On any given day, you might spot them: people rolling up in pickup trucks and Subarus to the sometimes-mysterious turnouts that mark Maine’s many roadside springs.
Once arrived, they pull out scoured milk jugs, carboys or other receptacles, fill them with the cold, clear water that bubbles up there, then lug them back to their vehicles and turn the wheel toward camp or home. All kinds of Mainers visit the roadside springs that dot the state, and they do it for all kinds of reasons. Some prefer the taste of the water to what comes out of their tap at home, while others believe that springwater is cleaner, purer and offers more health benefits than town or city water. Many simply enjoy doing what Mainers have done for many generations: seeking out springwater in the wild.
It’s an old practice, though sometimes a hazardous one. Who are these water seekers, and why do they go to the time and trouble to search out water from roadside springs? Two dedicated water foragers, Frank and Camille Giglio of Thorndike, originally became intrigued by roadside springs for health reasons. Their interest grew from there. Now, the couple and their children seek out springs whenever they can.
“We changed our diet. We’re eating organic food. And we want better quality water,” Frank Giglio said. “It became a thing we did. We like to go foraging — let’s go foraging for water. On our travels, we try to find different places to go, and bring containers with us … it just became something we really enjoy doing. It became a fun thing we do.”
Just what, exactly, is a roadside spring? Springs occur wherever groundwater flows out from the earth’s surface and typically are found along hillsides, low-lying areas or at the base of slopes, according to the Penn State Extension. Groundwater found at springs is closer to the surface and can be more open to surface contamination than typical well water. That’s why it’s important to be cautious when visiting springs, even ones that have structures built around them and pipes installed to make it easier for people to use them and fill their containers.
“Roadside springs are especially visible to travelers, and may be accessed by a large number of local residents and travelers,” the extension paper said. “Road cuts often intersect shallow, natural springs allowing the groundwater to flow to the surface. Many roadside springs have stone or concrete structures and metal or PVC pipes built by someone years or decades ago. The springs may be on public or private property. The vast majority of roadside springs are not regularly tested or treated, and a few municipalities have posted warning signs about the lack of testing.”
But springs have long been important to Mainers. Towns, including Poland Spring and Stockton Springs, have found their names and sometimes even their identities from the water found there. And even today, with most people in Maine having easy access to tested and treated drinking water thanks to the municipalities where they live, many still seek out a different, more natural source for their water.
Paul Ackerman of Tenants Harbor has a longstanding interest in roadside springs and Maine history. Some of the springs found today have been in use since the 19th century and even before, he said. People would stop to water their horses and to fill their own drinking jugs, and the springs were important.
“As the settlement of villages, particularly along the coastal areas, expanded in the 19th century, water as a resource really became a pretty significant thing,” he said. “A village with a good spring, or a road that passed by an area with a decent spring, became a focal point. It really was a matter of survival.”
Water and a gathering place
Another Mainer with an interest in history, Tom Seymour of Waldo, wrote in a 2016 article in the Fisherman’s Voice newspaper that the spring often served as a gathering place for the community.
“People met at the spring, exchanged pleasantries, caught up on town news and current gossip,” he wrote. “In fact, the spring truly helped define the community. It was, after all, a communal water source.”
But that changed in the past century as water began to be tested and sometimes harmful bacteria was found. Landowners began to fear lawsuits and closed their springs to the general public, Seymour said. Other times, municipalities or the state shut down and even paved over their public water sources. One example he gave was of a well-known spring atop a hill on Route 1A in Stockton Springs, where he stopped frequently for a drink of ice-cold spring water before it was closed about 30 years ago.
“The place where the pump stood was paved over and a new generation is growing up with no knowledge of the fine public spring that once stood on a hill overlooking the town,” he wrote.
Nancy Treat Burnham of Searsport also has great memories of that particular spring, where she, her husband and daughter would head every weekend for years during the 1980s to fill up gallon jugs.
“It was such good water,” she said. “We drank it for years. We had it down to a science, all three of us, pumping and tapping the water.”
