Franklin Countys First News

Foot and Paddle: Saddleback to Reed’s Mill on skis

Fly Rod Crosby Trail though white birch and balsam fir. (All photos by Doug Dunlap)

Doug Dunlap

One of my favorite point-to-point ski treks is over a 15-mile route from the north side of Saddleback Range to Reed’s Mill in Madrid. Two trail developments, new in the past decade, have drawn my attention to the opportunity to ski a half-circle around the western end of the range, and continue by slabbing the broad plain that lies in the upper reaches of Madrid Township. The Fly Rod Crosby Trail is one of these developments; the other is the Orbeton Stream Conservation Easement.

The Crosby Trail is a 40-mile north-south route, connecting Philips and Oquossoc, first established in 2012, is a route for section hiking. Pick a section to explore, hike a distance that suits your party; return on another day to explore another portion of the route. The trail honors Cornelia "Fly Rod Crosby" of Phillips, Maine’s first credentialed Maine Guide, and thereby Maine’s first female Maine Guide.

The Orbeton Stream Conservation Easement, established in 2014, as a Land for Maine’s Future project, consists of 6,000 acres of foothill forest that will continue to be a sustainable working forest, while also welcoming hiking, fishing and hunting. This parcel of land is particular important for the health of Maine's Atlantic salmon population. The waters that flow down the south slopes of Saddleback and Mt. Abraham, eventually reach the sea at Merry Meeting Bay, as the Kennebec River.

Let’s take a closer look at this lesser-known region of Franklin County - and then join me, in word, on a cross-country ski journey in late winter. First: location, location, location. The Saddleback Range and the Mt. Abraham Range, together form a great west-to-east arc of high peaks in northern Franklin County.

In winter, the 4,000 foot-plus summits of Saddleback, The Horn, Mt. Abraham (Abram) and neighbor peaks on these ranges, are striking in their snow cover, viewable from many a mile to the south. I have enjoyed that view from the Kennebec Highlands, the hills of Strong, the New Vineyard intervale, the approach to Phillips from Strong and even from downtown Farmington. Familiar as that sight is for me, there are some winter days when I break from driving (or foothills hike) and stop to take a long look. A person could spend considerable money traveling to a distant part of the USA, or the world, in search of a view such as this - and here it is, in our backyard. The view is that remarkable.

The ski journey begins at early morning from the Saddleback trailhead for the Fly Rod Crosby Trail, west of the Saddleback alpine ski lodge. We reach this point by taking the Dallas Hill Road in Rangeley to the Saddleback Mountain Road, and following this road to its end at the alpine ski area parking lots. Beyond this point, the road becomes the Rock Pond Road, winding 0.4 miles through a condominium settlement, to end at a plowed parking spot with space for three vehicles. A weathered sign directs hikers westward toward Rock Pond.

On the trail to Rock Pond.

First indication that this is the Crosby Trail is 100 yards farther, where stands a hiker register box. In summer, there is usually a supply of trail maps here. Per usual, we carry our own set of maps, including both the official Fly Rod Crosby Trail Map and a topographic maps. We sign in, and are underway - almost.

I pause for a look eastward, and reverse direction to retrace my steps for 30 yards to gain a view of The Horn of Saddleback, a 4,041-foot peak that caps the east end of the saddle between it and the main summit of 4,120-foot Saddleback Mountain. Before the day is over, I will look up at those two magnificent peaks from the other side of the range. More views extend eastward - the cone of Potato Nubble, and well beyond that, the sun-touched heights of remote Redington Mountain, our region’s perhaps least visited 4,000-foot mountain, at 4,010 feet. The sky is a sharp, clear blue. Quite the sight.

