FALMOUTH — Six years ago there were just 10 miles of mountain bike trails in Falmouth; now there are 45. And half of that dirt tread has been built in the past two years.
These are not typical suburban trails that weave in and out of housing developments and paved roads. The recently built trails in Falmouth are in thickly wooded, quiet forestlands, or “community forests” as the town calls them.
“Fifteen percent of the community is now protected,” said Bob Shafto, the town’s open-space ombudsman who identifies and acquires land for trails … and also has about the coolest title around.
And to anyone reading this from outside Maine: Falmouth is next door to Portland.
“We are the last generation who has the opportunity to protect this land,” said Shafto, who served as the Falmouth Land Trust’s president in the 1990s and taught school in the 1970s in Aroostook County – so he knows something about open space and Maine’s forestland.
All this thickly wooded, suburban trail expansion has been embraced by local mountain bikers, who have the advantage of having the Falmouth Land Trust’s vice president and trails guru on their side.
“In the past two years the trails have grown exponentially,” said Caleb Hemphill, a Falmouth carpenter and single-speed rider who’s behind the movement.
Thanks to Hemphill and a huge corps of volunteer trail builders from the town of Falmouth and mountain bike community, these mountain bike trails are the real deal – big boulders piled atop small hills, rock-cobbled bridges over wetlands, narrow, winding wooden bog bridges and unending, flowing, uninterrupted dirt track.
“We base it on what you can fit a door through. We don’t trim everything. At the sides, if you can fit a door through it, we trim that and then leave it. These trees here are a bit of an exception,” said Hemphill, after riding through two trees just far enough apart to fit his handlebars through.
Shafto said riders are coming from Vermont and New Hampshire to ride the newest Portland-area trails. And the town welcomes it.
The only request to riders at the moment, Shafto said, is that they respect deer hunters, and ride in the middle of the day and leave the woods in the early morning and at dusk in November.
“They have only one month a year to enjoy their sport,” Shafto said.
Falmouth’s open-space steward wants all kind of outdoor recreational users on these preserved lands, which he plans to add to and extend.
“We have successfully protected over 1,400 acres of town-owned space. The land trust has another 1,400 acres. So about 15 percent of the community’s 18,607 acres is protected from future development,” Shafto said.
The Falmouth frenzy over protecting forestland all started in 2004 when the town created its last open-space plan.
“The notion was, what kind of community do we want to be 100 years from now?” Shafto said. “The answer was we want to feel like we still live in Maine. We want large tracts of undeveloped land for wildlife and water-quality protection. And as a suburb of Portland, in 20 years, at the pace of development, we would lose those opportunities if nothing was done now.”
Many of the parcels comprise more than 250 acres, and many connect to other blocks of undeveloped land, sometimes across sections protected by “license agreements” with landowners.
The North Falmouth Community Forest is 274 acres and connects to the combined Blackstrap Hill Community Forest and Blackstrap Hill Preserve, which is 525 acres. That is connected by a trail to the 294-acre Hadlock Community Forest, which runs along a trail to the 21-acre Falmouth Town Forest and 159-acre Community Park.
“There are lots of large blocks,” Shafto said proudly.
And on all of them mountain bikers now have winding, climbing, rooty, rocky single track – the way mountain bikers in New England like it. Where swamp and bog land left an impasse to riders across preserves, Hemphill and others built narrow, low-lying bridges.
From the Blackstrap Hill Preserve a rider now can travel 12.3 miles to the Hadlock Community Forest, where they can cover 4.4 miles before coming to a trail that leads to Community Park, where another 4.5 miles awaits.
The woods here are thick and quiet. The sections that have been cut for wildlife like deer and New England cottontail give the feeling of a working forest much further north than Portland.
And more trails might await.
At the East Branch of the Piscataquis River, Shafto wants to eventually find a way across the railroad with a tunnel.
“The railroad is a huge barrier to the trail connectivity. The best solution is to go under it. That’s expensive. But that would connect Community Park to the high school, which would be a huge advantage for everyone,” Shafto said.
How much more land can be protected and saved for the benefit of wildlife and recreation beside Maine’s largest city?
“That’s not a question I have an answer for. We didn’t want to set an arbitrary target. What we’re looking at is adding to these properties,” Shafto said.
Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at: