The year-round New England Outdoor Center is deep in the frozen white of February when we venture to the Katahdin region to rev up, ski, and ride through a couple days of snow play
Yes, bikes on the snow. I’ve been wanting to try that for a while now. But you need the right bicycle—and, especially, the right tires—and you need good snow.
Photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I plan for an early February getaway, but when the days arrive, it’s after another one of those weird-weather weeks. Sunday night flurries on the midcoast have melted into a sunny Tuesday with temperatures nearing the 60s. We pack optimistically, though, with cross-country skis and warm boots, and start driving. By the time we’re about 70 miles north of Bangor, there’s a distinct change in the air. We’ve arrived in Millinocket, which, after the shuttering of the Great Northern Paper mill in 2008, has been moving into a new era with a more outdoor-recreation-focused economy. I’ve been following recent successes in the region, including the creation in 2016 of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument and the growth of the Millinocket Marathon and Half, which has bloomed from 50 runners to nearly 1,300 in just four years. The free-entry race attracts thousands of visitors even though it’s held in frosty December.
As we cruise through town and past the Scootic In Restaurant, which dates back more than a century, the snowy weather we’ve been looking for kicks in. Under a wintry, steel-gray sky, our car’s wheels splash through icy slush in the main commercial districts on Central Street and Penobscot Avenue, where still-frozen snow is piled high, looming over several cars in one roadside parking lot. I see a sign for “Wintertime Fun: Snowmobiles, Fat Bikes, XC Skis” in front of the new Woods and Water Shop, and we stop in to pick up local brochures and check out the Katahdin-branded hoodies and displays of Maine-made art. I buy a bag of Nicaragua-sourced coffee beans that, the shopkeeper notes, are small-batch roasted by local entrepreneurs Sarah and Roger Buzby of Mainely Coffee.
A few miles northwest of downtown Millinocket in the direction of Baxter State Park, we turn at the sign for the Twin Pines Cabins of the New England Outdoor Center (NEOC), and the road becomes almost tunnel-like. Plow-driven mounds of snow are more than head-high on both sides of the frozen white road- way. In front of River Driver’s Restaurant, we park between a snow bank and a pack of snowmobiles. By now, our car’s thermometer is showing a low-40s temperature, and it’s dropping fast. Overnight lows of 15 are in the forecast.
The restaurant’s two-story lodge-style building is home to NEOC’s offices and is where we check in for one of the trail-side cabins along iced-over Millinocket Lake. It’s warm inside River Driver’s, and I smell coffee. There’s a fire going and locally made wool hats for sale by the front desk. From the deck on the backside of the restaurant I get my first look at Mount Katahdin’s snow-capped peak. We made it. We’ve found a true pocket of winter.
After a night in a large, modern cabin with a tall wall of windows facing Millinocket Lake and the warmth of radiant-heat floors, we wake up to brew some of the new coffee and sit by the gas fireplace. I grab one of the snuggly throws and look out at the spruce trees and snow.
Soon we’re up and out to meet one of NEOC’s guides, 23-year-old Tallie Martin from Freeport, who grew up coming to Millinocket with her parents, who’d bought a cabin here. After she earned a degree in communications at the University of Southern Maine, she returned to Millinocket to work at NEOC. (Her parents, meanwhile, have expanded that simple cabin into a larger, year-round family home.)
“Maine gives you the best of both worlds,” Martin says. When she wants to return to the city, she drives less than three hours back down to Portland for an urban, foodie fix. When she’s up in Millinocket, she can ski daily and ride snowmobiles, like she’s been doing since she was a girl. Trail access and most activities are generally free, once you have the gear. Speaking of gear, the snowmobile I’ll use for the day from NEOC’s rentals is a metallic silver—I dig it. And I pull on a pair of insulated snow bibs, also from the center’s rental stash.
The plan is to hop on sleds for a morning tour to get a preview of the trails. Peter Frank and I are joining Martin and NEOC founder Matthew Polstein, who’s been up since well before dawn and has already been out to groom the trails. Any slush has refrozen, and the forecast promises a gorgeous, bluebird day. When we meet him, Polstein says the tally of snowfall is already more than 60 inches this winter. He’s taking a snowmobile to show us around, but says he’ll want to do some skiing, too, once we get out there.
