I didn't always get seasick
. Hell, as a kid, I actually loved being out on the water. For what it's worth, I still do; I just hate the nausea, vomiting, and general helplessness that seems to come with any extended time floating on it. In the weeks leading up to my trip to the midcoast of Maine, I asked in an email thread whether or not it would be possible for me to get out on the water for the chance to get some photos and video of the mainland from the sea. I knew the risks, but this particular part of the country demands to be seen from every angle, dry heaves be damned. We set off for a two-hour sail aboard the Schooner Olad, a beautifully restored wooden vessel built in 1927, on the Penobscot Bay. It was a risky endeavor to be sure, not only for my own camera gear given my propensity to curl up into a ball of uselessness during these kinds of endeavors, but also for the 21 additional passengers who were just looking to enjoy some fresh air and views sans vomit
. Luckily for me, my gear, and the others, the Bonine did the trick. Well, mostly. I'll admit to some queasiness for maybe the final 25 minutes, but by then I had the shots I needed and could just focus on the horizon. Plus, this place was simply too beautiful not to savor. My maritime companion, John Anders, seemed to notice my apprehension towards the end, and once on the dock asked how I was holding up. "Pretty good," I said, with less conviction than I wanted. My body was still a bit tense, as evidenced by my clenched fists and deep breathing. I tried to blame it on the breeze. "I'm a bit chilly though. You in the mood for some lobster stew?"Camden
, Maine has a lot going for it. It sits halfway up the coast of the northeasternmost U.S. state, and is surrounded by some of the most picturesque terrain and coastal communities you'll find anywhere in North America. The town of just under 5,000 year-round souls lies at the mouth of its namesake harbor; a beautiful declivity notched directly into the hilly terrain that defines the midcoast topography. The town features several quaint shops and restaurants along its Main Street, with no shortage of top-notch eats and drinks for travelers passing through, and for those simply looking to spend some time here. The state's largest city, Portland, is an hour and a half to the south, with the venerable tourist attraction of Bar Harbor and neighboring Acadia National Park an hour and a half to the northeast. But let's be honest here: while I certainly appreciate good food, drinks, a pleasant downtown aesthetic, and a reasonable proximity to neighboring towns and attractions, I traveled to Camden because this is where the mountains and sea meet and I wanted to ride the trails caught in the center of that dynamic. By week's end, it would prove to be one of the best decisions I've made in quite a long time.
Kevin Callahan greeted me with a huge hug immediately upon my arrival at his home in Appleton, 20 minutes or so outside of Camden. John Anders followed suit with a handshake and a hug of his own. It was the kind of thing you'd expect from a good friend you haven't seen in some time, except I had never seen either of these two before. But, it was a long drive, and a rather effective way to make someone feel at home immediately. Kevin is on the board of directors for the Midcoast Maine chapter of NEMBA, a group responsible for building trails and promoting mountain bike access around the Camden, Rockport, Rockland and Lincolnville areas of coastal Maine. John Anders is the chapter president, and has been for several years running. Both are California transplants who now proudly call Maine home. Shortly after my arrival, the three of us headed down into town for dinner and drinks, and the opportunity to share some of what the region had in store for me.
Kevin, who first began riding several years ago in much heralded terrain of Santa Cruz, moved to the midcoast about 13 years ago to start a family with his wife Kelly. Life and its complexities, as they often can, took Kevin away from riding bikes on trails for a short time shortly after their arrival in Camden. "One night I was in a really bad mood," he says. "And my wife just looked at me and said 'It’s time to buy you a bike dude. You need to get back into it.'
That was 9 or 10 years ago now. I rode trail for a couple of years before I started to see some things popping up on on Facebook about NEMBA. I wanted to get involved so I showed up to a trail day with John, did some digging, and got the bug."
