Here are things you can do at the New England Outdoor Center

By Clark Tate

I’ve been waiting for winter since November. As much as I love it — the clean slate, the world thrown black and white by the low traverse of a January sun, cotton candy sunsets — it intimidates me, too. 

Venturing out is consequential when a small mistake could leave me out in the cold. I tend to travel with others this time of year and stick to more popular trails. 

When a friend invited me to a birthday celebration at the New England Outdoor Center, its groomed trails and Katahdin views sounded just right. 

A little more than 15 minutes past Millinocket, the outdoor center spans 1,350 acres along the southwest shore of Millinocket Lake. Owner Matthew Polstien has a clear vision for the property. “We’re hoping to help promote stewardship of areas like this and get people outside, leading active, healthy lifestyles and, you know, having a great time doing it.

“I don’t think there’s anywhere prettier than the side of this hill facing Katahdin,” he said.

It’s a hard point to argue. I first visited last year when my partner and I stopped at Knife Edge Brewing for dinner after a failed bid to climb Katahdin on Valentine’s Day. We shared a pizza and beer in the lofty wood-paneled dining room, staring at a perfect view of the mountain.

The brewery, named after the most treacherous route to the top of Katahdin, is just one of the many perks of the place. It’s housed in the activity center, alongside a small gift shop and an impressive selection of rental gear, including rows of cross-country skis. The parking lot, filled with rented snowmobiles, hinted at just how much fun you can have here. 

We found out ourselves two weeks ago, arriving Friday night in time for a home-cooked meal of raclette at the Moose Lodge. (Our friends are fancy.) We laughed, played music and eyed the two-story picture windows in the living room, wondering what view the morning would bring.

Dawn answered. Through a stand of towering pines, a flat expanse of frozen lake awaited. We enjoyed the view, hot coffee and a simple, calorie-dense breakfast of eggs, toast and bacon.

Then we prepared, holding back from dressing only for the windy, 15-degree weather.

Cross-country skiing is hard work. It’s easy to overheat, especially when heading uphill. If we wore enough to be warm at the start, we’d likely sweat through our base layers and catch a chill. Wise words passed among the group — “Be bold. Start cold.”

With three Registered Maine Guides in the group, we carried multiple packs filled with water, food, extra warm layers, spare hats and gloves, a first aid kit and a foam pad to keep us off the snow if we took a break. We were never far from shelter, but it’s nice to be prepared, especially since cell phone service can be spotty this far out.

I pulled a fleece jacket and harness over my dog, Nala, and covered her pads in musher’s wax to protect her paws from the cold snow. (Yes, dogs are allowed on trails at the NEOC). 

In this winter wonderland, skiers, snowmobilers, fat bikers and snowshoers each enjoy dedicated trails. All are well marked and easy to follow. 

Four of our party donned classic cross-country skis. The fifth wore skate skis. While classic skis grab the snow with plastic scales or grip wax, skate skis offer no such traction. You literally skate through the woods, leaving behind a trail of curious herringbone tracks.

While skate skis need the roughly 10-foot-wide, corduroy ski track we enjoyed, classic skis can get by on a traditional, ungroomed trail with enough snow. Many classic skiers prefer parallel ski tracks pressed into the trail, which can help you control your skis and provide a smooth, consistent surface to maximize glide. 

The outdoor center trails did not include these tracks while we visited. We didn’t care. 

We skied side by side, chatting our way up and down the rolling terrain as we took in the otherwise quiet, snowy woods. 

Biathlete Olympian and New Hampshire native John Morton designed these trails. Hats off to him. They are friendly and fun, with plenty of beginner-friendly terrain and enough challenging runs to keep experts engaged.

For the most part, we traveled among the trees and out of the wind, using well-placed maps to navigate the 16 miles of groomed cross-country trails. We finished with a long climb to Hammond Ridge, followed by a long, friendly descent. 

Part-way down, we stopped at a parting in the trees where a view of Katahdin should be. The low-slung sky hid the peak, emphasizing how different its world is from ours, one often among the clouds. 

After our nearly eight-mile adventure, the weary but still warm and cheerful clan skied back to our lakeside rental. Before getting comfortable, we waltzed onto the flat white expanse of the lake for a birthday toast, kicking through the snow to check the ice along the way. 

Beneath the insulating layer, it was slushy where water had likely settled, but very thick. We deemed it safe enough for a short jaunt by foot and stood, awed at a world transformed by winter. 

Then, lounging on couches and playing music, we rested. We spread mats on the floor for a yoga session with Adriene. (If you don’t know her, go say hello on YouTube.) After the reprieve, we drove to the Knife Edge Brewery for pizza, beer and live music. 

The birthday girl wanted to ski back to our cabin in the dark. A short adventure, maybe a mile, on soft, friendly trails. I joined her, our headlamps cutting through the darkness. We watched fast, wet snowflakes stream down like confetti at some futuristic rave as we slid back to our warm beds for the night. 

A short ski the following day brought us to the Katahdin View Trail, and we pushed up the small hill to its first view of the mountain. Clear blue skies held the white mountain up like a prize. We basked in its beauty, in our own smallness, in Maine’s wild winter. 

What to Know

The New England Outdoor Center offers rental gear and guided tours year-round. In the winter months, you can enjoy 16 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, 10 miles of fat bike and snowshoe trails, or snowmobile and ice fishing adventures. 

Call 207-723-5438 to ask about ski rentals, lessons or guided tours.

Call 800-766-7238 to request fat bike or snowshoe rentals.

For snowmobile rentals, head to the website neoc.com, then click Play, Winter, Snowmobiling, and Book a Snowmobile.

There is an AT&T cell tower on Hammond Ridge. Service can be spotty for other providers. Mapping apps like TrailForks usually work on the property, or you can visit the front desk to download a digital trail map.

Millinocket has an ambulance/emergency snowmobile that can access the trails. In case of an emergency, dial 911. 

Where To Stay

The outdoor center offers a range of lodging, from posh cabins and lodges to simple cottages. Call them at 800-766-7238 to book. Or stay in Millinocket and drive up for the day. 

Tate is a freelance journalist and podcast producer who lives in Bradley. She holds a master’s degree in environmental science and is a registered Maine sea kayaking guide. She is also a former whitewater rafting, canoeing, horseback riding, and dogsledding guide.

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