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Trailblazing in Harpswell

man and dog look at bog bridge with backs to camera

Tom and his dog Indy on the new trail (Tim McCreight photo)

I often wonder how the Land Trust’s trails come to be. Who figures out where they start, where they turn, and how long they are? And how do those decisions get made; what is influencing the trail designer, if in fact, there is such a thing as a trail designer? It turns out there is, and I was lucky enough to walk the new Anna M. Tondreau Preserve trail with Tom Carr, the person most responsible for laying out this trail and many other HHLT trails.

It was a misty Sunday morning when I met up with Tom and his dog, Indy in the parking area just across from the Harpswell Community School. There had been a heavy rain the night before, so the ground was soft and the trees freshly washed. As we walked, I asked Tom many of the questions I’d been wondering about, for instance, Where do you start?

The first step, I learned, was for a small group of volunteers and HHLT staff to walk the boundaries of the property. Armed with the most current surveyor’s map and a GPS device, they walked the entire circumference of the property, tying pink tape onto trees to make the boundaries easy to spot as the route of the trail was being planned. As a general rule, Tom said he tries to keep trails a comfortable distance from neighboring properties.

I asked what factors Tom is considering when laying out a trail. After many years of volunteering for land trusts and island maintenance organizations, he has a commonsense list of what makes a good trail. The goal, he says, is to provide hikers with a quiet environment that avoids distractions such as road noise and views of houses or businesses while taking advantage of natural features like stone walls, unusual rock formations, and views of ponds or the ocean. Of course a good trail is safe to walk and will create minimal intrusion into the natural environment.

One of the early requirements is to determine the location of a parking area, something that might involve discussion with adjacent property owners, engineers, and road officials. When the parking area was determined for this trail, Tom determined that his first goal was to move away as quickly as possible from the traffic noise of Route 24. From the parking area we crossed a gully and headed directly into the woods, perpendicular to the road. Before long, the path turned to the right and started to go uphill. The trail cut obliquely across the slope, then doubled back in a switchback. As he explained, the idea was to get uphill without the sharp incline that would not only be strenuous to climb but would lead to rapid erosion.

Soon the land evened out and we were well above and away from the road noise. The forest was a mix of trees of various sizes and species. The gentle trail curved here and there to go around boulders and large trees. Sometimes the path curved just because it made sense in the shape of the land. Tom pointed out that his goal was not to find the fastest route from one end of the property to the other. In fact, just the opposite. As he said, “The reason we’re here is to have a nice walk in the woods.”

I asked Tom if he was usually able to determine the course of a trail on a single pass or if he was sometimes forced to backtrack and start over because the trail became impractical or impassable. Several times as we walked he pointed out places where he’d considered the route but changed his mind. Sometimes this was for practical reasons, like going too close to the property line, but other times he was motivated by something more intuitive. At one point he spread his arms wide and said, “If we went up that way, we’d miss these gorgeous rocks covered with moss.”

four men on trail smile for camera

Two workdays in early December helped push the trail progress forward. Thanks to everyone who helped! (Patrick Otto photo)

As the course of a trail becomes clear, Tom ties more bright pink ribbons on trees and branches to show volunteers the route. The goal, he tells me, is to create the trail in such a way that there is minimal interference with natural growth. A chainsaw might be needed to clear blowdowns, but he will find a way around large trees if at all possible. Once the route is marked, the heavy labor of trailmaking begins, first with small saws, followed by large loppers for roots and small trees, and then smaller shears to snip off branches that impede the trail. This strenuous work is done by volunteers. The goal is to create a swath about four feet wide with as few impediments to walking as possible. This width makes it possible to pass other hikers on the trail, and also allows more time before it is necessary to return to trim the path because of the inevitable narrowing from natural growth.

Sometimes gravel is carried in to firm up, or “harden” muddy areas, and thick cedar planks are used to create bridges that allow passage over streams, wetlands and bogs. The final step is to rake years of fallen leaves and twigs from the path. In this case a large crew of volunteers, including several neighbors, came to help with the raking. As with all HHLT trails, there will be ongoing maintenance to keep this trail clear and safe.

Many of HHLT’s trails are designed with both large and small loops, which allows for long and short walks. Always a good idea, but not always possible, as I learned here. The Tondreau trail consists of a long oval that runs more or less parallel to Route 24. At the southern end of the loop a separate spur trail runs along Mill Cove, an inlet off Quahog Bay with striking views of the inlet or mudflats, depending on the tide.

Altogether the Tondreau trail is a little under a mile and a half long. It crosses a small stream in two locations, both with impressive cedar bridges. The walking is not strenuous but covers undulating hillsides that might be a challenge for people with mobility concerns. The trail is open to the public now; a celebration will be held on June 29, 2024. Read more here!