THORNDIKE, Maine – Barreling down the train tracks of the Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railway in a pedal-powered two-person rail-cycle — we must have hit speeds approaching 20 miles an hour.
And with a giant grin plastered on my face throughout the long, downhill swoop, my memories of the dark spruce forests and verdant farmland of central Waldo County are tempered with pure joy.
On a recent evening, my boyfriend and I pedaled our way across several miles of train tracks in a trip that began and ended at the Garden Variety store in Thorndike Village. Near the store, a padlocked fleet of the rail-cycles — which look a bit like miniature cars and feature fairly comfortable molded plastic seats with seat backs and cargo compartments for a camera and a lunch — await eager riders. The wheels fit securely onto the tracks, and we found that no matter how fast we zipped downhill, the rail-cycles didn’t wobble disconcertingly or fly off the rails.
The bike fleet is a fairly new addition to the eco-tourism offerings of the Maine coast. They were purchased last year by the Brooks Preservation Society (a nonprofit group with the motto of “Saving Yesterday for Tomorrow”), and operated by a dedicated group of volunteers. Because the tracks cross several roads, including the often-busy Route 139, safety is a primary concern for the volunteer conductors. Everyone riding the rail-cycles must wear bright orange safety vests, and the conductors always pedal the lead rail-cycle, so that they can stop cars — if need be — at the crossings.
Our two conductors, Kip Penney and Doug Nye, were good humored and laid back, the kind of guys you’d want to spend a couple hours with during a bike excursion.
They stressed another safety feature — the fact that although the Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railway is no more, the Brooks Preservation Society runs excursion trains regularly over part of the tracks. When the rail-cycles are being used, the tracks are isolated from the train operations, so there is no chance of merrily pedaling into oblivion.
After they explained this to us, we climbed into our own rail-cycle and, after a couple of minutes, settled in to an easy rhythm that carried us speedily over the gentle uphill grade out of Thorndike.
From our vantage point on the tracks, we felt that we were getting a glimpse of Maine that few will ever see. As soon as we left Brooks, we passed a rustic cabin on a pond and it was as if we were pedaling back in time as well as forward on the tracks.
Then we pedaled through a spruce forest so thick and dark it seemed like we’d landed in Stephen King country, but the butterflies playing chase with the rail-cycles helped to bring a little light into the haunted atmosphere.
Along a portion of the tracks with ponds and swampy areas on both sides, I looked for moose who might be enjoying an evening meal, but saw none.
Then, at the spot where Penney and Nye had us turn around the bikes, they pulled out a snack of strawberries and Vermont cheddar cheese to share. All of that scenic pedaling can make you hungry.
Thus fortified, we were ready for the mostly downhill return portion of the trip. Suddenly, the rail-cycles felt like they had been crossed with a roller coaster, and we hardly had to pedal at all.
It was exhilarating and unusual — a fun way to see a lot of Maine and get a little exercise.
One word of warning for those interested — no matter how fast you pedal, you’ll never outrun the deer flies lurking along the tracks. I recommend bringing your repellent and a hat.
Rail Bike Excursions will be offered this summer at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Fridays and Sundays, and other days by arrangement. Those interested are asked to e-mail Diana at email@example.com or call 568-3523 well in advance of their trip. The trip costs $6 for adults and $3 for children.