from New York, Philadelphia and Boston made the then arduous multi-day trek to the Maine woods in pursuit of the legendary brook trout.
Fish were rising everywhere, and we cast fruitlessly, and competitively, as we’ve been doing since we met at age 10 and fished ponds in Massachusetts. Just as it was getting too dark to fish, and the trash talk was fading away, I tossed an orange Wood Special fly and hooked a silver torpedo of a brook trout. It fought hard and then flashed to the surface, thrashing violently. I glimpsed the iridescent colors that had fascinated Homer and that he so expertly captured on canvas, and then promptly released the wild creature back to the waters.
AMC’s Maine Woods Initiative
Little Lyford Lodge & Cabins is a special place in a state with no shortage of special places. It is the name not just of a pond (actually two ponds, Little Lyford one and two) but of an old logging camp turned sporting camp that’s now part of the (AMC) Maine Woods Initiative. That started 10 years ago, when the AMC set about buying up large tracts of wild Maine land to preserve them forever. It now has nearly 70,000 acres in northern Maine, east of Moosehead Lake, and its holdings overlaps the famous and notoriously difficult 100 Mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail.
Little Lyford was built as a logging camp in 1873, when the Maine woods were seen as an endless timber resource waiting to be harvested. In later years, it became a sporting camp catering to fishermen. It continued that way until 2003, when it was purchased by the AMC as part of its Maine Woods Initiative. A similar camp, Gorman Chairback, has been restored and a third, Medawisla, is scheduled to be finished in 2015.
“AMC has preserved this experience, which allows pristine ponds and wilderness to stay pristine,” explained Gary Dethlefsen, the operations manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Maine Woods Initiative, as we dined at the lodge one night. “There was a great deal of time and money spent on restoring Little Lyford and we continue to gradually renovate the cabins.”
Facebook is Not an Option
You get to Little Lyford by driving to Greenville, Maine, at the foot of 40 mile long Moosehead Lake. Sleepy Greenville, which derives any buzz it might have from acting as home base for seaplanes flying out to remote waters, still has a touch of the frontier town about it. This is where you provision yourself with whatever you might need for a few days or a week off the grid (Frank and I decided that beer and wine were good choices, given that Little Lyford offers no alcohol). We then headed due east and found ourselves on a gravel logging road, watching out for logging trucks – they have the speed, single-mindedness and ferocity of something out of a northwoods Jurassic Park – and also watched our cellphone bars melt away until the “No Service” message appeared. Then we drove even further. At the Hedgehog Gatehouse, we checked in – you pay a fee to drive these private roads — and then drove another few miles. A little less than an hour after leaving Greenville, we arrived at Little Lyford Lodge & Cabins.
The first thing you might notice, apart from a scattering of log cabins and a large vegetable garden (the source of many an evening’s salad), is the absence of noise. You might hear a phoebe’s call or the wind shaking the tall white pines, but since there’s no phone service, internet, televisions, radios or other man made intrusions, you are seriously off the grid. There are no ATV’s, motorhomes, or trophy homes either, in case you were wondering. At night it’s the hoot of bard owls, and by day, the cry of the loon on the many ponds. It’s called nature, for those who have forgotten. You can take walks along the Pleasant River, fish on a dozen remote ponds, or undertake challenging hikes to Indian Mountain, Gulf Hagas, or the Appalachian Trail. Facebook is not an option.
At Little Lyford, there are nine private log cabins that can sleep up to six people. Dinner, breakfast and a trail lunch is included in room packages. Red Quill, the cabin that Frank and I shared, had two log frame beds, a wood stove, a sink with potable cold water, and five windows, including a clerestory window that could be opened by means of a rope and pulley. Pillows and blankets are provided but you need to bring your own sheets or sleeping bag, and a towel. There is no housekeeping. There are outhouses and a bath house with hot showers and composting toilets year-round. Dog lovers note that Little Lyford recently became dog-friendly. Cross country skiers note that this is some of the best terrain in Maine for a lodge-based adventure.
The cabin was immaculate, and simplicity itself. You won’t find a bible in the rooms but you will find a copy of “Hunting, Fishing and Camping,“ by Leon Leonwood Bean. On the front porch were two rockers, perfect for gazing at the Perseid meteor showers and the blinking lights of planes five miles above us heading from Boston to Europe, a bit like watching the 21st century from the fastness of the 19th century.
A typical day? Most of the guests were here for hiking, and there are magnificent hikes that start right from the Camp itself, like Gulf Hagas, the so-called Grand Canyon of Maine. But we were here for the fishing. Each pond has an array of canoes or kayaks that you can use.
We arose that second day by six, walked for five minutes down a wooded path, and pushed off in a canoe at dawn onto the still waters of Little Lyford Pond. About 50 yards away, the moose and her calf were busy yet again working the weeds along the edge of the pond, not bothered by me or Frank. I had brought along an L.L. Bean Pocket Water, a 7 foot six inch lightweight two piece rod and reel combo designed for seeking brook trout these remote ponds. It light, short and supple, a magic wand ideal for pond fishing like this. In Lyford, the brook trout we were angling after are wild, not having been stocked for nearly 70 years. In other ponds that we fished, they were native – purebreds, in other words, unsullied by stocked fish.
We hiked to the second second Little Lyford pond in a light rain and we each took five brookies no more than 9 inches long on White Wullfs. Between casts, I watched a beaver busily working the pond, spotted an eagle and then an osprey. The only other human was Frank, and we alternately chided and congratulated each other on our catches.
