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The Future of Accessible Trails in Harpswell

Her smile really tells the story, along with the two-thumbs-up rating.

Aggie Perry, 4, thoroughly enjoyed exploring the town of Harpswell’s recently renovated Cliff Trail with her wheelchair “Go-Go,” and her mom, Molly Perry. And Molly was happy to share their story in a blog post called “Adventuring with Aggie” on the Maine Trail Finder website.

Aggie Perry on the Cliff Trail (Molly Perry photo)

“It opened a whole new world for her,” Molly said about Aggie’s September adventure. “She’d never done a trail in her wheelchair before and to be able to go around on her own and explore the Fairy House zone…Her face just said it all.”

In the post, Molly assessed the trail for a variety of visitors: “The trail is great not only for a wheelchair but a walker, gait trainer or other mobility device. It’s wide enough that even a larger power wheelchair would navigate it nicely as well.” She added: “This accessible portion of the trail is a nice length for the out and back with still plenty to see and enjoy. It took us about 40 minutes with Aggie navigating mostly on her own.”

Along with the smile and the two thumbs up, Molly and Aggie rated the Cliff Trail “Wheelchair Approved!”

It was not always so.

The opening stretch of the heavily used Cliff Trail, located behind the Harpswell Town Office, once presented a challenge to hikers of all abilities. Eroded and heavily rooted, the trail was a victim of its own popularity. Now, through the efforts of the town Recreation Committee, generous donors and a small army of volunteers, the initial 2,250 feet of the trail have been transformed, with a four-foot-wide, flat, gravel surface, four broad bridges and an easily accessible viewing platform.

“I am so thrilled that the town is now able to offer a wooded trail experience to everyone, no matter their level of mobility,” said Gina Caldwell, Harpswell’s recreation director and community services coordinator.

The project itself was a challenge to complete in the midst of the Covid pandemic with resulting supply chain issues, rising costs and worker shortages. But the transformed trail reflects the community’s desire for inclusive recreational opportunities in a town with the oldest median age in Maine – a state with the oldest median age in the country.

Aggie Perry is not typical of that demographic, but she knows plenty about challenges. She was born with cloacal exstrophy, also known as OEIS syndrome, a rare and complicated condition that affects a baby’s lower abdominal wall during pregnancy. As a result, she also has a form of spina bifida called terminal myelocystocele, which impacts her limb strength. By the time she was 18 months, Aggie had undergone nine surgeries at Boston Children’s Hospital.

She also lost a sister she never met, Payton, who died at 10 months in 2012 of spinal muscular atrophy, a rare genetic disease.

Despite those challenges, Aggie is “fierce and full of life,” according to Molly, much like Agnes Gru, the character in the movie “Despicable Me,” who inspired her name.

Griffin, Richard, Aggie, Molly and Isla Perry (Kate Gabri photo)

“We’ve always been very active as a family,” said Molly, a former professional figure skater, who grew up on Orr’s Island and now lives on Harpswell Neck. “My husband, Richard, and I would put Aggie in a hiking backpack or push her up Bradbury Mountain in a jogging stroller and she loved it. But this was a whole new ballgame for her.”

Molly was introduced to Maine Trail Finder through Enock Glidden, the organization’s first “Trail Finder Accessibility Ambassador,” during a guided trail walk at Wolfe Neck State Park. Enock is a public speaker, adaptive athlete and wheelchair adventurer, and a frequent blogger on the Maine Trail Finder website.

“He’s also an inspiration,” said Molly.

Maine Trail Finder has been around since 2010, according to Stephen Engle, director of the Center for Community GIS, a Maine-based company that provides digital mapping services and launched the website. “The goal was to create a centralized repository connecting people to outdoor opportunities around the state,” Engle said. “We want to help folks identify experiences that meet their abilities.”

More than five million users have turned to Maine Trail Finder in the past decade, Engle said. “Because our content is reviewed and approved by the trail managers, people can have confidence that they’re looking at the best available information,” he explained. The website also offers a listing of trailside services for hikers and campers.

Enock has contributed more than 30 reviews of trails all over the state, including one of Harpswell Heritage Land Trust’s Curtis Farm Preserve and town-owned Mitchell Field.

He rates trails as “Wheelie Easy” or “Wheelie Moderate,” or, in some cases, “Just Turn Around.”

“Enock is an incredible asset,” said Engle. “Aggie and Molly are our second accessibility ambassadors and all of them are amazing.”

Molly said she and Aggie are up for more adventures to share with Maine Trail Finder. She expressed hope that other trails in Harpswell could be adapted to accommodate Aggie and others with accessibility issues. “Our family loves HHLT’s Long Reach Preserve, maybe something could be done at the start of that trail,” she said.

HHLT Executive Director Julia McLeod said her organization is eager to explore the possibilities. “We want to be a land trust that serves all people, so we are looking at ways that we could improve the accessibility of our trails. We love the opportunity to learn from people like Aggie and Molly Perry and Enock Glidden.”

In the meantime, the Perry family, which also includes Griffin, 12, and Isla, 8, will continue their active, outdoor lifestyle, including the occasional battle over who gets to push Aggie’s wheelchair, if she’ll let them.

“The important thing for me,” said Molly, “is that these experiences can help Aggie see that she can accomplish just about anything she wants to do.”