MACHIAS – When the Down East Sunrise Trail was first talked about, many doubted it would do anything for its home region, one of the poorest in Maine.

Now, as the trail heads into its second year and is about to grow by 53 miles, the question is, what hasn’t it done?

“I had mixed reservations about it,” said Patrick Whitney of Jonesboro during an ATV ride along the Machias River last weekend.

But after seeing lots of people using the trail, Whitney said, he thinks it will be an economic boon to Washington County. “So I’m actually in favor of it now. I think it’s a good thing. Everyone’s having fun on it, so that’s a good thing.”

Bringing active, outdoors-type tourists to the region; invigorating locals to get outside and exercise; and showcasing the raw beauty of the Down East coast are just some of the things Maine’s newest rail trail has done.

The 127-mile Calais Branch railroad corridor that extends from Brewer to Calais was acquired by the Maine Department of Transportation in 1987.

It is being converted into the multi-use Down East Sunrise Trail, an 85-mile stone-dust path that will extend in the next two months from near Ellsworth to just north of Eastport.

When the new section opens at the end of September, the 85-mile trail will be the longest continuous rail trail in Maine, said Skip Varney, senior planner for the Department of Conservation’s off-road vehicle division.

The final 2 miles from Washington Junction to Ellsworth will take more time, but a trail head in busy Ellsworth will happen, said Jim Fisher with the Hancock County Planning Commission.

then the Sunrise Trail should get even more use.

Alex Diehl and his sons, Markus and Fridrik, drove all the way from Ellsworth last weekend to try the trail for the first time.

They’re used to the carriage roads of Acadia National Park. But Diehl said having the Sunrise Trail virtually out the door will be handy.

“I’m sure we’ll use it. It’s nice it is coming closer to us,” said Diehl before their bike ride.

Right now, the 32 miles that are open provide a safe path to cyclists, walkers, runners and ATV riders looking to get away from roads.

It brings the region’s raw beauty alive, taking outdoors people off of Route 1 or Route 9. The trail brings home the meaning buried in the sweeping views of the coast and blueberry barrens seen from those roads.

It puts a traveler beside the bogs, along the Machias River and close enough to touch the wildflowers that cover the land.

A 6-mile walk along the trail between Machias and East Machias provided long moments of solitude.

It also mixed ATV riders with cyclists, walkers and runners on a communal path into nature. One motor bike even whizzed past, creating for a moment the only noise other than the Machias River.

In this economically distressed area, the natural resources not only fill the landscape between towns — the forests, barrens and ocean are the economy.

When the trail was first proposed, Dean Ames of East Machias said some, like his father, didn’t want to see it built.

“My father worked on the railroad for 25 years. He didn’t want the old railroad bed removed. Now he walks it every day,” said Ames.

Matt Cservak of East Machias rides the 32 miles of the Down East Sunrise Trail between Whitneyville and Ayers Junction that are open for year-round use.

When the entire 85 miles open, Cservak said it will all get used by local ATV riders.

“On a weekend, I’ll ride 300 miles in a day,” Cservak said. “It’s pretty limited where we can ride now.”

And Jason van de Sande plans to commute from Machias to Columbia Falls, where he works at the Downeast Salmon Federation. Van de Sande wouldn’t dare attempt the ride now.

“Some sections (of road) are kind of scary, with huge hills and chip truck traffic. With the trucks, it kind of stinks on that road,” Van de Sande said.

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

[email protected]