Scudding gray clouds reveal tantalizing glimpses of the snow-covered slopes of Katahdin, as viewed through the large northwest-facing windows of the Pines and Ridges Warming Hut. A comforting fire crackles in the woodstove as our attention returns to lunch, hot drinks, conversation and another look at the map of Penobscot River Trails, home to a 16-mile system of ski and snowshoe trails in the big woods of Soldiertown Township.

The day’s adventure had led our group of three skiers along the East Branch of the Penobscot River on wonderfully groomed and tracked trails. We kicked and glided wild and free for four glorious miles next to the gurgling river of Henry David Thoreau fame. Tracks of moose, fox, perhaps a bobcat, hare, plus a host of smaller critters crossed our corduroy path, which was lined with old growth hardwoods and conifer thickets.

Our mid-morning start didn’t allow sufficient time to reach the second warming hut at Long Meadow, so a return visit would be needed. We damped down the stove, shouldered our daypacks and took another look toward Maine’s “Greatest Mountain,” but alas, the high summits and ramparts of Knife Edge were not to be clearly seen this day. It was time to ski back, slowly, with senses on high alert for more of nature’s wonders.

Skiers follow the East Branch of the Penobscot River at Penobscot River Trails in Soldiertown Township. Photo by Carey Kish

Penobscot River Trails is a landscape-scale project of philanthropist Gilbert Butler and the Butler Conservation Fund. Four years ago, they purchased 5,000 acres and eight miles of corridor along the East Branch of the Penobscot River, southeast of Baxter State Park and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Last year, the group opened a state-of-the-art, year-round recreation facility on Route 11 a dozen miles north of Medway, complete with a beautiful visitor center complex and two remote warming huts.

The extensive Penobscot River Trails system, modeled after Rockefeller’s historic carriage roads and featuring signposts and trail signs similar to those in Acadia National Park, is open for groomed and tracked Nordic skiing and snowshoeing in winter, paddling in the spring and mountain biking in the fall. Public use of the trails is free, and use of the loaner gear, including skis, poles, boots and snowshoes, is by donation.

Penobscot River Trails is also the base camp for the fabulous Maine Outdoor Education Program, whose mission is to connect school-age children to the outdoors and to inspire and facilitate a lifelong appreciation of physical fitness and environmental awareness.

Medway school kids get ready for a morning of skiing at Penobscot River Trails as part of the Maine Outdoor Learning Program. Photo by Carey Kish

As we were gearing up, a busload of school kids from Medway rolled in, and for the next delightful hour we observed them getting fit with ski gear and protective clothing before they scampered off with their instructors for a fun morning on the trails. It was certainly heartwarming to see the smiling, playful kids — our next generation of outdoor stewards — getting outside for a chance to see and do what we adults have enjoyed for years.

There are at least three other great opportunities for ski and snowshoe fun in the Millinocket-Katahdin region, a real bounty of adventures enough for a many days of outdoors enjoyment.

A scenic 15-mile system of Nordic ski and snowshoe trails, the work of the nonprofit Katahdin Area Trails organization, emanate from the New England Outdoor Center at Twin Pine Camps on Millinocket Lake, just off Route 157, eight miles northwest of Millinocket.

Immediately across from NEOC’s River Drivers Restaurant, the fine web of groomed and tracked trails lead to Hammond Ridge and Black Cat Peak, and along Millinocket Lake, rewarding with million-dollar Katahdin views on a good day. Post-trek, grab a bite and a brew at River Drivers, then wander out to the big lake for an unobstructed vista of the mountain. The trails at NEOC are free; gear rentals are available at River Drivers.

A snowshoer enjoys a sunny day on the Clubhouse Trails just west of Millinocket. Photo by Carey Kish

Volunteers from the Northern Timber Cruisers Snowmobile and Cross-Country Ski Club maintain some 20 miles of Nordic ski and snowshoe trails right in Millinocket, at Bait Hole three miles south of town on Route 11, and at the club’s clubhouse on Route 157 just west of town. Little Smith Pond and Smith Brook are highlights at the “Clubhouse” trails, while the Bait Hole trails meander next to Elbow Lake and the Penobscot River.

Carey Kish of Mt. Desert Island is the author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast and editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. Follow Carey’s adventures on Facebook @ Carey Kish.

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