PORTLAND — For more than 20 years, Tom Jewell has envisioned connecting Portland’s neighborhoods with a network of nature trails.
To help make that vision a reality, Jewell, who founded the Forest City Land Trust in 1976, helped established Portland Trails in 1990 with Nathan Smith and Richard Spencer.
Throughout the years, Portland Trails has built new paths and maintained old ones within the city. The group now boasts of having nearly 31 miles of trails in Portland.
On Saturday, Portland Trails will cut the ribbon on a 10-mile Forest City Trial that runs from the Fore River Sanctuary near the Maine Turnpike to the Presumpscot River Preserve.
“It’s a great occasion for Portland Trails,” Jewell said.
A noon ceremony will take place at the Portland Arts and Technology High School campus at 196 Allen Ave. But the more adventurous souls who have signed up in advance to walk the entire trail will start well before, at 7:30 a.m.
Bob Crowley, the winner of TV’s “Survivor: Gabon,” will help Jewell guide the 10-mile walk, which will arrive at PATHS in time for the ceremony.
Throughout the afternoon, Portland Trails will also host guided tours of the Fore River Sanctuary (8-9:30 a.m.), Evergreen Cemetery (10-11:30 a.m.) and Presumpscot River Preserve (1-2:30 p.m.).
“This as been 20 years in coming together,” Jewell said. “The first time I took this walk I needed a boat to cross the Fore River to get to the Fore River Sanctuary.”
The celebration comes not only years after building bridges, but only months after the organization received the remaining easements needed to connect the trails over private land.
Last week, the trail crew was still hard at work improving the trail system, finishing a new bridge at the Evergreen Cemetery Duck Pond, and marking the 10-mile trail.
“This time of year, it’s rain or shine, especially with this deadline coming up,” said trail manager Jaime Parker.
Parker and Charlie Baldwin, the trail foreman, were busy carrying loads of stone from a pick-up truck parked at the end of a Deering neighborhood cul-de-sac to a muddy portion of trail behind the Evergreen Cemetery.
The pair first laid down a bed of rock over the mud, and then spread a thick layer of New England Organic Super Humas, made up of native hemlock and cedar scrap, over the top.
More than eight miles of the Forest City Trail runs through the woods, and about two miles traverse through neighborhoods and across some of the city’s busiest intersections, including Morrill’s Corner.
The largest street-side stretch spans about a mile from Evergreen Cemetery on Stevens Avenue to PATHS on Allen Avenue.
“We see (the trail) as recreation, but people use it as transportation as well,” Parker said. “For us, it’s about connecting people to places.”
“There’s a lot more we can do,” Baldwin added. “A lot more expansions. A lot more improvements to our existing trails.”
Jewell said there will be about 100 signs posted along the route, in addition to white trail blazes, to guide walkers.
Along wooded portions of the 10-mile trail, there are many tranquil sites that almost makes one forget they are in a city of more than 65,000 people. In addition to the main trail, there are many other splinter trails to keep folks busy along the way.
Jewell said he is especially proud of the work crews have done recently on the trail network behind PATHS.
“The transformation of trails out there is amazing,” he said. “We started essentially with a mud pit and now we’ve got a trail that’s really nice and user friendly.”
This weekend’s events are continuing the group’s 20th anniversary celebration.
Nan Cumming, executive director of Portland Trails, said the group’s budget is largely dependent on grants. Depending on the year, the budget ranges from $100,000 to $400,000 a year.
The group has three full-time employees, two part-time workers and two more “very part-time” employees, including a school-ground greening coordinator, Outreach Coordinator Rachael Weyand said.
Weyland said the group also receives money from its 1,000 members, as well as from special events like a fall 10K race and spring silent auction.
Cumming said Portland Trails has built about 20 miles of trails in the 12 years since she became executive director.
Although the group hopes to build 50 miles of local trails, Cumming said the future focus of the organization will likely be trail maintenance, especially through stewardship programs.
“Hopefully the community will get behind that and get as excited about that as they do new trails,” she said.
Cumming said the group would also like to offer more guided walks and events to encourage trail use, and perhaps even reconsider its role to take more transportation-related projects.
“We may at one point look at our mission again and get more involved helping people bike and walk commute and do more encouragement of alternative transportation than we’re able to do now,” she said.
Reflecting on the last 20 years, Jewell said the group has done more work on urban trails than he originally expected.
But that’s all well and good, since the group’s primary mission is to get people out and moving.
“That’s the bottom line,” Jewell said, “to get people out there enjoying the outdoors.”
Charlie Baldwin, the trail foreman and volunteer coordinator for Portland Trails, spreads New England Organic Super Humus mix over a bed of stones to make a previously muddy section of trails in the Evergreen Cemetery woods more passable.
A section of trail behind the Portland Arts and Technology High School, 196 Allen Ave., this spring before Portland Trails began working on it.
The same stretch of trail behind the Portland Arts and Technology High School, 196 Allen Ave., after Portland Trails made improvements.