Katahdin looms in the background as children play in Millinocket Lake at the New England Outdoor Center, where a growing mountain bike trail system could make the region a mountain-bike destination, national bike experts say. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

MILLINOCKET — Matt Polstein stopped his mountain bike a short distance from where views of Mount Katahdin tower over Millinocket Lake. As a rainstorm soaked Polstein and a group of riders, he quoted Thoreau: “Cold and damp? Are they not as rich experience as warmth and dryness?”

His optimism in the face of a drenching rain mirrors the businessman’s hope for the Katahdin region.

Polstein has been at the forefront of ecotourism in Maine for a quarter- century as the founder and owner of New England Outdoor Center on the outskirts of Millinocket. The outdoors resort caters to snowmobilers, Nordic skiers, hikers, canoeists, rafting enthusiasts – and most recently, mountain bikers.

Now, as executive director of Katahdin Area Trails, Polstein and others are working to turn Millinocket into a mountain bike mecca – one they think will bring significant economic impact to the former mill town.

This summer, the nonprofit Katahdin Area Trails received a $250,000 federal economic-development grant to expand the network of mountain bike trails started by the group in 2014. The funds will expand the bike trails located beside Polstein’s resort from 6 to 16 miles and build Maine’s first gravity trail – a downhill-specific bike park full of berms and jumps on Hammond Ridge. But the vision shared by Polstein, other board members and national mountain-bike experts goes far beyond: To build the trail system from Polstein’s resort to the heart of Millinocket, 10 miles to the southeast and throughout the forested region.

Matt Polstein, owner of New England Outdoor Center, leads a group of riders on mountain bike trails in Millinocket, near where a recent $250,000 federal grant will fund more trails for the nonprofit Katahdin Area Trails. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In the past five years, the Katahdin Area Trails has spent more than $300,000 on the trail system. Because the system is situated just south of Baxter State Park, the Appalachian Trail, and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Polstein and bike advocates say it’s a natural place to court the mountain-bike tourism enjoyed by other rural New England towns.

“Not every town should become an outdoor mecca and have that as the basis of the economy. In this case, there’s the potential to develop as many as 100 miles of trails,” said Mike Smith, a Katahdin Area Trails board member and director of the nonprofit Outdoor Sports Institute. “Six miles of trails (right now) is not a lot. But there is funding for another 10. Work is being done on the next phase. And we are building enthusiasm. You saw a lot of people with bikes on their vehicles riding around town this summer. You didn’t used to see that.”

BUILT IT, AND THEY CAME

The Kingdom Trails in Burke, Vermont, is the blueprint. The trail system that started in 1994 offers a 100-mile network of rolling, woodland bike trails for all abilities. It has increased summer visitors from 4,400 in 2003 to 106,000 in 2016, said Tim Tierney, the former director of the Kingdom Trail Association, now the Vermont Department of Economic Development’s director of business recruitment and international trade.

Then, in 2010, Carrabassett Valley started funding the local mountain bike club in an effort to expand the network of bike trails from the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center to the surrounding area to grow summer tourism.

The goal was a heralded trail system that would draw riders from across the Northeast. Less than 10 years later, the effort is working, according to Town Manager Dave Cota.

Cota said at least six restaurants that used to close after the ski season now stay open in the summer, dozens of second-home owners visit year-round, and hotels are catering to more summer guests than ever before. As much as $800,000 has been spent on the trails. But the four partners – the town, Sugarloaf, the local New England Mountain Bike Association chapter, and the Maine Huts and Trails – have agreed to continue spending up to $90,000 a year on the project, Cota said.

“There is a real vibe here in the summer now,” he said. “These trails are not cheap. But outdoor recreation is what we’re about. Recreation is our industrial park.”

Steve Kasacek, project manager at the International Mountain Bike Association in Colorado, said Millinocket has the necessary ingredients to emulate these kinds of success stories. Located at the doorstep of the North Maine Woods, the town is surrounded by open land. Its soil includes a mix of sand, silt and clay that can be shaped and will drain well for trails – along with plenty of rocks to add interesting features. And then there are those wild big-sky views.

“We are working with other landowners to develop the concept plan, but the potential is definitely there,” said Kasacek, who was in Millinocket last week to teach trail building.

FROM DEPRESSED AREA TO DESTINATION

Millinocket’s population decreased from 6,700 in 1995 to 4,300 in 2017, the result of the decline and eventual closing of Great Northern Paper’s mill in 2008. Polstein believes a mountain-bike trail network leading to the downtown – where new entrepreneurs could cater to active outdoor tourists – could reverse that trend. He intends to open a bike shop in a building he co-owns on Penobscot Street in town – Polstein already offers a gift shop, with bikes for sale, in the space. Plans for a micro-brewery – which he will call Katahdin Brewing – are in the works at Polstein’s resort.

The local library, now called the “Gear Library,” has started offering bike rentals as well as books. The local nine-hole golf course, the hospital and the school all may host bike trails, Polstein said. There’s also hope that the large land-owning paper companies will join in the effort to build a trail system and promote greater ecotourism in the region, he said.

Without a doubt, Polstein’s outdoor center will benefit if the Katahdin Area Trails succeed. But Katahdin Area Trails also is made possible because of Polstein’s resort, and land he owns.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Polstein said.

Experts at the International Mountain Bike Association in Boulder, Colorado, say the Katahdin region has what’s needed – chiefly good soil, open land and rocks – to build a destination mountain bike trail system. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

At the New England Outdoor Center, the view of Katahdin dominates. But behind the sporting camp and its large log-cabin-style River Driver’s Restaurant, a sign for Katahdin Area Trails leads visitors into a quiet woodland, where trails wind through rolling, tight turns and over narrow, wooden bridges that span small brooks. The flowing trails in the northern forest are accented with boulders, cairns and rising wooded slopes.

Currently, 5 miles of the trails are for beginners. Just 1 mile is designed for intermediate riders, a section that offers steep dropoffs for those who want to take to the air. The trails are free to all. The Outdoors Center provides fat-bike rentals and gear.

As the trail system grows, Polstein envisions a large signature mountain bike festival that his sporting camp could host – and introduce hundreds, if not thousands, of outdoor tourists to the Katahdin region.

“I think our success will hinge in part on the fact we have great terrain and we are thoughtfully, professionally building trails,” Polstein said. “More importantly, however, is the connection we have to the other great resources in the Katahdin region, and a community of supporters.”


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