SOLDIERTOWN TOWNSHIP — Registered Maine Guide Jesika Lucarelli looked down the hill she had just skied up and shouted a rousing round of encouragement to the Stearns High students struggling to ski up it behind her.
“It’s the apocalypse,” Lucarelli yelled with enthusiasm as one by one the skiers fell to their knees. “It’s zombie skiers. Come on, homies. Good work.”
Anyone skiing past on this trail wouldn’t have recognized Lucarelli from a moment earlier – when she offered a very different outdoor lesson: Her rapid-fire questions about softwood tree species, the Maine state motto, and why the chickadee is the state bird.
On the other hand, nobody from the public would be skiing here during the week. The 20-mile Nordic trail network is the home of the Maine Outdoor Education Program – part of the growing wilderness education empire that is the brainchild of New York philanthropist Gilbert Butler.
And it is growing in Maine.
In the past month the $5 million lodge funded by the Butler’s nonprofit, the Butler Conservation Fund, opened in the forest east of Millinocket. Now the campus where the Stearns students skied can better serve the region’s students who travel here during their school day for an outdoor recreation lesson laced with history, science and math.
The lodge will open to the general public on weekends next fall, after the completion of the Acadia Park-style trails, said Val Locke, the Maine Outdoor Education Program director.
In addition, in Washington County, a similar youth outdoor program will start May 21 near Lubec, where students from eight public schools will be taught similar outdoor skills and lessons.
“It’s a similar idea,” said Carl Carlson, the Butler Conservation Fund’s director of conservation infrastructure projects in Great Neck, New York.
“It will include all the schools in the surrounding area. We will spend what it takes. Whatever it takes to get the job done.”
To start, roughly 300 students from grades 5 through 8 will participate, said Scott Fraser, the director of the outdoor education program near Lubec.
It will be called Cobscook Shores Outdoor Education Program and be located at Red Point, which is near Eastport, where a lodge will be built.
In fact, the foundation is already poured, Fraser said.
“He doesn’t spare any expense. He does a quality job,” Fraser said of Butler.
The outdoor adventure concept is Butler’s vision.
After he started his philanthropic foundation a decade ago, he established outdoor education centers in “legacy geographies,” scenic wild areas around the globe where Butler wanted to teach conservation at the ground level – by taking students in public schools out into the wild.
He has funded similar programs in North America, South America and Africa, the one near Lubec being his newest endeavor. All are wild and pristine locations that are dear to Butler.
As a summer resident of Mount Desert Island for 65 years, Butler, who is 80, fell in love with the Down East coast while kayaking there.
“He fell in love with the Cobscook Bay,” Carlson said. “We’ve been buying shorefront property for about a year and a half. These will be open to the public, and have kayaking and hiking amenities. We’ve probably got 300 acres. We try to buy adjacent to conservation land. Mr. Butler loves the area. It’s beautiful. He goes up regularly. It’s the kind of (wild) place he’d like to be. He likes it a whole lot more than New York City.”
Meanwhile, at the program along the East Branch of the Penobscot River, the new lodge is a welcome addition to students.
It has one level and is more modern than rustic, with pine walls and ceilings, and large windows.
Cole Kenyon, a Stearns freshman, came to learn to ski in the fourth grade and has been back all but one year. He looks forward to the ski outing.
“I liked it. I’ve gone skiing outside of school, too, and I got this GoPro to video my skiing,” Kenyon said. “I never skip a field trip here. It’s much better here now with the lodge where it’s warm. Before we had to use porta potties.”
Since 2012, more than 10,000 students have gone through the program.
Thursday, as 30 students from Stearns skied in three groups, they listened to the Registered Maine Guides who led them, and worked on the skills they learned over the past five years.
“In today’s world with all the electronics, they don’t get outside. We’re living in a fishbowl,” said Lucarelli, a Belfast native. “They don’t get outside enough where they can be weird and wild.”
Abi McNally, a sophomore at Stearns, said after she learned to ski at the Maine Outdoor Education Program in the fifth grade, she asked her parents for skis, and after she got them for Christmas the next year, her mother and brother each got a pair. McNally proudly pointed out she then taught them both how to ski.
“I loved it so I begged my mom for skis,” McNally said. “Now my family usually goes about once or twice every few weeks.”