“That looks a lot like a fish,” I shouted across the pond as he held up a five inch specimen” only smaller.”
Our best day was heading out with Lani LeCasce, a 31 year old Greenville native who grew up on her father’s sporting camp on Moosehead Lake and is the resident naturalist at Little Lyford. She runs Little Lyford’s family camps and adult adventure camps and she’s also a Registered Maine Guide. Spunky, smart and funny, she drove us about 15 minutes down a road, and then led us through the woods to a landing on Mountain Brook Pond. We fished here for a while, for native brook trout – fish essentially unchanged since the Ice Age – on a lake fringed with pines, while cedar waxwings noisily flew overhead and an osprey dove for fish.
“This part of the AMC land is a 20,000 acre ecological preserve,” Lani explained. “That means no motors, just foot and paddle power only.”
We crossed the pond, left our canoes, and walked about a mile and quarter, through the “raspberry forest,” eating raspberries as we went, on a rough path lined with lumps of white pearly everlasting flowers and evening primrose, to Baker Pond. It was small, deep blue, and even more remote, in the shadow of 3,500 foot Baker Mountain. Wind bedeviled us, as did a brief squall, but Frank and I each managed five fish that day. The trash talk died down to a murmur by dinner.
Dinner Bells & Trophy Fish
The Lodge has a porch that’s perfect for a drink before dinner (BYOB) and catching up with others on the adventures of their day, all while watching hummingbirds at the feed. Some guests played a recorder duet that wafted through the woods, the only music I heard all week. Inside the lodge is a great room with long tables for communal dining, with lots of windows, a stone fireplace, and a mezzanine with sofas and chairs to curl up and choose from well-thumbed books on butterflies, birds and fish.
A dinner bell on the wide porch around the lodge announced mealtimes. Breakfast, served at 8AM, was family style, and might be apple crumble, vegetarian sausage patties, fresh blackberries and coffee. Or pancakes and breakfast sausages and cereals. Lunch was a sack lunch with a sandwich or wrap, apple and dessert, gorp and cookies, ordered the night before, and ready for you to take on your day of hiking or fishing.
Dinner, served family style at 6PM, was announced by one child or another shaking the dinner bell for all that it was worth, creating a noise might have been heard in Greenville.
One night, it was roast pork, sautéed summer vegetables, and white rice, with a dessert of chocolate cake. Another night was spaghetti with sausage and parmesan cheese, while yet another was meat loaf – one of locally raised beef, the other vegetarian. There were generous salads fresh from the garden tended by Lani.
But beyond the food, it was the sociability factor that made a stay at Little Lyford Pond so special. The staff is friendly, open and enthusiastic, as well as tireless. If you have a request, they’ll make it happen, from vegan this to gluten free that, with fishing tips and fly selections tossed in for good measure. They’ll drop what they’re doing and pore over a hiking map with you. Hotel staffs should be half this good.
Then there’s the relaxed sociability of dining at long, communal tables – “Pass the butter, please, and what’s your name, and you’re from where?” – that adds to the adventure. I met a Parisian couple, now residents of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, with two toddlers in tow. A middle aged couple from Ohio who have been members since 1964 and have been to every AMC lodge. A friendly couple from Concord, Massachusetts with three kids, their oldest boy a gifted fishermen. A German family from Stuttgart and middle aged folks from Winthrop, Maine, as well as a couple from the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts who loved to hike. Everyone ranged from the reasonably fit to the very fit. Some fit the stereotype of crunchy types – the yoga-pants-clad recorder players, for example, while others simply dressed in the Patagonia-EMS-REI uniform of adventure. They ran the occupational gamut, from teachers and doctors to those holding down corporate jobs who seemed to be blossoming by the minute in this stress-free environment. Essentially, every guest was here for the same reason: to be outdoors all day long. Anyone who isn’t stimulated by a blue Maine sky, a soaring osprey, the sight of a moose, or a view of the vast Maine northwoods will wonder why they came.
That last day, we explored a windy Horseshoe Pond and ditched it to fish Little Lyford again. I snagged two more brookies that afternoon, and in the evening, three more, including a 13 inch keeper for breakfast the next day. Catch and release is how I usually fish, but you’re allowed to keep two fish a day here, and these were special fish indeed. My catch was generously acknowledged by Frank, but when we went out the next morning, Frank redeemed his manhood and nailed his own keeper, virtually identical. I was happy for him. Really, I was.
Back at the lodge, mustachioed chef and avid fisherman Steve Marsh trotted out a scale for the weigh off.
“Ten ounces,” he proclaimed of my catch, a sizeable fish by these ponds’ standards. Then he took Frank’s fish and lay it in the scale. Frank promptly snuck his thumb on the edge until it pushed up to five pounds.
“Hah, maybe not,” I said. “What’s the verdict, Steve?”
“Nine ounces,” he said.
We gutted them, and Steve cooked them in cornmeal and bacon fat and passed them around to the multitudes at breakfast to sample. They tasted as good as anything that I’ve ever caught in Maine. Though I swore I heard Frank say that his tasted better.
Little Lyford Lodge & Cabins
P.O. Box 310
Greenville, ME 04441
AMC Reservations 603-466-2727
Rates in summer are approximately $135 per person per night for non AMC members, $91 for AMC members. They include daily breakfast, lunch and dinner.