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BRUNSWICK — On a gray Friday afternoon, five tired college students are flopped in a circle on the Brunswick mall.
Resting against a nearby tree are the bicycles the students have been riding across Maine for the past six weeks. On their backs are matching T-shirts advertising themselves as Climate Riders, college student interns who have devoted their summer to taking note of local solutions to climate change, and trying to educate people about the issue.
They’ve been to Belfast, where they studied sustainable agriculture and caulked windows. In Lewiston, they worked with a group that teaches teenagers how to garden. In Bath, they learned about watershed protection and worked on a culvert. Now they’re pedaling back to Boston to share ideas with bike teams from other New England states.
They go everywhere on their bikes, towing 90-pound trailers behind them that carry food, laptop computers and clothing. They only spend $5 a day (much of it on ice cream, they admit).
“We live our values by biking everywhere, living simply,” said Arielle Kashkin, 19, from Oakland, Calif.
Katie Herklotz, 20, of Blue Hill, said the group bikes around “just to show people it is possible … to show that biking isn’t just recreational, it’s a form of transportation.”
Brunswick was the last stop on their Maine tour. They were trying to get people to sign a petition in support of increased fuel mileage standards. They biked in from Bath, where they were staying at a church.
A contact in Bath set up their accommodations before they arrived, but it hasn’t been that easy everywhere they went. New England Climate Summer, the group organizing their trip, was supposed to arrange lodging in advance, but somehow it didn’t happen. So often, the riders roll into a town not knowing where they’ll spend the night.
“We have to cold-call churches,” Kashkin said, laughing.
“In Portland, we literally spent three days trying to find housing and didn’t do any other work,” Herklotz said.
Fortunately, one of the group members, 19-year old Brad Samuels of Andover, Mass., had a friend in the city who housed them temporarily. The night before, a school teacher they met on the street said they could stay at his home, an offer they gladly accepted.
In the beginning, figuring out lodging was stressful. But now the students laugh it off and say they no longer worry about logistics.
“Our level of worry, because of this program, has gone down so much. Things kind of happen as they happen,” said Lauren Audi, 19, of Ballston Spa, N.Y.
New England Climate Summer started in Massachusetts, and this is the first year the trip has run in Maine. The students say they had no idea what to expect when they set off on their journey, and have learned a lot that will make next year’s trip run more smoothly.
For example, tents would have been nice.
“We should probably bring camping supplies instead of laptops,” Kashkin said.
A little more information about environmental politics in Maine would also have gone a long way, the students say.
“We had 2 1/2 weeks of training, but it wasn’t Maine-specific at all,” Herklotz said.
But the students learned a lot on their own, and came to understand Maine’s own version of environmentalism.
For example, they found that many rural Mainers already have gardens and support local agriculture, not because it’s sustainable, but because it supports other Mainers. They met others who have switched away from heating oil, not for philosophical reasons, but because of the cost.
“I think there’s an all-around interest in Maine in being independent in the way you live, self-sustaining,” Audi said.
But the students also found it more difficult to convince Mainers to incorporate sustainability into their entire lifestyle.
“Everyone seems interested, but it’s hard to make everyone take that next step and perhaps give up some sort of comfort to live a little more sustainably,” Kashkin said.
“There are really awesome things going on, but there are so many people who could care less and reaching out to them has been one of the hardest things,” Audi said.
If the students haven’t saved humanity or changed the world – terms they used when talking about possible outcomes of their trip – they have at least inspired a few individuals.
In many of the towns they visited, people biked along with them instead of driving. And in Belfast, they helped a woman with cancer plant a big garden on a lot next to her house. Afterwards, she thanked them and told them they inspired her.
“If we don’t take anything else out of the summer,” Kashkin said, “at least we have that.”
These college students biked around Maine for six weeks, learning about environmentalism in the state and encouraging people to take action on climate change. From the left: Avery Beck of Chappaqua, N.Y., Lauren Audi of Ballstons Spa, N.Y., Brad Samuels of Andover, Mass., Katie Herklotz of Blue Hill, and Arielle Kashkin of Oakland, Calif. Not pictured: Greg LeMieux of Clinton, Ind.