The greatest mountain
Born in Portland, Polstein says he’d always heard about the quality of light out west, and how it changes the look of the scenery of the Grand Canyon and other famous natural wonders. He understood once he saw for himself. Similarly, he gets extraordinary views in his home state—like today, while on Nordic skis on an overlook within the 1,450-acre NEOC property. From this elevated vantage point (elevation 861 feet) is a clear view across Millinocket Lake toward snow-capped Mount Katahdin (elevation 5,267), named by the Penobscot people as “the greatest mountain.” Whether hung with clouds, carpeted in green, or in sharp-edged gradations of blue-black, Polstein says the way the tallest mountain in Maine appears from the shoreline cabins and hillside trails here is always changing. Day by day, or even hour by hour, the look of Katahdin varies, sometimes cast in the deepest violet shades—a true purple mountain majesty.
Along with the proximity to Lake Millinocket and the Penobscot River, every-day views of Katahdin drew Polstein to buy an old lakeside camp here in the mid-1990s. He’s been modernizing and expanding its lodging and outdoor offerings ever since.
With Baxter State Park’s entrance nearby and the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument now open, NEOC is central to the region’s growing outdoor recreation economy. Polstein plans to add miles of trails at NEOC, expanding from about 16 miles of dedicated hike/bike/ski trails to 40 miles or more. They’ll break ground this year on a new event center along Hammond Ridge, home to remarkable Katahdin views and close to where we’re standing. The event center will serve as a gathering place for biking, skiing, and rafting trips and a striking venue for events and weddings. Polstein envisions a brewpub, too.
Fat tires, ice ride
Don’t think I didn’t notice the three bright green rental bikes with four-inch-wide “fat” tires parked on top of a bunker of snow in front of River Driver’s. We wheel a couple of the bikes down to try on the trails, and everyone we pass seems to notice them, too. “Those look fun,” and “How do they ride?” is what we hear from people on snowmobiles and skis.
Peter Frank and I go for a ride on the looping Lakeside Trail. We’re surprised at the smooth suspension and how responsive the bikes are on the hard-packed snow. The tires don’t make pedaling sluggish, and the workout feels as aerobic as cross-country skiing. We follow the wide, groomed trail and also dip into the woods on a softer, single-track trail that a snowmobile has made, with tight turns and trees on either side. I’m loving this. Up hills and down, I have good control of the bike, except in some moments of fun slides and fishtailing.
Turns out, there are technical reasons for the stable ride. While typical mountain bikes are designed to be ridden with tires inflated to 25 to 65 pounds per square inch (psi), the tires on this fat bike can be filled to just up to 15 psi. That’s where the floating feeling comes in. The alloy frame is built to handle like a dune buggy on rough, off-road terrain.
Next, we take the snowmobile out to an ice-fishing village in the middle of Millinocket Lake. Windswept snow and frozen ruts and trails of past sledding make the ride jarring sometimes, but soon we’re in the middle of the 8,500-acre lake and have absolutely unbroken views of Mount Katahdin. We don’t see anyone ice fishing on this nearly windless Wednesday, and we walk among the cluster of ice-fishing shacks. The snow-topped landscape looks spare and almost lunar. (My space-like silver helmet may be adding to that feeling.) I take it all in, especially a green-painted shack on sled runners that’s a cube of color against the all-white scene.
In the afternoon, I join three other women for a weekly guided cross-country ski outing led by Martin. She says she learned the benefit of women-focused activities while at college and got approval from NEOC to start the ski sessions in late 2018 as soon as there was enough snow.
It’s a beautiful, still afternoon skiing on the same nearly two-mile loop where I’d pedaled earlier. It’s almost dusk, and temperatures are dropping again, making the trails faster, dicier. My skis chatter sometimes and I fall a couple of times—just part of the experience of getting out there. After sundown, the only light in the dim woods is from the snow. The moon isn’t shining tonight. Our eyes adjust, and soon we see the golden light from the lodge and River Driver’s, and we make our way from the trail to click off our skis and grab a beer—Geaghan Brothers and Allagash are on tap.
The bartender suggests the chicken tenders because the breading is done in house. They’re Buffalo-style, with ranch or chunky blue cheese dressing for dipping and carrots and celery on the side. When the hot plate of chicken arrives, the dish’s flavors remind me of a variation of chicken cordon bleu. Much of the food here is made from scratch, and Martin recommends we try the Bloody Mary, made with a housemade mix and pickle juice–infused vodka.
