DAMARISCOTTA — When Joan Zehm moved to Edgecomb in 1997 the British native was eager to learn about the wild, natural landscape around her. Zehm explored Maine’s coastal trails on her own, but credits a Midcoast hiking group with bringing her closer to her new homeland in both knowledge and spirit.

“The Maine coast reminded me of the Yorkshire Dales. I thought I knew Maine, but with the Wednesday Walkers we went to a lot of out-of-the-way places,” Zehm said. “We got lost on a mountain near Camden one winter. We went all over the place back then.”

Now more than 20 years old, the Wednesday Walkers were founded by Dick Harris of Damariscotta around one simple hope: to explore known trails and uncover hidden wild areas up and down Maine’s coastal peninsulas. Now 82, Harris is unable to guide the hikes, but his wife, Jean, said the Wednesday Walkers over the course of two decades grew well beyond his expectations. What began as a meaningful exploration of the Maine coast led to a community group with staying power, and in some minds a bonafide institution.

“The Wednesday Walkers have been quite longstanding and has a great following,” said Sarah Gladu, education coordinator at the Damariscotta River Association. “It’s grown in strength over time. We’re happy to support it in any way.”

The group, which hikes every Wednesday from May to November, generally wanders over moderate to easy trails, about 2 to 3 miles in length. All are welcome and most hikes are appropriate for beginners. Many of the regular members are retirees and seniors, although in the summer months there are people of all ages.

When Harris stepped aside several years ago the group floundered, but the regular members would not let it die. Finally, Marty Welt of Damariscotta took over running the beloved social group last year and simplified it to keep it going.

Before, the group met at the local meetinghouse in Damariscotta every Wednesday morning at a set time, and Harris and others planned the day’s hike. A computer science expert and retired Bell Laboratories researcher, Welt saw an easier way to run the Wednesday Walkers and ensure they prospered.

He put the group on a Yahoo email list and Doodle schedule, and recruited more than a dozen land trusts to lead the weekly hikes over the seven months.

An avid volunteer in several nonprofits in the Midcoast, Welt knew the local land trusts had a vested interest in seeing the group survive. And he knew as well as Zehm that if it continued the hikers would come.

“There are no dues. I just send out the initial emails to the land trusts in April. Then all I do is join the hikes,” Welt said.

As it turned out, the region’s land stewards were happy to partner with this touring band of walkers. The walkers provide exposure and outreach for the land trusts and historical societies. The land stewards host, guide and moderate the weekly natural history lessons along woods, fields and rocky coastal paths.

“I think it helps introduce people who might not venture down this way to our preserves,” said Becky Kolak, the education coordinator at the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust in Bath.

“And they have an opportunity to go with a group, and to go with someone who can teach them about a new preserve. It’s definitely an opportunity for exposure for us.”

There are roughly 200 members of Welt’s email list, and he said a good 100 of those followers join the hikes throughout the season.

The Walkers hiked across the Damariscotta River Association’s Great Salt Bay Heritage Trail last week, thanks to an impressive bog bridge that ran hundreds of yards. The group wandered slowly, but inspected a far-off eagle’s nest, saw areas where shell middens were once piled sky high, and learned about the Red Paint People who thrived here some 6,000 years ago.

Carolyn Shubert, program coordinator at the Pemaquid Watershed Association, said the Wednesday Walkers basically carry out the mission of land trusts up and down the coast.

“A fundamental part of being a land trust is to provide public benefit while protecting the properties. And hosting a Wednesday Walkers hike is a tangible way to do that,” Shubert said.

However, the founding premise of the Wednesday Walkers has not been lost. Jean Harris said when her husband started the group the sole purpose was to recreate, explore and enjoy.

“He was always looking for new trails. They covered just about every possible trail in the course of a year,” Jean Harris said. “The idea was that they were not supposed to drive more than 45 minutes from Damariscotta. They did go as far as Freeport and up to Belfast. And one time they put a booklet of trails out.”

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: FlemingPph