Trails End Festival a hive of activity

Posted Sept. 19, 2009, at 12:38 a.m.

The town of Millinocket hosted a four-day festival unlike any other in the country last weekend.

It was a celebration of the end of the trail, fittingly called the Trails End Festival. It commemorates hiking, and all those people who have finished hiking the Appalachian Trail on Mount Katahdin, the trail’s northern terminus.

It’s a big reunion, of sorts, with families, friends and anyone else interested in the trail, finding a way to get to Millinocket last weekend.

All hikers are welcome to attend — past, present and future. Townspeople throw a big party for backpackers, day hikers and section hikers and this year’s, the second annual, has grown in interest and attendance.

When I got there on Saturday morning, I was just in time for the hiker parade forming at Stearns High School. Gene Espy led the parade as Grand Marshal, by walking the half-mile route though town to Veterans Park. Espy is 83 and is recorded as having been the second person, in 1951, to have walked the entire length of the trail in one season. It only took him 127 days.

Immediately following Espy walked this year’s long-distance Appalachian Trail hikers, who made noise with cymbals and drums; some dressed in outrageous costumes and wearing their backpacks. It was quite a sight. The local Cub Scout troop brought up the rear.

It seemed like everyone in town turned out along Penobscot Avenue to watch. The parade disbanded at the bandstand in Veterans Park, which is the festival site for most of the exhibits and vendors. Under the sunniest of blue skies, Katahdin rose as a backdrop, mastering the skyline at the end of the street.

I picked up a schedule from Marsha Donahue, owner of North Light Gallery, and made a few quick decisions to attend some of the planned events. There was a whole list of presentations to take in, from one end of town to another. Everything was all within an easy walk.

The festival was the brainchild of Marsha, her husband, Robert Wayne Curlew, and Jaime and Paul Renaud. The Renauds own the Appalachian Trail Lodge and Cafe. The four of them approached the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce with the idea for the first year’s festival and with the chamber’s sponsorship, initially, they began organizing the festival. The sponsor list on the back of the program this year was filled with names of what seemed like every business in town, from the local grocer to a large foundation.

The first place I headed, after meeting with Marsha, was to a former barbershop which had been converted to gallery space and a book-signing venue. Sarah Jones displayed hundreds of beautiful photos she took and mounted. They depicted scenes of the trail from her 2005 through hike.

The photos were breathtaking, dramatic and vivid. Sharing the space with Sarah, Gene Espy was signing his book, “The Trail of My Life,” which recounted his hike in 1951. I introduced myself to the gentleman and bought a book for him to sign.

I could have spent all day with the congenial Georgia resident, but there was so much more to see and do. After Sarah took a photo of Espy and me, I excused myself to head down to the park to visit with some of the hikers I saw marching in the parade. Gene planned to speak at the North Light Gallery later. I told him I would see him there.

At the park, music from a local act was pouring from the bandstand, as it would from a variety of local bands and performers until evening. Neighbors next to the park sat on their front porches taking it all in. There were a few through hikers mingling on the grounds, so I walked over and said hi.

Through hikers are easy to spot on sight in a crowd. They just look like they’ve been hiking a long time. They’re a little threadbare, the men usually have beards and the women wear hiking boots instead of pumps.

After introductions, I asked what they thought of the party. Everyone spoke at once and the responses ranged from “What a friendly town,” from one hiker to, “We hired a shuttle service from Monson just to be here,” from a young couple. They would return to Monson to finish their hike after the festival.

It was late afternoon by the time I finished talking with them. Nothing attracts hikers to town like the prospect of good food, so most of them left to attend one of the public suppers, put on by the Knight of Columbus and the First Congregational Church. I opted for pizza, down the street.

I wandered around the grounds and reconnected with members of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, of which I’m a member, and Friends of Baxter State Park members, whom I’ve worked with on a trail project. After things wound down I camped out in the back of my truck a short distance away, offered by a motel in town. The hikers had set up their tents nearby on the lawn beside the motel.

The next day, Sunday, I stayed around for a talk given by Donn Fendler, the man who, as a boy, made national headlines. In 1939 Fendler was lost on Katahdin for nine days. He held the crowd’s attention throughout his talk of his story of survival.

The free festival was nearing a close by then and I had a chance to say some goodbyes before leaving for home. One of the things that struck me about this year’s festival was how the whole town worked together to welcome the visitors. There was something for everyone, ranging from contra dances to a pie auction. There was a trail volunteer project, with most of the through hikers participating.

There were people, young and old, who appeared to have very little in common with each other, joining together to share food, stories and a great time. The one thing that unified all those different folks was an interest in the outdoors in general and the trail, in particular.

Nicely done, people of Millinocket, you deserve tons of thanks for the outstanding effort.

I can’t wait until next year.

bradviles@gwi.net

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