Then, they heard it was going to be closed because of contamination and counted themselves fortunate to have never suffered ill effects from drinking the water. But they missed the ritual, and they missed the water.
“We really liked it,” she said. “It was nice having access to what we thought was exceptionally clear, clean water. I do think there’s something sort of Maine-like about being able to pull up to a pump and wet your whistle and fill a gallon jug.”
Ensuring water is safe
After watching spring after spring disappear, many Mainers are understandably cagey about sharing information about their favorite spring. If they do, they fear there’s a good chance that it could be “loved to death” by over-enthusiastic and irresponsible users, Ackerman said, or paved over by the landowner or others. Still, there are now legal protections for landowners. In the 1997 “Act To Preserve Roadside Springs,” the Maine Legislature declared that a roadside spring is not a public water system if the owner does not charge a fee or accept donations for the water or for testing or maintenance of the spring, and does not post signs or construct other structures that invite people to use the spring.
Even while some folks do not want to disclose the location of their favorite springs, others are sharing that information far and wide. As more and more people have become interested in getting back to nature, foraging and intentional living, a user-created database of springs around the world called FindASpring.com has emerged. There are 22 identified springs in Maine located on the website, which does ask users to test all water before consuming it. That’s advice repeated by state officials with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Environmental Health.
“Everyone knows of a local spring where you can go any time of the year to get a jug full of cold, clear water,” state officials said on a webpage about roadside springs. “The problem is that not everyone knows if the water is safe to drink.”
Ackerman said that he believes that the Maine Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory provides the “gold standard” tests to ensure spring water is safe to drink. In roadside springs, he said, it is unlikely that a person will find radon or arsenic, both of which are more common in wells deeply drilled through bedrock. But bacteria might be present, and if that is so, the water is not safe to drink.
Bacteria-contaminated water should be boiled for at least one minute or disinfected before drinking. Additionally, the spring should be examined for possible sources of contamination, including covers that allow bird droppings, insects or rain to enter, and the water in the spring should be disinfecting by applying chlorine bleach.
“After you’ve cleaned out whatever debris is in it, pour down bleach,” Ackerman said.
According to the Division of Environmental Health, the Maine Drinking Water Program recommends testing roadside springs every month for fecal coliform bacteria, among other contaminants. The state does regulate three roadside springs in Maine as public water supplies, and tests those for bacteria and other contaminants periodically. Those are the Worthley Pond Spring in Peru, the Bryant Pond Spring in Woodstock and the Cooper Spring in Paris.
At other springs, users drink at their own risk. Technically, the owner of the land where the spring is located is responsible for making sure the water is safe to drink if they are allowing the public to use it, according to state officials. If tests show the spring has harmful bacteria, the people who use the spring must be notified and the owner must take steps to make sure the spring isn’t contaminated. It’s important to be careful, officials caution roadside spring enthusiasts.
“Often people use roadside springs as dumping grounds for car waste,” the state website said. “Drinking Water Program field staff have found diapers, garbage and other waste in close proximity to some springs.”
They suggest that users use common sense and look around the spring prior to drinking from it. Because many springs have PVC or metal pipes installed to make it easier to fill water jugs, the state encourages people inspect the area between the pipe and the spring itself, to see if there is any debris or waste near the spring that could influence its water quality. If there is, clean it out. Users also can contact the Drinking Water Program to see if the spring is regulated, and if it is, recent test results should be on file. The state encourages people who live in communities with a spring that could be improved and maintained to call 207-287-2070 to be put in touch with resources and given advice to do so.
It sounds like a lot of work. But to many Mainers, including Frank Giglio, it’s worth it.
“I’ve met some interesting people over the years at the springs. There are people who have been doing it for so long. I love meeting the old-timers who have been drinking it for 30, 40 and 50 years,” he said. “There’s going to be a ton of people that tell you never, ever do that, ever. … You’ve got to know what to look for. And the water you drink should be taken just as seriously as the food you put into your body, which is something I think is often neglected.”
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