Pedestrians and cyclists share the Eastern Trail in Scarborough Marsh last Sunday around mid-morning. By noon, the popular trail and both parking lots were full. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

SCARBOROUGH — On a Sunday with temperatures nearing 60 degrees, runners, bikers and walkers on the popular Scarborough Marsh trail were out early in the morning last weekend. And they just kept coming.

By 10:30 a.m. birders Marion Sprague and Ian Doherty left their productive birding spot after two hours because of clusters of walkers who walked side by side, making it difficult to leave a 6-foot-wide berth when passing, as health and state officials have recommended people do in public to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

By 11:15 a.m., when Hannah Temple arrived at the trail to cap off her hour-long walk with her Labrador retriever – most of which she took through other “secret woods trails” and empty sidewalks to avoid crowds – the Scarborough Marsh trail was full at the northern entrance. The rail trail in places is as wide as 10 to 12 feet. But last Sunday morning, groups of cyclists, parents with strollers, and dog walkers frequently moved along the trail two to three abreast.

“I’m not going there. That’s way too many people,” said Temple, a nurse at The Cedars in Portland, speaking through her red-calico mask. “And nobody has masks on. If I had more masks, I’d hand them out.”

The Scarborough Marsh trail is part of the Eastern Trail, which allows for 22 miles of off-road hiking from Bug Light in South Portland to Kennebunk. Carole Brush, the executive director of the Eastern Trail Management District, said use along the Eastern Trail has been at least double or triple what it normally is at this time of year.

Trail managers in greater Portland have grappled with overcrowding on hiking trails in April during the stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Janet Mills. The governor’s executive order counts outdoor recreation and exercise as “essential activities” but asks people stay close to home and to practice social distancing. Yet managers of conserved land have are having to remind people to leave a wide berth when passing others – and to leave a trail if it looks too busy. In some cases, trails and parks have closed due to overcrowding.

A sign at the Scarborough Marsh section of the Eastern Trail encourages social distancing. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In Scarborough the police department posted the street along the Pine Point Road entrance to the Eastern Trail because of overcrowding – as it did at another Scarborough preserve not far away on  Broadturn Road. In South Portland, the city’s parks and recreation department closed the Bug Light parking lot. In Portland, the five parking lots around the Back Cove trail and Payson Park have been closed since April 7 because of overcrowding on the trail. In Saco, The Nature Conservancy closed the Saco Heath Trail because of spillover parking along busy Route 112.

In addition, 10 coastal state parks closed completely – and Baxter State Park outside Millinocket closed to traffic and hiking above the tree line.

The Scarborough Marsh section of the 22-mile Eastern Trail has seen double and triple the use this spring. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The land trust community is determined to keep trails open, but managing crowds on trails in the densely populated areas during the pandemic is a struggle, said Rich Knox, communication director of Maine Coast Heritage Trust, which oversees the Maine Land Trust Network that aids Maine’s 80 land trusts.

“It’s going to be day-to-day and week-to-week to monitor trails for some land trusts,” Knox said. “I’m very empathetic to the challenges faced by Portland Trails and the Eastern Trail.”

Portland Trails put up signs at 40 trail heads along its 70 miles of trails, asking people to use the trail at a time when it’s not crowded – or to go somewhere else if it is. But many people are not doing that, said Kara Wooldrik, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“We are getting complaints from people who are concerned there are too many people on the trail,” she said. “But they are not leaving the space (either). If someone feels uncomfortable, they should leave. If it seems crowded – go to another trail.”

Portland Trails is not planning to close any trails at the moment, but Wooldrik added, “I can’t promise that we won’t.”

“If it got that crowded, we’d have to figure out some way to have staff or volunteers out there to decrease the amount of people, or close the trail for certain hours with a barricade,” Wooldrik said. “I can’t even really picture what that would look like.”

Portland Parks and Recreation Director Ethan Hipple said his staff also has been putting up signs. They posted a third batch of signs last week. But Hipple doesn’t foresee closing other trails on city land, because it would have the unfortunate consequence of causing people to congregate on another popular trail.

“I’m holding out hope in humanity that we can all do this,” Hipple said. “If people can stay far apart, give people the distance they need and be courteous, we can keep spaces open. People need to pitch in and do their part.”

At the Eastern Trail in Scarborough last Sunday, Brush came out to put up more signs to remind walkers to keep a wide berth.

“It’s really the mentality of some users,” she said. “The courtesy of the moment says to step aside, to walk single file. But I have noticed clusters of people who don’t do this.”

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