From picnicking to paddling, Yale center offers lakeside oasis

Not long after they became regular visitors to the Yale Outdoor Education Center (OEC), Jillian Jordan ’18 Ph.D. and Nathan Barker ’22 Ph.D., then graduate students, began thinking that the site — on the south shore of Powers Lake in East Lyme — would make an ideal setting for their wedding someday.

The COVID-19 pandemic interfered with that aspiration, as the OEC was forced to halt any indoor group gatherings in 2020, a precaution it has continued to take. Instead, the couple decided to host a casual gathering with family and friends there the day before their wedding in late June.

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

For Barker, who finished his Ph.D. in economics in May, the OEC has been a relaxing oasis less than an hour away from campus, where unwinding on a paddleboard offered a needed respite from the stresses of student life. “I’d come here, and it was sort of like I hadn’t a care in 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 thinks of it as something of a hidden gem.

The lakefront property is a bit “hidden” in the sense that it is a 42-mile trip from Yale’s central campus, says Tom Migdalski, who has been OEC’s director since 1984. To the best of his knowledge, the center, which is located on 1,500 acres of wooded land abutting Nehantic State Forest, is also a one-of-a-kind amenity: he doesn’t know of another university that has something like it. But it’s also a very popular and bustling summertime leisure destination for Yale students, faculty, and staff, and their families. Many Yale departments host summer meetings and yearly celebratory gatherings there, he said.

On every summer weekend — this is a very busy place,” said Migdalski.

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

Open from mid-June through Labor Day, the OEC is available to the entire Yale community, either through a seasonal membership or a day fee. Visitors are welcome to swim at the lifeguard-attended beach or to use the center’s watercraft, which include single and two-person kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards. Fishing off the dock is also available.

Near the shore are nine rustic cabins, and deeper into the woods are eight secluded campsites. A lakeside pavilion boasting large picnic tables, a grill, serving area, and a brand-new expansive deck with seating is available for group rentals. A gazebo, also with a grill and tables, serves as an ideal spot for smaller group gatherings. The center also offers a small dressing room for visitors, a shower house for overnight campers, campfire rings, a clay volleyball court, and a small basketball court.

Kayaks and canoes at the edge of the water.
Visitors are allowed to use the center’s watercraft, which include single and two-person kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards. (Photo: Andrew Hurley)

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

For most, the OEC’s biggest draw 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 by motorboats.

And since the lake is surrounded by woods, there is no lawn runoff,” said Migdalski. “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 dedication

Before becoming an outdoor recreation facility, the OEC was the Yale Engineering Camp, where students who were enrolled in the engineering program in Yale’s former Sheffield Scientific School conducted summer field work. Much of the land was gifted by donors to the university for use in perpetuity. Many of the structures on the site, including the cabins that used to serve as dorm rooms for the summer students, were constructed in the 1920s. The pavilion was designed and constructed by School of Architecture students in 1981.

Migdalski has himself been a regular visitor to the OEC since the age of six. His father, Edward C. Migdalski, was the center’s director from its creation in 1966 until his son took over its management.

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

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

The younger Migdalski, who served as a lifeguard at the OEC when he was young, today oversees the center’s seasonal staff and interns, a group comprised mainly of college and high school students. They serve as lifeguards, boat attendants, evening attendants (on site to provide cabin and campsite users with information and assistance, and to host campfires and other activities), and maintenance staff.

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

Taylor Gray, now the center’s assistant director, first began working at the OEC as a lifeguard six years ago, at the age of 16. She’s spent every summer there since.

There is nothing like this place,” she said, while lifeguarding one quiet morning at the lake. “I’ve lifeguarded at a pool before, but nothing comes close to this. It’s just a beautiful environment to work in.”

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

Every summer I have taken on more responsibility, and I get to see some of the same people year after year,” Gray says. “It really feels like a community. Even though I’ll be graduating and working as a nurse, I’m hoping to be back again next summer.”

A real tonic against the stresses of the world’

During her trips to the Outdoor Education Center, Jillian Jordan, who recently invited her friends and family to the site as part of her wedding weekend, has always been struck by how many staff members are available to offer a hand to visitors.

Someone always helps you with the boats right away if you are trying to get out on the water,” she said. “And someone once actually came out on the motorboat just to tell me that I was backwards on the paddleboard and that was why it was so difficult to paddle. I was very appreciative.”

On a recent day, School of Drama staff member Anna Glover visited the OEC with their wife and other family members. They’ve been members for the past four years.

It offers a real tonic against the stresses of the world, a chance to picnic in a beautiful environment and then enjoy time out the water,” said Glover, who is the director of theater safety and occupational health at the Yale Repertory Theatre and David Geffen School of Drama. “The fact that I can borrow a range of equipment at such a reasonable rate and get 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 can get something from this. This last trip, I took my family from England and they couldn’t believe such a place was available to Yale affiliates.”

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

There is so much about the OEC that is great,” he said. “Where else can you on any day in the summer come in, park your car, swim, go out on a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard, take a hike, and have a picnic — in a place that is as scenic as this one — all for $10? I think that’s pretty incredible.”

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