At this early hour the air is still, the woods completely quiet. The temperature stands at a crisp 15 degrees. We are dressed in layers - wicking base layer, insulating fleece mid-layer, outer breathable wind shell, mitts, wool hats, neck warmers - and are comfortable enough, though there is more shade than sun for the first hour or two. Our travel gear? Cross-country skis with metal edges, and “skins” attached to aid up and down maneuvers we expect in the first few miles. Ski skins are furring strips that that attach to the ski base to provide grip on ascents, but glide on decent. The term originates from sealskin, traditional material used in the Nordic lands where cross-country ski travel originated.

Tracks of other foot-travelers mark the first section our route, from the trailhead to Rock Pond. Snowshoes, skis, and even boots, have made their mark. These are old tracks, which will fill in with the next significant snowfall. For much of the way to the pond, we ski in untracked snow parallel to the racks, to obtain good grip on uphill. The snow depth stands at 2-3 feet, but our skis keep us well on top. Though we are largely in shadow, sunlight breaks through the snow-weighted trees from place-to-place. The effect is one of remarkable beauty.

At Rock Pond we ski onto the broad, snow-covered expanse, rimmed by boulders that give the pond its name. Coyote tracks traverse the pond. Oh, to have been an onlooker when the coyote, on the hunt, at a lope, passed here! I make my way to one particular great snow-blanketed boulder at the west end of the pond, where coyote tracks lead. A good spot from which to reconnoiter – be that by humans or by a creature of the Maine woods. I pause here, too, for a good look across the pond, the snow surface largely unbroken.

We rejoin the trail, where the next major landmark is Midway Pond, which I visited by snowshoes earlier this winter. It is a worthy destination in itself, but on this day, we continue on, content with pond views from the Crosby Trail, which slabs the hillside east of the pond. We travel now over unbroken snow through thick stands of balsam fir and white birch. Diamond-shaped white and blue trail markers confirm our route. At 1.7 miles from the Saddleback trailhead, we reach a signed junction where the Crosby Trail joins snowmobile trail ITS 84/89.

Off with the skins! We ski on groomed, ascending trail skirting the western end of the Saddleback Range, pass Eddy Pond - another snowshoe hike destination of mine; the Appalachian Trail junction on its route from Highway 4 South of Rangeley towards the heights of Saddleback. On we go, continuing to gain elevation, passing pristine Moose and Deer Pond. I scan the surface of the pond, looking for tracks of either namesake creature. Later in the day I will see signs of both moose and deer, but not here, not now. The now-higher sun throws shadows of low fir and snow-capped boulders over the pond.

We cross the height of land, leaving the watershed for the Rangeley Lakes Chain and the Androscoggin River; and enter the drainage for the Sandy and Kennebec Rivers. The trail descends to a dramatic overlook of the portion of the Sandy River Valley, known as Onion Valley. Here we meet a snowmobile party from Lexington. We swap trail information and a few Maine woods stories, and are then on our respective ways – we southward, they northward. The view from this overlook extends to the hills of Strong on the southern horizon, and we gain our first full look at the Mt. Abraham Range. Quite the vantage point.

Onion Valley viewpoint, looking south.

The next 10 miles are mostly on descent- delightful on long fairly gentle grades, daunting on the curves, where I snowplow to control speed. The trail runs eastward, the Mt. Abraham Range coming into full view. That range is dramatic in mid-day sun: north-lying former fire tower peak of Mt. Abraham itself, Middle Abraham and the twin summits of East Peak. The extensive rock fields on the high ground - greatest acreage of such high rock anywhere in Maine other than on Katahdin - are bright and snow-capped.

Our first stream crossing by bridge, is over Winship Stream, where stands the signed trailhead for the Berry Pickers Trail, a steep but rewarding 1.7 mile ascent to the saddle between Saddleback and The Horn. Beyond this trailhead, the Crosby Trail leaves the ITS route to return to the woods. We stay on the multi-use trail, now on Orbeton Stream Conservation lands, striding and gliding, down, down, crossing Conant and Hardy Streams. Views open up to the Saddleback Range to include Saddleback Junior, Potato Hill, and Farmer Mountain below Mt. Abraham. We travel through the mixed growth of the transition forest – hardwoods such as rock maple and white birch; softwoods of balsam fir, red spruce, and occasional white pine. Tracks abound: snowshoe hare, deer, coyote, moose, deer.

