For adventure guide Nancy Zane, the Maine outdoors are a powerful place

The North Star—not the brightest star in the night sky but the steadiest—has been guiding explorers for centuries. Longtime outdoor adventure guide Nancy Zane took inspiration there, naming her company North Star Adventures and striving to open her clients up to explore—physically, emotionally and artistically.

“I take people out and meet them where they’re at physically,” Zane says. “You don’t have to be an extreme athlete to get out there and enjoy the backcountry. If half a mile is what you can hike, that’s awesome. And it can be a catalyst for lifestyle change.”

Setting a new course is something that 57-year-old Zane has done many times in her life, including when, in the 1980s, she gave a friend a ride from West Virginia to Maine and decided to stay a year or two. She got a job at a bakery in Portland and used a day off to go to the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, where she heard about Unity College. She enrolled, earned a degree in outdoor recreation and joined the Unity staff, leading outdoor adventures. There, she met her husband, Gary Zane, who was athletic director and eventually dean of students, and they had two sons: Cody and Matty. She homeschooled the boys for many years and led other homeschooling families on outdoorsy trips. By the time the boys were grown and had moved to Boston and Portland, Nancy Zane had more than 25 years of experience guiding recreation tours—and the desire to set out on her own.

“Two years ago, I decided to leave my job at Unity College and go rogue,” Zane says.

Nancy Zane spent 25 years at Unity College leading people on paddling, hiking, backpacking, sea kayaking and snowshoeing adventures. Two years ago, she decided to “go rogue” and launched her own adventure company, North Star Adventures. Photo by Derek Guimond

In many ways, running North Star Adventures is similar to what she did at Unity—leading people on paddling, hiking, backpacking, sea kayaking and snowshoeing adventures and teaching wilderness first aid and wilderness first responder certification courses. But the age bracket has widened, giving Zane the opportunity to show middle-age clients—including women in their 50s through 70s—that they can do more than they thought possible.

“I gear my programs to the middle-aged population. You can be a beginner, but you have to have a level of fitness,” Zane says. “I take them to incredible, powerful environments and push them a little out of their comfort zone so they feel accomplished and have a peak experience.”

For example, a couple years ago, Zane took five women—including a 70-year-old on her first-ever winter hike—to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, near Crawford Notch on a trail at Arethusa Falls. Rather far into the hike to turn around, they crossed a bridge and discovered an ice slide on the opposite side.

Multiple groups of technical ice climbers from nearby Frankenstein Cliff encountered the North Star group and told Zane about the conditions of that trail. Based on their reports and her own knowledge of the Frankenstein Trail, Zane decided to take that route back—and she  use an ice pick to ax out stairs on one icy section to make the descent easier for her nontechnical hikers. Her group of ladies were ecstatic with pride with what they’d accomplished that day.

“When I take people out,” Zane says, “they’re glowing with satisfaction that they’ve done something physically and succeeded. I never leave anyone in the dust.”

It’s clear that Maine offers almost an embarrassment of riches for an outdoor guide, as Zane lists her stomping grounds: the Rangeley Lake region, Moosehead Lake, the Western Mountains including the Bigelow and Grafton Notch, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Park, Gulf Hagas (“the Grand Canyon of the East”) and, for sea kayaking, Downeast and Port Clyde.

Photo by Derek Guimond

“I love paddling island to island and camping on the islands. And, in the winter, I love backcountry ski touring—hut-to-hut ski touring,” Zane says. “The woods and the mountains are so incredibly beautiful in the wintertime, and I love doing winter trips.”

Mainers, Zane says, are happier when they learn to embrace winter. That said, all her winter trips are either from a base camp or hut to hut.

“I want people to come back and have a warm place to sleep, a hot dinner, a fireplace and even a glass of wine if they want it,” Zane says. “And then they’re ready to go cross-country skiing in the morning. It’s about getting people out in winter, but if you can have them embrace the season, it’s beautiful. I get really inspired when I’m in the backcountry, and so do my clients.”

That aspect of inspiration is why Zane collaborates with artists in co-leading multi-day Adventures in Art and single-day Explorations in Art trips. A documentary photography trip Aug. 13–16 involves tandem sea kayaking, riding a steamship, hiking and possibly snorkeling in Moosehead Lake complemented by the mentorship of Sarah Rice, whose photos are regularly published by Getty, the New York Times and National Geographic.

Other pairings include sea kayaking and nature journaling with a co-founder of the Maine Master Naturalist Program or hiking and creative writing with a Bates College writing instructor.

“We use the natural environment as a catalyst to open you up to parts of you that you didn’t know existed,” Zane says. “I want them to get in touch with themselves, the parts of themselves that have been buried—and that can happen in the natural world.”

Photo by Derek Guimond


Adventures in Art: Documentary Photography
with Sarah Rice in the Moosehead Lake area. (Aug. 13–16, $825)

Explorations in Art: Sea Kayaking & Nature Journaling
with Chloe Chunn, co-founder of the Maine Master Naturalist Program and author of “50 Hikes in the Maine Mountains,” on Penobscot Bay and the Holbrook Island area. Launch from Brooksville and observe and record the tranquility of Maine islands and the critters that make them their home. (Sept. 8, $110)

Adventures in Art: Hiking & Writing
with Stephanie Wade, a Bates College writing instructor. Experience the “Grand Canyon of the East” while exploring the Gulf Hagas region of Maine, camping on the Pleasant River and engaging in poetry or prose. (Oct. 12–14, $400)

For more information:

Amy Paradysz is a writer, editor and photographer who lives in Scarborough.



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