AUBURN – Jonathan LaBonte stood on the rocks beside Great Falls on the Androscoggin River Thursday and told some 30 paddlers about the first settlers here, those first industrialists and early engineers who harnessed the waterway.
And LaBonte told of how he and others in Auburn and Lewiston hope to harness some of the energy around this mighty river in the years to come.
As the executive director of the Androscoggin Land Trust, as well as Auburn’s mayor, LaBonte organized the evening paddle that drew the Bates College Outing Club. But LaBonte and the Auburn-based land trust have been hard at work the past year on more than paddles, snowshoeing, and treks through the woods.
Ultimately, the land trust’s work with the cities of Lewiston and Auburn will lead to an Androscoggin “Greenway,” a dream that LaBonte said requires a big check book, but one that has a lot of energy behind it.
As he paddled with his royal blue Franco-American flag hanging off his kayak, LaBonte talked about a riverbank trail that will be twice as large as the one there now. The pathway in Auburn that leads down to Festival Plaza stretches along the sloping riverbank for less than a mile, but already welcomes visitors to sit along the river.
Further upriver in Lewiston, such a path will be built in the next year, at a spot owned by the land trust. And the city has plans to expand its riverfront Simard-Payne Railroad Park, now made famous by the Dempsey Challenge bike race.
Further downstream, near Auburn’s city park that LaBonte calls a “postage stamp,” access to the river will expand from Main Street Bridge to Lown Bridge. Opportunities for youth to fish will be enhanced in the process.
And in Jay and Livermore Falls, a 2.5-mile trail was opened last winter, a site where LaBonte said mountain bike and hiking trails will be designed.
Finally, the land trust has spearheaded a rail-to-trail group to look at building a multi-use rail line trail from Lewiston to Lisbon.
“The rail trail is ambitious. But there is interest right now,” LaBonte said.
Paddlers at Thursday’s event can see it all happen, even if the trail work along the river is little known around the state.
“It’s a pretty well-kept secret. That’s unfortunate. This wouldn’t be spoiled by having more people enjoying it,” said kayaker Jim Weston of Greene, who was paddling Thursday.
Weston moved to Greene 35 years ago when the Androscoggin was polluted. Now he brags about the possibilities for outdoor recreation along its banks.
“Now there are eagles and beavers and the fishing is so good,” Weston said.
Churchill and Amanda Barton of Auburn, who paddled a canoe Thursday, said there are sections of river trail that pull away from the urban areas and rise above the Androscoggin like a forgotten wild area.
“It’s like British Columbia beside the David Rancourt River Preserve,” Churchill Barton said of the 14-acre parcel that already has a river trail.
As LaBonte looked over the river, he talked about the canal system that was laid out in 1850, and how a population change ensued shortly after in 1870, when the region switched from mechanical to hydro-electric power.
“Before that, all the workers were seasonal workers and left in the summer and fall. But in the late 1800s, the next big wave started to take off,” LaBonte said.
Now he’s hoping the next big wave of change comes to the Androscoggin in Lewiston and Auburn.
Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: