KENNEBUNK – Since the two major bridges connecting the Eastern Trail went in this year, organized events along the trail have increased twofold.
But to a large extent, the fascination, attraction and use of this off-road, woodland trail has been building steam all along.
“The last wintertime moonlit walk we had was last January. That drew 30! We might beat that today,” boomed John Andrews, the 75-year-old retired engineer who is a driving force behind this trail being built between South Portland and Kittery.
Moments later, 40 interested hikers slowly drove up in the dark behind Kennebunk Elementary School to gather around Andrews and naturalist Joe Yuhas at the trail’s kiosk. And after Yuhas, a former University of New England science professor, exclaimed this would be a natural history hike and search for wildlife, the headlamps went off and chatter ceased.
“You don’t have to take a vow of silence, but we’ll move along quietly and see what we see,” Yuhas suggested.
The massive group did just that, following the wide, dirt path illuminated by the moon.
A quarter of a mile later, across the new pedestrian bridge over Interstate 95, a few head lights went on and clamor bubbled along the path farther east.
Yuhas took what came, and still found ways to educate the group on the history of the pine forest, the early settlers and the shining sights illuminated in the night sky.
When astronomer Bernie Reim, a columnist for this section, made himself known at the bridge over the Kennebunk River, Yuhas drew the crowd around Reim for a 10-minute talk about planets and stars.
Jupiter was mistaken for a star the way it shown as bright as the nearly full moon, but the “King of the Planets, which is surrounded by four large moons, will be visible by binoculars this month, Reim told a hushed crowd.
“As I said, we’re all out here learning from each other, and here with us is an astronomer,” a delighted Yuhas said.
Then Andrews encouraged the entire group to push on to Limerick Road in Arundel, creating an hour-long walk into a robust two-hour hike. The majority of the 40 night walkers went the distance.
The entire experience, loosely organized as it was, delighted Nancy Niven of Saco, who recently moved from Richmond.
“I learned about this hike on (a Southern Maine Medical Center) sign,” she said. “I went on the website and looked up the maps.
“I haven’t used it, but it’s great. Once I realized it was there by Thornton Academy, I’ll use it more. I learned how wonderful off-road bike trails are in Burlington, Vt., and Bellingham, Wash., where there is a very extensive trail network that connects cities.”
Maine is following suit.
Andrews has been guiding the Eastern Trail’s moonlight walks for a decade, and in 2011 the Eastern Trail Alliance hosted 17 such walks. This year, 14 have been held and more will follow before 2013, according to the Alliance.
In addition, events held by other groups grew this year on the two longer sections of trail. The Kennebunk-to-Biddeford section grew to 6.2 continuous miles because of the I-95 bridge. And the section from Saco to Scarborough that runs across the marsh expanded to 8.5 continuous miles because of the new Route 1 bridge, which is named after Andrews.
In 2012, there were 15 organized events along the trail, including 5K runs, a triathlon and a half marathon, up from eight last year, according to the alliance.
“My sense would be every day the bridges have brought more visibility to the trail, and that’s probably planted the seed in people’s minds that there is this great off-road space that can be used without worry of being safe on the street,” said Scott Marcoux, spokesman for the Eastern Trail Alliance.
Groups that staged events include the Northern York County YMCA, the Saco Bay Rotary Club and SMMC.
And this past spring, a group of interested citizens started a fundraising campaign to provide bicycles for kids for the Saco Parks and Recreation Department. The bridge over Route 1 in Saco made the trail more of a destination for the department, enabling youth to explore it.
“One of our themes last summer was to get people outside more. Having the Eastern Trail in our backyard obviously accomplishes that. So we made it a destination during our summer camp. With bikes, we could stretch that further than before,” said Kevin Lombard, the parks and recreation program director.
So far, $3,000 has been donated to purchase 15 bicycles for the department, and Lombard believes another 10 bikes will follow before next summer to give the summer camp the potential for some great rides.
The trail is humming with energy and events on its newly connected sections, but it’s not done growing.
“I’m looking down the road. I’m working behind the scenes, plotting and scheming,” Andrews said with a smile.
To learn more about the Eastern Trail go to www.easterntrailalliance.org.
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: