Scott Cowger, 65, cycles through Hallowell on Wednesday. Cowger has ridden in every Trek Across Maine since it started. Next weekend’s Trek will be Cowger’s 40th. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

BRUNSWICK — On the third weekend every June for the past 39 years, Scott Cowger of Hallowell has pulled on his bike shorts, shoved his feet in his cycling shoes, buckled on his helmet and started pedaling in his quest to raise money for the American Lung Association.

On Friday, kickstands will go up and Cowger and hundreds more cyclists will set out on the 180-mile 40th annual Trek Across Maine.

Scott Cowger’s No. 6 was retired in 1999 following his 15th Trek Across Maine. No other rider will ride the trek with the No. 6 plate except for Cowger. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

The ride is rain or shine, heat or cold, wind or humidity. There are hills and flats, curves and corners. Riders participate on high-end road bikes and used-up mountain bikes, on bicycles built for two and for four, and even the occasional unicycle.

The goal is to raise $750,000, with more than $500,000 of that already raised as trekkers head into this year’s Father’s Day weekend trek.

Cowger has raised close to $4,000, one of dozens of people who have raised more than $2,000 as individual riders. In addition to individuals, the trek features fundraising categories for teams and corporations. This year, L.L.Bean is the top team fundraiser, with nearly 60 cyclists bringing in more than $43,000. The top corporate fundraiser is Bigelow Brewing Co. with a team of 10 riders raising $10,000.

Though the route has changed over the years, the number of participants has fluctuated and the pandemic shifted the way it operated for a couple of years, the trek has never been canceled and remains one of the largest and most unique fundraising events organized by the American Lung Association.

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Cowger, a member of the organization’s Maine Leadership Board, has participated in the trek since 1985, when it started in Bethel and ended on Mount Desert Island. Though he remembers it as being rainy that first year, the friendships he made and fun he had kept him coming back for years, he said. There are few things in his life that he has given such commitment.

With little more than good wishes from event organizers to the roughly 100 participants during that first year, there was no support for them along the route, Cowger said. He is glad he was 40 years younger for that one. However, the lobster waiting for participants in Bar Harbor at the end of the trek was enticing.

Map for Trek Across Maine 2024. Staff graphic/Sharon Wood

“In the beginning you were handed a map and they said, ‘we’ll see you at the end of the day,’” he said. “That was a very different experience back then, so the support has greatly increased.”

Now the trek has hundreds of volunteers situated at rest areas every so many miles along the route to provide food, water, first aid and bike repair services, he said. He called the volunteers “wonderful” and thinks their support is “pretty amazing” as they withstand the elements to assist riders.

In addition to the volunteers directing traffic along the route and leading riders into rest areas — often accompanied by loud horns and shouts of encouragement — the trek also offers sag wagons to riders who become too tired to finish the day’s route. Riders can be picked up, along with their bikes, and taken to that day’s finish line for food and rest.

Scott Cowger, seen Wednesday, plans to participate in the 40th annual Trek Across Maine on Friday. The 65-year-old from Hallowell had ridden in every trek over the last 39 years. He says he hopes to continue at least until the 50th ride.  Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Admittedly, Cowger is not a fast rider. He takes his time to enjoy the scenery, people and experience of the ride, he said. His favorite route was the first year, but his favorite years were those after because it was exciting to meet up with friends he made the year before. Now, he just hopes for good weather so he does not have to fight rain, cold or extreme heat.

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Participants will complete a large loop, riding about 60 miles per day. Day 1 starts at Thomas Point Beach and Campground in Brunswick with riders finishing at Bates College in Lewiston. They’ll ride to Saint Joseph’s College of Maine in Standish the second day and back to Thomas Point Beach on the final day.

When riders arrive at Thomas Point for the start, volunteers will help them load their overnight gear and suitcases or duffels into trucks that will take everything to Bates so the riders don’t have to pack heavy loads on their bikes. The next morning, the gear will be loaded for transport to Saint Joseph’s, and the next day loaded for the return transport to Thomas Point.

Scott Cowger has a collection of Trek Across Maine medals going back almost 40 years. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

When riders arrive at Bates on Friday night and at Saint Joseph’s on Saturday night, they’ll have the option to “camp” overnight in campus gyms or camp outside. Others prefer staying at local hotels, and most of the riders will eat in campus cafeterias as part of the trek experience. Bates offers a baked potato bar when riders arrive Friday, which is a favorite carb load for many trekkers.