John discovered Camden, Maine while serving as a sailor in the United States Coast Guard. His first duty station was aboard an icebreaking tugboat in Rockland, Maine, 15 minutes south along the coast from Camden. "I spent a few years here before heading back to the west coast." John tells me. "I spent 4 years there, bounced around a bit before I got the chance to work in Maine again on a buoy tender. At that point, I had lived in northern and southern California, travelled across the country transferring from one duty station to another, and when I came back to Maine I just thought to myself that I could really hang my hat here." For John, riding came well after his decision to stay in Maine, but it only took a small spark to light a 5 alarm fire under his ass. So to speak.
"My friend Tim had been bugging me for months to get a mountain bike," John remembers. "So I finally caved and bought an Iron Horse SGS Expert. I think it probably weighed 50 lbs. It was a game changer though. I have always really loved my job, but having this hobby was really nice. It began in earnest for me in 2007, before we even had a NEMBA chapter. That year the Snow Bowl had the Trail Care Crew from IMBA come and do a trail building seminar. That’s when the bug bit me."
Neither of these two have the kinds of Maine accents that you sort of dream about, which meant that talking about the new Rockshox Boxxer, or Fox forks, or "wicked good trails guy" was less fun than in the company of the born and bred crowd, but both men are so passionate about the direction this region is headed that it's very easy to hang on their every word, with or without that "downeast" accent. What John and Kevin, in addition to several other area trail stalwarts have to work with as it pertains directly to the midcoast mountain bike community, is Ragged Mountain
, known to a few hearty skiers as the Camden Snow Bowl. Ragged's summit sits 1,300 feet above the shores of the Penobscot Bay and Atlantic Ocean, roughly 2 miles east of the mountain's base. The water is easily seen from many aspects of the mountain, and on a clear day, you can see as far west as the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and loads of wild blueberries, rivers, flora, and lakes in between. The Camden Snow Bowl is a community-owned ski operation during the winter months, which means that the taxpayers are essentially the resort shareholders. During the warmer months, trail users of all types take to the hill, but it's the mountain bikers who have emerged in recent years as the primary stewards of this coastal mountain. Ragged and it's neighboring peaks and valleys is a dream come true for riders in terms of the terrain available. There's ample vertical and acreage for miles of trails and top notch descents, the undergrowth is scarce compared to many of its east coast brethren to the south, and again, the views alone are worth the trip. For John and Kevin, the growth has been great, but they've reached a bit of a tipping point.
"The land we have access to is the Snow Bowl," John tells me during a lobster boil. "Which is owned by the town of Camden. There’s also the Coastal Mountains land trust, and they have land that they provide stewardship for all over the Maine coast. Our focus is on the Ragged Mountain Preserve. Snow Bowl is the gateway to that. So we work with the land trust, the town of Camden, and then the private landowners. Right now we work with 5 private landowners, not including the land trust and Snow Bowl. We have conversations going right now with 6 additional private landowners as we work on a trail that goes directly into downtown through private property, and possibly through another non-profit. We want to be able to have kids and families not have to worry about driving to the mountain in order to ride; we want to be able to just hop on the trails from town and the neighborhoods around town."
"We had our first meeting as Midcoast NEMBA and we were deciding who wanted to be involved and in what capacity. We were determining who was going to be on the board, and someone shouted my name. I was pretty excited about the things we had going on trail-wise going into the meeting, and was really enjoying the friendships that were coming from it. Riding bikes is cool, but the friendships that come from this is what I love the most. So I took the opportunity to play a major part in this great organization, and it’s been great. Right now, when you look at Kingdom (Trails Association), or the Copper Harbor trails, or the Northwest Trail Alliance, you really can begin to see how they started with volunteers, but now have the bandwidth to manage landowner relationships, and provide a real stewardship for their trails. That takes a lot of energy and it requires a full time effort. They have that now, and we’re at that point as an organization."
For Kevin, resurgence is a theme that continues to come up whenever he thinks about the growth of mountain biking in the region. "We started a youth series a few years ago with maybe 4 club members and our kids." he says. "Word got out, and the next year we saw 20 kids. The year after that we saw 30 kids. Then 50. So part of the deal there is that we do the youth program for free, but you need to join the NEMBA family if you want to participate. We had maybe 30 members when we started the youth program, and now we’re up to 90 members. That’s just from the program alone. It really created this huge renaissance of people riding here."
