CALAIS, Maine — Anyone who doubts the economic rewards of the Downeast Sunrise Trial should talk to Jeannette and Brian Somaldi of Groton, Conn., who were riding their bicycles on a stretch of the trail in Machias recently.
“We found the trail on the Internet and planned our entire trip around it,” Brian Somaldi said. He said they would never have come as far up the coast as Machias without the lure of the trail. “We probably would have only gone as far as Portland or Bath,” he said.
The Downeast Sunrise Trial is being built over 87 miles of former railroad beds and soon will stretch from Ellsworth to Ayers Junction at Charlotte. Eventually it will run from Brewer to Calais. It is a multiuse trail, with all forms of recreationalists sharing the pathway.
The Somaldis spent one night in Boothbay Harbor, two days on the trail, a night in Machias and another night in Bar Harbor. That totals three nights in hotels, 10 to 12 meals in local restaurants, enough gas to drive up and down the coast, and a tote bag full of locally purchased mementos.
“We had a couple afternoons of rain,” Jeannette Somaldi admitted. “We spent those days shopping for local crafts and art. We also stopped at a farmers market and bought artisanal cheese and some lovely plants to bring home. We’ve probably spent about $1,500 so far. This has been a wonderful vacation and we’ll be telling all our friends.”
Although the trail is not officially open, the first 32 miles in Machias, Machiasport and East Machias are completed and getting heavy use, as are the approximately 75 miles of already existing trails in Machias managed by the Ridge Riders ATV and Snowmobile Club.
Approximately 800 miles of trails within the Downeast Trail corridor eventually will be linked through the project.
“The benefits are obvious,” club member Wayne Peters said recently. “I’m a biker, a nonmotorized user. The existing trails are terrific and the Sunrise Trail marries them all together and leverages the whole process.”
Peters said he has never experienced any difficulties with the many users of the trail, from walkers to equestrians to ATVs. “Everyone has been courteous,” he said.
“I have also found that in the winter, cross-country skiers have absolutely no trouble with snowmobiles,” said Kathleen Shannon, director of the Machias Valley Chamber of Commerce.
The trail has had its opponents, mostly people who wanted to see an active rail system return to Down East, and others who are worried that walkers and machines won’t be able to share the trail safely. Some worry that the reconstruction of the trails is damaging important natural habitats.
But if the Somaldis are any indication, the trail is safe and reaping its own economic benefits.
“I cannot tell you how many people are coming into the Chamber daily now, asking about the trail,” Shannon said. “I’ve had calls from Ohio, Virginia and beyond. They’ve all heard about the trail and want to know more. I’m getting calls daily from out-of-staters who want to come.”
This winter was perfect for snowmobiling, Shannon said, and Machias businesses reaped financial rewards from the many people on the trails. “There were snowmobiles parked all over town.”
Recent impact studies by the Maine Department of Conservation show that the ATV industry brings in more than $200 million, and the snowmobile industry brings in over $260 million to the state of Maine each year. In addition, another DOC study estimated that more than 2 million bicycle tourists spent $36.3 million in Maine in one year.
Charlie Corliss, the trail manager for the Maine Department of Conservation, said there are more than 300 multiuse trails in Maine with no problems.
“For the most part, you have long sight distances,” he said. “There are only a couple of places were visibility is shortened.”
Corliss said the first section of trail is “not officially open, but we are allowing use as long as people stay away from the construction. The first 32 miles should be open by August.” That section will stretch from Whitneyville to Pembroke.
Corliss said there is now construction near Dennysville, where work crews have just 10 miles to go to reach Ayers Junction in Pembroke. “Right now there are 22 miles with the final surface,” he said.
“Three weeks ago they were in Harrington, and now they are in Cherryfield removing the rails,” Corliss said. “Construction crews are following them, taking away the metal. It works out about 1 mile a day for removing the rails and 1 mile a day picking up the other stuff.”
Corliss said all the rails on the entire trail should be removed by the end of the year, but the trail is not expected to be complete until next year. “The contract calls for completion by September 2010,” he said.
Members of the Ridge Riders said recently that they would like to self-police the trails.
Bill Cherry, president of the club, said that area towns are cooperating and giving the ATVs and other users the opportunity to succeed.
“I plead with folks to give the ATVs and snowmobiles a chance to succeed, give us a chance to bring money into these towns,” Cherry said. “This is what the trail is all about, the economic improvement of the towns.”
Gary Dowling of the Downeast Trail Riders said the local clubs are desperate for volunteers. “There are about 10 percent of the people doing 120 percent of the work,” he said. The local clubs maintain the trails that will link with the Sunrise Trail.
“All the trails used to run north and south,” Corliss said. “The Sunrise Trail really connect all this. To go from Machias to the Airline Diner on Route 9, if you use the Sunrise Trail, you’ll cut off 60 miles on a one-way trip.”
For information, go to www.sunrisetrail.org, or call the Machias Valley Chamber of Commerce at 207-255-4402.