From picnicking to boating, the Yale Center offers a lakeside oasis

Shortly after becoming regular visitors to the Yale Outdoor Education Center (OEC), Jillian Jordan ’18 Ph.D. and Nathan Barker ’22 Ph.D., then graduate students, began to think that the site – on the south shore of Powers Lake in East Lyme – would one day make the perfect setting for their wedding.

The COVID-19 pandemic interfered with this aspiration, as the OEC was forced to halt all indoor group gatherings in 2020, a precaution it continued to take. Instead, the couple decided to have a casual get-together with family and friends the day before their wedding in late June.

They had perfect weather. On a recent sunny afternoon, the couple and their guests were able to swim, boat, hike, picnic, or simply take in scenic views of the spring-fed lake, known as One of the calmest lakes in the state.

For Barker, who has completed his Ph.D. in Economics in May, the OEC was a relaxing oasis less than an hour from campus, where chilling out on a paddleboard offered much-needed respite from the stresses of student life. “I was coming here, and it was kind of like I didn’t give a damn about the world,” he said.

Jordan describes the center as “magical” and “idyllic”. And, like many other members of the Yale community who have ventured there, she considers it a hidden gem.

The lakeside property is a bit “hidden” in that it’s 42 miles from Yale’s central campus, says Tom Migdalski, director of the OEC since 1984. To the best of his knowledge, the center, which is located on 1,500 acres of woodland abutting the Nehantic State Forest, is also a one-of-a-kind amenity: it doesn’t know of any other university that has something like it. But it is also a very popular and lively summer recreation destination for Yale students, faculty and staff, and their families. Many Yale departments hold summer meetings and annual celebratory gatherings there, he said.

Every weekend in the summer it’s a busy place,” Migdalski said.

This summer is already much busier than the last two. The OEC Dining Hall, a newly renovated but still rustic hillside facility that offers panoramic views of Powers Lake, and a recreation cabin where crafts, games, and other activities are usually held. offered to children remain closed this season. But for the first time since 2019, groups can now congregate in all of OEC’s outdoor spaces, including its open-air lakeside pavilion, gazebo and picnic areas.

Open from mid-June through Labor Day, the OEC is available to the entire Yale community through either a seasonal membership or a daily fee. Visitors are welcome to swim at the patrolled beach or use the center’s watercraft, which include one- and two-person kayaks, rowboats, and stand-up paddleboards. Dockside fishing is also available.

Near the shore are nine rustic cabins, and deeper in the woods are eight remote campsites. A lakeside pavilion with large picnic tables, grill, serving area and brand new spacious deck with seating is available for group rentals. A gazebo, also with a grill and tables, serves as a great spot for small group gatherings. The center also offers a small change room for visitors, a shower for overnight campers, campfire rings, a clay volleyball court and a small basketball court.

Visitors are permitted to use the center’s watercraft, which include one- and two-person kayaks, rowboats, and stand-up paddleboards. (Photo: Andrew Hurley)

To ensure a safe environment during a time of continued pandemic conditions, the OEC is requiring that only family members who live as a unit may stay together in rental cabins this year, and they must provide proof of vaccinations. . “Our cabins are rented out for most of the summer,” Migdalski noted.

For most, the biggest draw in the OEC is the forest-surrounded lake, known to be among the cleanest in the state. Because there is a boat speed limit of eight miles per hour, it is not heavily populated with motorboats.

And since the lake is surrounded by woods, there is no runoff on the lawn,” Migdalski said. “In fact, freshwater jellyfish – a harmless clear-bodied jellyfish – live in this lake, and they only exist in exceptionally clean water.”

Inheriting his father’s devotion

Before becoming an outdoor recreation facility, the OEC was the Yale Engineering Camp, where students enrolled in the engineering program at Yale’s former Sheffield Scientific School performed summer fieldwork. Much of the land was donated by donors to the university for use in perpetuity. Many structures on the site, including the huts that served as dormitories for summer students, were built in the 1920s. The pavilion was designed and built by students from the School of Architecture in 1981.