Sometimes Cowger misses one of the linear treks, including the one from Sunday River Resort in Newry to Belfast, but with the current loop route he does not have to worry about how he is going to make it back to his vehicle, he said. The loop still provides good views of rivers, lakes and other Maine landscapes.

On the linear routes in the past, if a rider drove to the starting point they would have to figure out a way to get back to their car in order to get home, which could be a chore, especially after pedaling 180 miles in three days.

Participation ballooned to about 1,600 during the years before the pandemic but there were far fewer participants after it went virtual for two years, according to Lung Association Senior Development Manager Sarah Brown. Now, organizers are trying to recover that participation level, which hovers around 1,000 per year.

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The Lung Association has added a lobster bake at the end of the trek, along with several activities for participants such as axe throwing and free strengthening stretching sessions, she said. She hopes to add more activities in the coming years to continue growing participation.

Cowger also enjoys meeting people from all walks of life, and the trek has turned into a big second family in many ways, he said.

As he gets older, training for the trek has helped keep him in good shape, he said. Though he does admit that the ride has gotten harder over the years and he does not have much energy left to party in the evenings like he used to, the 65-year-old has no plans to stop. He hopes to have another 10 good years — aiming for continued participation up to the 50th annual ride, at least.

“If I do 50 of them then maybe that’ll be the last one,” he said. “At one point in time, I mean, I never thought I’d do 40 of these things — that’s for sure.”

The ride has raised $31 million collectively since its inception, according to Brown. It has gone toward the Lung Association’s mission to fund research into lung health and diseases, educate the public on those efforts, and work to improve state and federal laws and lung-health policies, according to Lance Boucher Lung Association, assistant vice president for state public policy eastern division.

It was a Lung Association researcher who discovered the cystic fibrosis gene in 1989, he said. Results of the Lung Association’s COVID-19 Action Initiative have also resulted in important coronavirus findings.

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Research in the past decade has resulted in about 50 new treatments that are expected to help treat lung cancer — improving survivability within the five years after a diagnosis, he said. But there is still significant work to be done, particularly regarding the use of tobacco products by middle and high school students — work that he hopes will one day result in a tobacco-free generation.

Teresa Kelly-Gillis of Brunswick, seen Friday, says she will be completely out of her element riding her bicycle 180 miles during the three-day Trek Across Maine. Riding in memory of her neighbor, Hilda Wiley, will help ease Kelly-Gillis’ reservation about riding on the road. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Some people ride with a specific person who was personally afflicted by a disease. For Teresa Kelly-Gillis of Brunswick, it was her friend’s passing after a relatively short battle with colon cancer that inspired her to join the trek for the first time this year — despite her nerves about the idea.

Hilda Ives Wiley Submitted photo

She has been an indoor cyclist for the past 1½ years and the thought of cycling outside scares her, she said. Her primary fears are being hit by a vehicle or riding her bike over something in the road and falling off. But she will push all those fears aside to participate this year in honor of her friend, Hilda Wiley, who lost her battle with cancer in April.

Although there have been a number of accidents over the years, most of the trek injuries have been fairly minor.

However, in 2013, David LeClair was killed by a tractor-trailer truck passing him when he lost his balance on his bike.

Kelly-Gillis said she watched as her vibrant, authentic, energetic and kind friend, who was a school psychologist for the Brunswick School Department, became weaker. Wiley lived her life with no regrets, her friend said.

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Toward the end of her battle, during Kelly-Gillis’ last visit with her a week before she passed, Wiley remained strong and kind — she had accepted her situation, Kelly-Gillis said. Her 46-year-old friend and neighbor left behind a husband and three children.

Kelly-Gillis wanted to honor her friend while also taking herself out of her comfort zone so she decided to sign up for the trek. When she told Wiley she was completing the trek in her honor during that last visit, Wiley placed her hand to her heart and told Kelly-Gillis how much that meant to her.

“If Hilda could face the ultimate terrifying challenge life can throw you with such grace, then I can certainly continue to face things that terrify me,” she said.

To make a donation toward the Lung Association’s $750,000 goal visit its website at trekacrossmaine.org.

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