After crossing Orbeton Stream by bridge, we come to the section of ITS 84/89 that once formed the railroad route from Phillips to long-gone Redington Station by Redington Pond, north of Orbeton Canyon and the Saddleback Range. Orbeton Stream flows to our right. On the west side of the stream, the Crosby Trail runs parallel to our ITS route, which we follow all the way to the end of our outing at Reeds Mill. The two routes reach the Reed’s Mill Road 0.1 mile apart. I have hiked that section of the Crosby Trail in summer, and in winter. Choices! Both routes offer a fine outing. Snowshoes are my preferred mode of winter travel for that section of the Crosby Trail.

Downhill run towards Orbeton Stream, Mt. Abraham in the distance.

Orbeton Stream, snow and ice-covered, appears particular beauty in the low light of late afternoon. Quick water works openings in the two-feet thick ice. The thaw-freeze forces have fractured slabs of that ice, pushing great gray-white chunks up the sides of mid-stream boulders. At the bridge over Perham Stream, flowing from the settlement of East Madrid, to meet Orbeton Stream, I stop for a backcountry concert. Perham Stream winding a course among boulders sings a rumbling bass. Orbeton Stream carries the high part - alto I would say - as it runs shallow over the gravel bar formed by the inflow of Perham Stream.

In the final few hundred feet of what has been an 8-hour journey, we meet the only other skier on trail today - a local man capping off his work day with an out- and-back ski along Orbeton Stream, as twilight approaches. Looks like a good way to clear the mind, prepare for a good night’s sleep. Those benefits and a hot supper, appeals to me. It has been a good day on snow in the mountains of Franklin County.

Trail tips:

In my daypack I carry a small “ready bag” with items that may be helpful, or even life saving, when I am in remote country. If I have a mishap, or meet someone else in difficulty, help will be a longtime in arriving.

That bag contains a headlamp with spare batteries; repair tape; matches, a lighter, and cotton pads for starting a fire; a reflective foil blanket; first aid kit; some energy bars and water purifying tablets. In winter I roll up a closed cell foam pad and attach to the outside of my pack. This weighs very little, and provides insulation from the snow if I want to sit or even lie down.

Of course, I carry a compass, map and GPS; and a hunter’s whistle. Knowing that I will cool quickly when I stop on a hike, I have in my pack a down jacket with hood that compresses to the size of a softball.

Be prepared when entering the Maine woods in winter!

Text and photos - Copyright Douglas Allan Dunlap 2020

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9 Responses »

  1. What a treat to read this early this morning. Unlikely to take this trek myself, your good writing took me right along. Only wish I could see many more pictures on that crystal clear morning.

  2. Thank you so much for taking the time to post this story Doug.
    I'm not physically able to do this sorry of activity "at the present time" so your journey is pure inspiration for me.

    I am looking forward to taking your path.
    If not,, thanks for sharing!!

  3. Love your story. I have travelled these trails too what a nice article. Keep them coming!!

  4. Thank you Doug!

    That was a wonderful read and really enjoyed the photos as well.

    Keep on trekking!

  5. Great writing, Doug.. You took us right along with you for the whole 8 hr trek......I could visualize ever bit of the scenery. Thanks so much, as I will never be able to take this trip myself.

  6. Great report on a great route! Not very well known, but this will certainly help.

  7. Nice article Doug.We are so lucky to live in western Maine.

  8. Fantastic detailed recap for anyone who desires to try this trail but uncertain of what to expect! Adventures can be more enjoyable with accounts such as these to assist with proper preparation!!

  9. Thank you Doug, for another armchair journey. Never had the ankles for skating or skiing, but I've enjoyed many a trip as recounted by you in the part of Maine i love so much. So glad you are able to do it, handle an 8-hour ski,and regale your readers with the lived experience.