Migdalski himself has been a regular visitor to the OEC since he was six years old. His father, Edward C. Migdalski, was the center’s director from its inception in 1966 until his son took over as director.

It was Ed Migdalski, an outdoor recreation enthusiast who was also a pioneer of the nationwide club sports movement, who came up with the idea to turn the engineering-related study site into a center for hobbies when civil engineering was dissolved as a field of study at Yale. He was an avid fisherman and specimen collector and taxidermist at Yale’s Peabody Museum. The OEC still bears its mark, from its idea of ​​Adirondack-style outdoor shelters used for group camping to old student dormitories turned into lakeside cabins. The grass beach, sand beach, swimming and boat docks, and gazebo were all funded by donations from alumni.

Ed Migdalski, who died in 2009 at the age of 91, won a Yale Medal for his commitment to Yale athletics and the OEC. Tom Migdalsky continued his father’s legacy at the center over the summer. During the school year, he serves as director of club athletics and undergraduate intramurals and is head coach of Yale’s trap and skeet team.

Young Migdalski, who served as a lifeguard at the OEC when he was young, now oversees the center’s seasonal staff and interns, a group made up mostly of college and high school students. They serve as lifeguards, boat attendants, party attendants (on-site to provide information and assistance to cabin and campground users, and to conduct campfires and other activities) and maintenance staff.

Tom Migdalski and Taylor Gray.
Tom Migdalski, director of the Yale Outdoor Education Center, and Taylor Gray, deputy director. (Photo: Andrew Hurley)

Taylor Gray, now the center’s deputy director, started working at the OEC as a lifeguard six years ago, when she was 16. Since then, she has been there every summer.

There’s nothing like this place,’ she said, as she surveyed a quiet morning by the lake. “I’ve been a lifeguard in a swimming pool before, but nothing comes close. It’s just a nice environment to work in.

Gray, a college swimmer who is now studying nursing at Ramapo College in New Jersey, said she finds particular satisfaction in performing boat rescues – that is, helping visitors who may have overturned their canoe or had difficulty rowing a kayak to shore, often because of the wind. (There has never been a serious water-related emergency at the OEC, Migdalski notes.)

Every summer I take on more responsibilities and see some of the same people year after year,” Gray says. “It really feels like a community. Even though I will graduate and work as a nurse, I hope to be back next summer.

A real tonic against the stress of the world’

Traveling to the Outdoor Education Center, Jillian Jordan, who recently invited her friends and family to the site as part of her wedding weekend, was always struck by the number of staff available to give a helping out with visitors.

Someone always helps you with the boats right away if you try to get out on the water,” she said. “And someone came to the motorboat once just to tell me that I was upside down on the paddleboard and that was why it was so hard to paddle. I was very grateful.

Recently, School of Drama staff member Anna Glover visited the OEC with their wife and other family members. They have been members for four years.

It offers a real tonic against the stresses of the world, a chance to have a picnic in a beautiful environment and then spend time in the water,” said Glover, director of theater safety and occupational health at Yale Repertory Theater and David Geffen. School of Drama. “The fact that I can borrow a range of equipment at such a reasonable rate and have a decent amount of time on the water is fantastic, and all under the watchful eye of the really helpful staff, who are wonderful.

It’s great for my mental and physical well-being. Novices and experts alike can get something out of it. On this last trip I took my family from England and they couldn’t believe such a place was available for Yale affiliates.

The sense of surprise that they’re welcome to be part of the OEC community — whether for a day or a season — is something visitors often feel on their first visit, Migdalski said.

There are so many great things about the OEC,” he said. “Where can you, any day in the summer, drive in, park your car, swim, kayak, canoe or paddleboard, hike and picnic – in a place as scenic as this- ci — all for $10? I think that’s pretty amazing.

For more information on the OEC and membership and rental rates, visit the the center’s website.

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