Trails Flow on the East Branch

A project that has become the talk of the northern Maine woods—a private multimillion-dollar investment to create miles of trails and deluxe warming huts on an over 4,300-acre tract along the East Branch of the Penobscot River—is now open to the public

Penobscot River Trails, opened to the public last year, features views of Mount Katahdin.

The river is sparkling with sunlight, and the woods flutter in a fall kaleidoscope-effect of yellows, oranges, and reds. When the wind gusts, acorns drop suddenly, pelting the surface of the water in a barrage of plops and splashes. But mostly it’s a gentle weather day—warm enough to shed our jackets in the sunshine after we’ve pedaled our bicycles for a few miles on a new eight-foot-wide trail that parallels the river, with swooping curves and bridge crossings that lead through stands of massive pine and spruce trees and floodplains filled with tall silver maples.

In other months there’s a blanket of snow that’s groomed for cross-country skiing, but on the day photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I ride the 16-mile looping trail at the new Penobscot River Trails (PRT), its surface of crushed stone is strewn with sweet-smelling fallen leaves. In the bright daylight, twice we see the papery, silver-gray orb of a wasp nest suspended from a tree branch—each as big as a pumpkin. When a ruffed grouse steps onto the trail we stop and watch for a while; the foraging bird is oblivious until we pedal closer, then it skitters off quickly into the cover of woods.

The improvements and public access to the property is provided by the Butler Conservation Fund, which was founded by philanthropist Gilbert Butler, a kayaking enthusiast who first experienced the East Branch of the Penobscot during a river trip in 2011.

A highlight is the clear view of Mount Katahdin and its Knife’s Edge from a hilltop warming hut—there’s a fire in the woodstove and tall windows facing the panoramic scene. The Butler Conservation Fund, a private foundation based in New York, purchased this undeveloped timberland in 2016, adding to the burgeoning recreation possibilities in the region. The nature preserve is nearly adjacent to the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, close to Baxter State Park, and within a 20-minute drive of Medway and East Millinocket.

FROM NEOC TO PRT

I first heard of the new Penobscot River Trails last winter on a visit to the New England Outdoor Center (NEOC), which is about ten miles away as the crow flies and some 40 minutes by car—with some of the water, woods, and mountains of the Katahdin region in between. A man skating toward Peter Frank and me on cross-country skis had asked if we’d been there. “It’s incredible,” the skier called out to recommend the place. “With fires going in the warming huts and trails, it’s like a national park.”

It was an interesting observation, given that in the remote North Woods of Maine, the young Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument—perhaps the predecessor to a national park—is still being shaped. PRT came up again later when I met Matthew Polstein, a registered Maine guide and the founder of NEOC, an eco-focused hub for year-round lodging and outdoor exploring on Lake Millinocket. Turns out, Polstein has a direct connection to the preserve’s backstory.

Plans for the new recreation destination hadn’t yet been hatched when philanthropist Gilbert Butler walked into River Driver’s Restaurant in 2011 and asked Polstein to be his guide for exploring the area by kayak. The two men paddled streams and rivers for a couple of summers, and Polstein says Butler was struck by the natural beauty, especially the shorelines unbroken by modern development. Eventually, a private foundation begun by Butler purchased more than 4,300 acres of otherwise undeveloped timberland on the East Branch of the Penobscot River. (Conservation, environmental education, and recreation are the focus of the Butler Conservation Fund.)

Unlike the publicly divisive battle to create the nearby Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument from the land previously owned by the foundation of conservationist and Burt’s Bees founder Roxanne Quimby, the creation of PRT was a largely under-the-radar, out-of-the-blue act of generosity by the trust and by Butler, its primary benefactor. Now retired, Butler earned his wealth through his New York investment fund company and has strong ties to Maine, visiting Mount Desert Island with his family throughout his life and owning a home in Northeast Harbor, where he experienced firsthand the legacy of the Rockefeller family’s gifts and vision to create Acadia National Park. By the 2010s Butler, an avid paddler who’s traveled around the world on kayak excursions, became interested in finding a place in the Katahdin region that he could help conserve while increasing access for the public. (The trust has also purchased miles of shoreline on Cobscook Bay in Washington County.) Once the land along the East Branch was secured in 2016, the trust began creating a trail network, initially offering outdoor programs for elementary school children, and welcomed the public in 2019.

A visitor’s center and two warming huts are key amenities at Penobscot River Trails.

EXPANDING KATAHDIN’S ORBIT

“I’m amazed at you guys bombing down the hills, and somehow not slipping on leaves,” says Jessica Masse, cofounder of a graphic design firm in Millinocket, when we meet her pedaling on the trail on this sunny fall day.

