Old friends are like wine, they get better with age. That axiom applies to longtime friends John and Diane Stokinger. Our friendship began about 40 years ago when we were raising families in Rockland. We shared many outdoor adventures together canoeing on the Machias and Seboeis Rivers, backpacking part of the Appalachian Trail and challenging itineraries in Baxter State Park, and hiking and camping in Acadia National Park.
Then they moved away and deserted us. They recently returned to Maine though, so they’ve been forgiven.
We’re all fully vaccinated so Nancy and I invited the wayward couple for dinner. Outdoor adventures are usually a part of our social events. Assuming the role of program coordinator, I suggested biking or kayaking. Biking was the choice so I lobbied for one of my favorite trail rides, the Kennebec River Rail Trail.
Situated along the Kennebec River between Gardiner and Augusta, the 13-mile round trip ride is a very scenic endeavor. Much of the paved trail parallels inactive railroad tracks that were part of a network that linked Portland and Augusta. The trail is particularly special for me because I grew up in Gardiner and the little town across the river, Randolph. The rail trail will be featured in my new book “The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine.”
To begin our trek, we met at the southern terminus of the rail trail in the Hannaford parking lot in Gardiner. The reason was twofold. First, I like beginning and ending in my old hometown. Second, the elevation in Augusta is slightly higher than Gardiner. I prefer riding downhill on the return, even if the difference is a miniscule 45 feet.
Since we’re all senior citizens and partially or fully retired, we chose a sunny weekday for our excursion. The trail was still busy but not as much as a typical weekend day.
Most of the trail is 10 feet wide but a short section at the beginning on the southern end is much narrower. Riders need to be particularly alert and should slow down or dismount if they are unable to safely pass oncoming traffic.
Once the trail widened, we savored a wonderful view of the Kennebec River. When I was a youngster, a huge ice house was located directly across the river in Randolph. Although prohibited, some of my scofflaw friends and I explored the stupendous structure that was still operating on a limited basis a little more than six decades ago.
At mile one, we passed a couple of relatively new businesses on the left. One of them replaced a garage, gas station and store owned and operated by my grandfather in the 1950s and early ’60s. My dad occasionally ran the business on weekends and I was his frequent assistant manager. I have fond memories of playing catch with him for many hours on those delightful days despite periodic unwelcome customer interruptions.
Free treats from the store were another benefit.
Ancient logging booms and Brown Island were part of the river view as we continued north through an open area in Farmingdale. Turning right and crossing the tracks, we entered a weaving wooded stretch close to the river. Re-crossing the tracks, gentle rolling hills led us into Hallowell. After traversing a bridge over Vaughn Brook, the path declined to Route 201. In Hallowell, our choice was to ride through busy Main Street or negotiate an unpaved lane behind the business district next to the river. The latter was the group consensus.
Trail or hybrid bikes are preferable for this route.
We rejoined the paved path on the northern end of downtown Hallowell and progressed on a panoramic sector of trail into Augusta. Passing under Memorial Bridge, we descended steeply down to Waterfront Park where a snack and respite were enjoyed at the picturesque location opposite historic Fort Western. Much to our dismay, no leaping sturgeons were sighted during our visit, but they are a common source of entertainment on the lower Kennebec.
Before we departed, I observed that it was all downhill on the ride back to Gardiner. That pronouncement was disputed on several occasions during our return trip. Old friends can sometimes be curmudgeons but are still great company.