"When you talk about our relationship with the land trust (Ragged Mountain Preserve) over time, as their leadership has changed and we have matured as an organization, it’s clear that there is a strong interest from both sides in working together. If you would have asked us 3 years ago what we thought the likelihood is that we will be able to build a new trail on preserve land, we would have said not a chance. They wouldn’t even let us maintain trails that had been grandfathered in. But now that relationship is blooming. So is our relationship with private landowners. Something is happening here, and it’s big. The town is involved. Landon from Snow Bowl is involved. We’ve been bringing decision makers down to Highland and showing them what we’d like to accomplish here, and are looking to bring the guys at Highland up to help us design a bike park. Anyone who might be at all involved in this decision, Mark from Highland wanted us to bring them by. Last summer, I basically filled every weekend with trips to Highland to show the leaders in this community what is possible. It’s been really awesome to see people begin to connect the dots for themselves."
This region is knocking on the door of being a world class destination for riders, and many of these guys know it. But while the growth has been promising, there are still many steps that need to be taken before they're where they want
to be. Knox County is Maine's eldest in terms of average age of it's population, and they long struggled to convince younger people to take up residence here, despite the opportunities on land and sea. And while the involvement of Highland Mountain Bike Park is sure to raise eyebrows everywhere, nothing here is set in stone as of yet. In fact, the Camden Snow Bowl is coming off of a disastrous year in which it saw it's ski season end at close to a $300,000 deficit. Landon Fake, Snow Bowl's general manager and Camden's Parks and Recreation director, is well aware of the challenges that lay in wait for the riders here.
"It’s public land here," he tells me from the base lodge. "So sometimes it can get a little complicated as a ski area as we do have to charge for lift tickets and access during ski operations. But for the rest of the year, it’s open to the public, so there’s a wide variety of public use. Last season, like all of the other New England ski areas, we really suffered. The dynamics might be a little complicated when it comes to lit served riding here. It’s public land but we’re limiting access to some people so we can charge a fee to use the lift and ride the trails. We’ll just need to be careful to maintain the access to all of the cross country trails, and we’ll have to figure out whether or not we’re charging for lift access, or trail access. A tremendous number of hours have gone into building these trails, so the idea that we would charge the volunteers who put these in would never fly. Because they built those trails they legitimately have some ownership of them, and a say in their future."
For Kevin, the financial challenges cannot be overstated. "What we have at Snow Bowl is akin to a startup that succeeded. We just don’t have the cashflow to take it to the next level. We need an injection from somewhere. We have the terrain, we have the willingness, and we have the support of the community. All of those pieces are in place. Except the financial piece."
Cash isn't the only resource the area is facing a shortage of. The locals have a great deal of love for their lands, but the problem is there are far more projects waiting to be done than there are people to do them. "Volunteerism is a constraint here mostly due to the lack of a population center." John tells me. "I think that the youth series, and the fact that we’re building better trails than we ever have, volunteerism is increasing. We’re building trails more well suited for beginners and intermediates. This whole thing started with some really technical and challenging trails, and now we’re opening the mountain and region to a much wider audience. So things have really improved in terms of getting volunteer assistance. But, due to the limited population numbers, we just don’t have a huge amount of people to bring into the fold. Maine is also a very grey state, meaning there’s an older population here compared to the rest of the country, and we’re situated in one of the oldest counties."
Hope springs eternal along the midcoast, and while cash flow and able bodied hands might be in short-ish supply, there's more than enough energy and enthusiasm to help the area overcome those hurdles. "Skiing only takes up maybe 3 ½ or 4 months out of the year," Landon notes, "So there is definitely room for something else to come and make a real impact. Mountain biking is new enough for us that we don’t have a whole lot to go on just yet. I know that Highland does the same number of rider visits as we have skier visits per year. They get about three times the amount of revenue from each of those visits compared to each skier we get here. Right now, that’s the only real metric I have to go off of. Now whether or not we can bring in the same number of visitors here in midcoast Maine compared to southern New Hampshire is a question we will have answer sometime soon. If we are able to eventually bring in close to those levels of revenue during the spring, summer, and fall months, that would be great."
