For the first time in seven years, the volunteers who maintain the Appalachian Trail in Maine will soon have a modern, comfortable and permanent place to spend their days off.
Each year, crews from the Maine Appalachian Trail Club head into the woods to perform maintenance and repairs along the 267 miles of the Appalachian Trail that run from Grafton Notch in the south to Katahdin in the north.
Workers trek to the sites and camp out in their vehicles or in the woods, just like thousands of hikers who traverse the Appalachian Trail each year. On their days off, after five straight days of work, volunteers emerge tired, sweaty and in need of some rest and a shower.
However, accommodations at the Maine Appalachian Trail Club base camp have been modest as the organization has rented facilities for the past three decades.
For the last seven years, crew members returned to a camp located on an island at Branns Mill Pond in Dover-Foxcroft. To access the facility, which did not have potable water or showers, volunteers boarded a homemade raft and used a nearly 300-foot rope to pull themselves from the shore to the island, and back again.
“It was kind of romantic, but not convenient or practical at all,” Maine Appalachian Trail Club President Lester Kenway said of the arrangement.
The club is closing in on its fundraising goal of nearly $1.4 million to build a new permanent facility in Skowhegan that will house Appalachian Trail volunteers. The new location will allow the group to better access the western portion of the trail to continue improvements and — perhaps most importantly — will give volunteers a place to shower.
The club’s fundraising campaign called “Trail Champions” is raising $1,374,500 to build The Maine Trail Center in Skowhegan.
“I think we’re going to do really well, but we could use some help getting there,” Kenway said of the push to procure the rest of the money.
Somerset Woods Trustees has provided the Maine Appalachian Trail Club with a 99-year lease on the 55-acre property close to the Kennebec River. The club is not being charged any fees for the first 30 years.
“That’s a tremendous gift,” Kenway said.
The Maine Trail Center will be more centrally located in relation to the center of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, thus improving access for volunteers.
“The crews have been based out of the Dover-Foxcroft area for the last 30 years and we’ve done a pretty good job of improving things in the eastern half of the trail, but this is going to give us the ability to apply a lot more effort in the western part,” Kenway said.
Plans are for the Maine Trail Center to include a meeting space, kitchen, housing with a capacity of 32 people, showers, laundry, an office, tent areas, an outdoor work space and a maintenance building with a workshop to store equipment.
“The greatest improvement is that we will have showers available for these people who come out of the woods,” Kenway said. “That is going to be a very important comfort and health improvement with the new site.”
The facility also will serve as a gathering place where members of other conservation organizations can learn about sustainable trail design, maintenance, and construction training needed to provide and preserve access to other recreational areas in the state.
Kenway said the woodlands on the property will allow the Maine Appalachian Trail Club to conduct chainsaw safety training, which is mandated for those in Appalachian Trail crews who operate them by the National Park Service, which oversees the trail. Those efforts will contribute to woodlot management at the site.
Skowhegan’s location in relation to the Appalachian Trail will be easier to access for the storage of materials used by Maine Appalachian Trail Club.
The club hopes to finalize design plans, begin site preparation and start construction during 2022. Kenway said there is a sense of urgency because rising construction prices may affect the club’s plans.
In the meantime, staff and volunteers during 2022 will have a temporary base camp at Lake George Regional Park in nearby Canaan.
“Our greatest success in fundraising in the last year has been through donations from individuals,” Kenway said. “That’s a little unusual for a campaign of this size, but that’s the way it’s working for us.”
Donations can be made at trailchampions.matc.org/donate/.