For those who love to walk the woods, there are options on the island. However, many of those trails are short loops along the water’s edge. For those who want to trek the interior of the island, there are few options.
The idea for a trail or series of trails through that interior the length of the island came from Geoff Warner, who suggested it to Island Heritage Trust members in 2010.
Warner said he and Todd Devenish came up with the idea together. “Our idea was to have a trail going the length of the island, connecting Deer Isle and Stonington,” said Warner. Warner’s vision for the Backbone Trail is more extensive, improving the trails for biking use (though limiting the size to curtail ATV use). To Warner, the project would be best served by bringing together locals and organizations and emphasizing the fun recreational opportunities such a trail would afford.
Two years on from Warner’s original idea, the project is in motion, though on a smaller scale than Warner had envisioned.
“There used to be an incredible trail network across the interior of the island,” said Island Heritage Trust Executive Director Mike Little. Some were once town or logging roads, others were paths or trails on private property. “We can’t revive all that, but maybe we can have a trail through the interior of the island.”
Little said it’s good to connect people to the interior lands of their home, as “we all seem to focus on the coast.”
Such a trail would, of necessity, require “handshake” agreements with private landowners. “There’s no way we could purchase that much land,” said Little. Little said IHT has talked extensively with other land trusts that have established a network of public walking trails, like George’s River Highland in Rockland. The Highland network has more than 40 miles of trails, nearly all on private land.
“It’s all done through informal agreements,” said Little. Some landowners have been receptive and others have not, he continued.
Many landowners are fine with foot traffic over their lands, but express concern about ATV use on properties. Little said IHT trails are not open to ATV use. The trailblazers specifically build single-file, narrow walking paths to discourage ATVs.
“If there are two trees along the path, we tell the trail builders to go between the trees, rather than around,” said Little. “We try to get the trail between a rock and a hard place.”
Little said there is also emphasis on proper signage, alerting trail users to the fact the trail is on private property and urging users to be conscientious and careful.
Landowners can also change their minds, or the trail can be relocated if property changes hands and new owners want to discontinue allowing foot traffic on their land. Little said the Highland project has only had to re-route two miles of its extensive network due to these kinds of issues, and IHT is ready to be flexible as needed.
Currently, agreements are in negotiation or finalized for a footpath leading from the Holt Mill Pond Preserve northwest toward and then through the Toffet Pond Preserve, owned by IHT. Then the trail will hopefully continue west, just north of Labrador Swamp, and then on to the Sunset Crossroad (formerly South Deer Isle Crossroad).
“We’ve done some work, but there’s a lot more to do,” said Little. Currently, IHT is in talks with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection about getting permits to build about 500 feet of boardwalk over Labrador Swamp, the large swamp that nearly dissects the island from east-to-west south of Sunset Crossroad. That boardwalk will be on IHT-owned land in the Toffet Pond Preserve.
The group has done work at Holt Mill Pond Preserve as well, building a new loop trail and improving some neglected areas. Little said there will likely be a “grand re-opening” of the preserve next year.
Funding for this project has come from a substantial donation by a private donor, as well as a $10,000 grant from the Virginia Wellington Cabot Foundation. The biggest cost is materials (such as bridges over streams). While turnout for trail work sessions has been good, said Little, more help is needed on the administrative side of the project.
The Backbone Trail Committee includes Geoff Warner, Ann Barrows, Bill Haviland, Roger Bergen, Dick McWilliams, Barrett Gray and Ann Douglass.