Kevin sees it too. "We built Dreadnought in fall of 2012." he says. "We had a bunch of dudes hiking around with chainsaws cutting the corridor. We had an excavator driving through the woods helping us rough in the trail. As we were finishing, I’m up there doing some handwork on the trail and some hikers came through. They stopped and just wanted to thank us for the work we were doing. If I were still in Santa Cruz, this would probably be a trail conflict. But here, it’s so different than any other place that I’ve ridden."
John knows how good the riding here already is; he has been an integral force in shaping it over the past decade. But for him, the answer to their many questions is already there. "If there is some success in attracting younger residents, he says with no shortage of excitement in his voice. "Then you’re going to see an increase in volunteerism as well. It’s been a weakness in the past, but it’s improving for sure. We have kids like Sam Kinney, a 23 year old who rips. We had a summit last week and we asked ourselves how we can attract more and more young riders like him? Well, if you build trails they like and want to ride, they’ll be into it."
"The other thing is the youth series we have here. I truly believe we’re shaping future trail builders with that. We’re planting the seed for future growth. It’s a longer term solution, but it’s a good one. You get the kids involved while they’re young. You get mom and dad involved. It stops being just about the bikes. It’s about socializing, and family time."
When you call something a "work in progress"
, it can often come across like an indictment on whatever has the work ahead of it. Trail networks and communities, in theory, should always be considered works in progress, regardless of how well established or highly regarded they may be. With that being said, your Whistlers, Pisgahs, Moabs, and Bellinghams of the world have earned every ounce of legend and lore they have received over the years. But even those places, and virtually every other bucket list
locale around the world can be called a work in progress. Progression should never cease in mountain biking, and certainly not when it comes to trail design, stewardship, and the dynamic impact mountain biking can have on local communities. It's a testament to the hard work, and critical thinking on the part of the leaders in places with such amazing trails, and that's exactly what is happening in Camden right now.
The midcoast of Maine has some of work ahead of it, and the people there are well aware of that. But they do have several pieces in place already, including the passion and vision necessary to elevate the region into eventual bucket list status. It also has the support of the towns and communities in the region who are looking to showcase the coastal mountain dynamic to the rest of the world. Perhaps most importantly, they have loads of world class terrain at the ready. There are trails in place right now that rival, or exceed some of the very best stuff you'll find throughout North America. The terrain at their disposal, between the carpet of deep and soft dirt, pockets of loam throughout the mountain, the abundance of roots and rocks to play around on and sharpen your skill set, it all adds up to a striking playground for riders of virtually all levels. Their flow offerings are on the rise as well, and with Highland on board for future trail development, the ceiling here is staggering. Ragged Mountain and its surrounding peaks are just begging to be explored and ridden, and you cannot discount the impact and energy of the coast itself, and what that brings to the overall sensory experience in a place like this. This is a breathtaking landscape, with the towns and infrastructure in place ready to welcome you and your family, and you what? The riding here is very much worth a place high up on your to-do list. There are several reasons why you should pay this place a visit, and mountain biking sits squarely at the top of the list.Ragged Mountain biking trails
EB&D Travel Information:
You can download a trail map here, or pick one up at local shops.
Sidecountry Sports is a great place for your bike and ski needs!
For specific information about the Camden Snow Bowl, be sure to check out their website.
For a list of local businesses who actively support mountain biking, see the list on Midcoast Maine NEMBA's website.
Interested in a couple of hours on the water? The crew aboard the Schooner Olad is amazing, as are the views.
Midcoast trails would not be possible without the support of the Town of Camden, The Coastal Mountains Land Trust, and private landowners. Please help mountain biking by respecting the lands we get to ride on!