When the Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society winter outings schedule was planned last October, I volunteered to coordinate a Nordic ski trip at a location to be determined on Jan. 15. At the time, it seemed reasonable to expect there would be several options to choose from. Not this winter. Acceptable snow for Nordic skiing has been extremely scarce and essentially non-existent in the foothills and coastal plain.
As the deadline approached, I still hadn’t made a decision as quality choices south of Aroostook County were limited. Several years had passed since I’d skied the Narrow Gauge Pathway in Carrabassett Valley, so that option seemed worth exploring. I rely on my friend, Brent Elwell, for all things Carrabassett Valley. A call to him a couple of days prior to the scheduled trip resulted in hopeful information as he’d been skiing in the valley regularly and more snow was forecast for that night. He volunteered to check Narrow Gauge trail conditions the following morning.
Brent supplied great news: The Narrow Gauge was groomed and ideal for skiing. Chowderheads Jade and Sean Klutz were elated with his report and quickly signed on.
The Narrow Gauge Pathway is one of the most unique bike and ski trails in Maine. The historic trail follows the former Kingfield and Dead River Railroad bed along the boulder-strewn Carrabassett River between the town of Carrabassett and the tiny village of Bigelow. A chapter in my book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine,” narrates an exceptional bike ride on the path.
The parking lot at the Airport Trailhead located on the right off Route 27 about a mile north of the Carriage Road in Carrabassett Valley was almost full when the four of us arrived. The weather was sunny and surprisingly warm with a moderate breeze. The parking area was a busy place as skiers, fat tire bikers, skijorers, snowshoers and dog walkers were all preparing for a trek.
We began by skiing a connector trail across a groomed open field north of the airstrip with a spectacular view of Bigelow Mountain in the distance. Traversing the William Munzer Recreational Bridge over the Carrabassett River, we arrived at the actual beginning of the Narrow Gauge Pathway.
Despite heavy traffic, the trail was well-groomed and in good condition. The tracks were in excellent shape for classic skiing. Minor damage caused by the many competing activities diminished the quality of the untracked sector, but it was still more than adequate for skate skiers.
We crossed a narrow bridge over Houston Brook and traveled adjacent to the river while enjoying views of the challenging whitewater rapids we’d paddled during club trips in the past. Ascending gradually in a mixed conifer and hardwood forest, traffic was busy in both directions. While never steep, the path rose steadily for much of our ski to the northern terminus in Bigelow.
The well-formed tracks facilitated an efficient kick and glide as we skied uphill. The trail turned away from the river and passed a Maine Huts Trail junction on the right. Skiers have the option of following the path to Stratton Brook Hut, but it becomes more difficult. We continued on the Narrow Gauge.
The trail rejoined the river where a steep embankment overlooks a particularly precipitous section of the mountain freshet. Shortly after, we crossed a long bridge over an expanse of frozen wetlands and passed an old cabin built by railroad workers in 1900 that is still in use. The gradient moderated as four Chowderheads arrived at the junction for Campbell Field Trailhead.
Following a relaxing break at Campbell Field, we proceeded north past another Maine Huts Trail junction that also provides access to Stratton Brook Hut. Foregoing that option, we soon reached the outskirts of the old village of Bigelow where the former Bigelow Train Depot is now a private residence. A short spur left leads to Stratton Brook Trailhead. We decided to begin our return trip.
That’s when the fun began in earnest. We enjoyed an exhilarating descent on the fast hard-packed tracks, double poling most of the more than 5 miles back to Airport Trailhead. A multitude of skiers, snowshoers and bikers were met on our return. Narrow Gauge Pathway has to be one of the most popular multi-use winter trails in Maine.
It’s snowing as I write. Skiing options will soon be plentiful!