The next table happens to be seated with several Maine Tourism Association board members who are visiting for a meeting. We start talking with Scott Riccio, a board member and the owner and founder of Northeast Charter and Tour Company in Lewiston. He says he extended his stay to do some snowmobiling and is most happy when he’s “40 miles from anywhere.” Riccio is building a house on Millinocket Lake, just down the shoreline from River Driver’s, using as many local products and contractors as possible. “The shingles aren’t sourced from Canada,” he says. “They had to be from Maine.”
Peter Frank and I sleep soundly again in the warm cabin, and in the morning we wake to see that new snow fell softly overnight. The spruce and birch trees outside the cabin are tufted in white, and our car is drifted over with several inches of snow that we’ll need to brush off before driving. But first, we’ll go snow shoeing. It’s a perfect morning for it. I don’t feel any wind, and the only sound is a distant hum of snowmobiles. Sparkling snow falls in clumps when I bump the branches. It’s been a calm few days. We’ve seen red squirrels scampering, deer in the distance, and a bald eagle that looked to be following the trail, too.
We catch up with Polstein once more before we go. I notice his wool pants when we see him near the grooming machine. He says he’s a fan of wool, and he’d like to add a wool-themed run on the trails. He also tells us that NEOC hosts a fiber-arts weekend in the fall. Polstein’s ideas and energy offer a glimpse into the ecotourism future of the Katahdin region. Millinocket is evolving with the times, and after this visit, I’m on a ski, snowshoe, and fat bike high.
These events and resources help make the Katahdin region a year-round outdoor recreation destination.
Baxter State Park
The legacy of former governor Percival P. Baxter has grown to more than 200,000 acres of park lands. The state park includes Mount Katahdin, more than 40 other peaks and ridges, and 215 miles of trails. Campgrounds are open mid-May to mid-October. baxterstatepark.org
Katahdin Woods + Waters National Monument
Encompassing 87,563 acres east of Baxter State Park, the national monument established in 2016 has limited infrastructure but no shortage of pristine, remote wilderness to explore, along with views of Mount Katahdin. The 17-mile gravel Loop Road is typically open to vehicles beginning Memorial Day weekend through the first weekend in November. nps.gov/kaww
Millinocket Century Ride
This noncompetitive bicycling ride, first held in 2018, is scheduled for June 8, 2019, and will include routes of 25 miles, 50 miles, 70 miles, and 100 miles. Registration is free, and raffle ticket sales support the Katahdin Gear Hub, the outdoor-gear lending desk at the Millinocket Memorial Library. facebook.com/MillinocketCentury
Millinocket Marathon + Half
Started in 2015, this December race is becoming a national favorite for adventure-seeking runners. Entry is free, and runners are asked to spend generously with local businesses in the Katahdin region. As a USATF-certified race, it is also a qualifier for the Boston, Chicago, and New York City marathons. The fifth run will be held December 7, 2019. millinocketmarathon.com
New England Outdoor Center (NEOC)
The 1,450-acre center’s eco-built cabins on Millinocket Lake are open year-round, along with River Driver’s Restaurant, gear rentals, and guided adventures. New mountain bike trails are opening this summer, plus stand-up paddleboarding, canoe and kayak outings, moose-watching tours, yoga classes, and whitewater rafting on the Penobscot River. neoc.com
Mount Chase Lodge
Located on the shores of Upper Shin Pond near Baxter State Park’s northern entrance and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monu- ment, Mount Chase Lodge is open year-round. The recreational sporting camp offers guided hiking, foraging, snowshoeing, and yoga trips, along with guest rooms in a main lodge and private cabins. mtchaselodge.com
Shin Pond Village
In Mount Chase, this recreational resort has campsites, RV sites, housekeeping cottages, guest suites, and two waterfront homes on Shin Pond. A base for hiking and fishing trips in the warmer months, Shin Pond Village is also a snowmobiling destination in the winter and offers snowmobile rentals. shinpond.com
With a campground and cabins near the northern entrance of Baxter State Park, this camp is a year-round destination for outdoor recreation and also offers guided hunting for black bear, moose, deer, coyote, and partridge. matagamon.com
Bowlin Camps Lodge
In Patten on the East Branch of the Penobscot River, this sporting camp with cabins and a lodge has been a destination for hunters and outdoors enthusiasts since 1895. The camp offers weeklong hunting packages, along with guided and unguided paddling trips. bowlincamps.com