To get to Penobscot River Trails, we ventured north of Bangor on I-95, and after an easy drive of a dozen miles from the Medway exit, much of it skirting the East Branch of the Penobscot River, we followed the handsome custom signage to the entrance. Bicycles are available to use, and rental fees are by donation. But we’ve brought our own.

Masse is exploring, too. She’s visited the trails before, but this time she’s out to do the full circuit of trails by bike. She and her husband, John Hafford, who are both originally from northern Maine, returned full time in 2009, founded Designlab, and are raising their two young daughters here. Both she and her husband are active proponents of the potential of greater Millinocket and all that’s happening near Mount Katahdin. “ Within 20 years,” she says, “I truly believe that the Katahdin region will be the number-one outdoor recreation destination in the eastern United States.”

She counts projects like Penobscot River Trails as “proof positive” that it can happen. Ease of access is key. “ You can go on Golden Road, but your GPS doesn’t work at some point, and where do you stop, where are the trails? Or you need skis or a bike or a boat. PRT makes it possible to have an experience in the wilderness without having to worry about getting lost or not having gear. You can simply get out there.”

TAKING THE LONG VIEW

“Mr. Butler only wants to work in the most beautiful places in the world,” says Carl Carlson, director of conservation projects at the Butler Conservation Fund. (A spokesman for the foundation’s work, Carlson notes that Butler is not keen on commenting publicly about his gifts but would rather have the projects he supports speak for themselves.)

Maine is one of the foundation’s geographical areas of interest, along with the Adirondacks in New York, the Patagonia region of Chile and Argentina, British Columbia and Southeastern Alaska, Eastern Africa, and the Lowcountry of South Carolina. At Penobscot River Trails, Carlson says the approach for building the trails and warming huts has been “to overbuild them to last 100 to 150 years,” so they’ll be sturdy and sustainable with as little maintenance as possible. The result for visitors, he says, is signage and buildings with a high aesthetic appeal, and trails that flow and roll beautifully. Polstein agrees: “It’s all pretty amazing. The engineers and architects made sure that even the bridges and boardwalks include materials like dense ipe wood decks and hot-dipped galvanized steel pilings. Plus, three inches of crusher dust on top of the trails.”

For Masse, the investment is a boost to the happenings in the North Maine Woods. “I’d like Mr. Butler to know that I’m really grateful—so many of us are,” she says. “For his love of our woods and his investment in the future of our region.”

A view of Mount Katahdin — Penobscot River Trails, Grindstone, MEA privately owned tract, Penobscot River Trails held its official grand opening last summer. The property is adding to the region’s growing outdoor recreation economy and opportunities, which also include Baxter State Park’s 215 miles of hiking trails, the New England Outdoor Center’s lodging and resources for guided trips, and the nearly 90,000-acre Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

TRAIL GUIDE TO PENOBSCOT RIVER TRAILS

Owned by the Butler Conservation Fund and now open to the public, Penobscot River Trails is a riverfront nature preserve and trail network along an 8.6-mile stretch of the East Branch of the Penobscot River. For questions and to confirm seasonal hours, call 207.746.5807.

FIND IT:
From Bangor, follow I-95 north to exit 244, Medway. Turn left at the top of the exit ramp and continue west on Route 157 past the Irving station to the next right, Route 11 (the Grindstone Scenic Byway). Follow for 11.9 miles to the entrance sign on the left at 2540 Grindstone Road, Soldiertown TWP. During spring thaws and ice-out, park closures are announced on the Penobscot River Trails Facebook page.

WHAT’S THERE:
More than 4,300 acres of conserved woodland along the East Branch of the Penobscot River with a looping network of more than 15 miles of trails for bicycling, hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. Access to a hand-carry boat launch and use of the trails is free and open to the public. Picnicking is welcome; pack out all trash. No pets are allowed, and winter fat-tire biking is allowed only on the Tote Roads.

GEAR-READY:
The visitor’s center and two warming huts along the trails are equipped with woodstoves, tables and chairs, and restrooms. Bring your own gear or use the preserve’s equipment, including bicycles, skis, snowshoes, and kayaks (rentals are donation-only). Kayaks must be reserved in advance.

STAY AND EXPLORE NEARBY:
Stay overnight at the historic sporting camp of Bowlin Pond Lodge in Patten or the eco-built cabins at Twin Pines Camps at the New England Outdoor Center on Millinocket Lake; ski the trail network at NEOC or the backcountry in Baxter State Park (Matt Polstein recommends Abol Bridge to Foss and Knowlton Pond for mountain views); or explore the newly established Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument from the more remote northern entrance to hike, bike, snowshoe, or ski to Grand Pitch or Haskell Rock Pitch.

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