Scrambling Across Portland
We're doing a ten-mile loop today across the city," announces Tom Jewell, unfolding a Portland Trails map to trace the route from Deering Oaks park through northwest Portland and back. Nine men and women, aged twenty- to sixty-something, nod enthusiastically while rubbing on sunscreen and enveloping themselves in clouds of Deep Woods Off. Most sport hiking boots and shorts, although one woman wears Keds and an ankle-length white dress. It is 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning in June, and the group is wide awake and confident.Jewell's brow furrows. "You should know that the last time I did this, I got turned around. But don't worry! It only took two hours longer than planned." He smiles reassuringly. "Remember, when you're on a trail, even if you don't know where it's going, you are not lost."
Every June, Tom Jewell guides a five-hour scramble across Portland to celebrate the ongoing work of Portland Trails (PT), the urban land trust that he helped establish in 1991. Its goal, to build thirty miles of trails in Greater Portland, is within reach; but success hasn't slowed Jewell's drive. He aspires to make Portland one of the country's most walkable cities by building connections between all the paths and parks. "The plan may sound grandiose, but I'm modeling it on James Phinney Baxter, the famous longtime mayor of Portland. He had a vision of interconnected parks throughout the city.
It's time to get it done."
We move smartly down Park Street, almost keeping pace with westbound traffic, which is forced to stop for an occasional red light. Beneath an insalubrious railroad overpass, Jewell pauses.
"If I were alone, I'd never stop here." Barbara Nelson, a breast cancer survivor who sports a pink ribbon tattoo on her ankle, peers into the gloom. "Me neither," agrees her daughter Jennifer, a runner who had read about Jewell's walk on the Portland Trails Web site.
"But notice the lights." Jewell points to oversize fluorescents that illuminate the dark. "The neighborhood organization asked Portland Trails to help make the area walkable. These lights are just the beginning." His voice speeds up with the fervor of his message. "We have everything in Portland: ocean, estuary, rivers, forest, great neighborhoods. And soon, we'll be able to bike or walk or canoe safely from Falmouth to Portland to Westbrook. . . . "
At the back of the group, Bud Quinn, PT's volunteer trail steward, chuckles. "I've trekked all over this city with Jewell; he's led me through bogs, poison ivy, trash heaps. It can be dangerous, but it's always inspiring."
"Now, for one of the newest sections of trail." Jewell zips down Marston Street, past small homes whose yards bloom with flowers and friendly dogs. We burst through a gate in a tall chain-link fence and find ourselves on a black-topped path beside the new I-295 exit along the lower Fore River. I'd heard that this was a hobo jungle, but it's been reborn into a well-lit foot and bike path bordered by native plants. In one direction, it leads to Portland's waterfront; we follow it north to the Portland bus and rail station.
In a rear parking lot, Jewell dodges a large "No Trespassing" sign, and we find ourselves on an extension of the Fore River Trail that's not yet open to the public. Glaring sun vanishes beneath a green canopy. The heady scent of rugosa roses wafts by. Bees drone. We cross a wooden footbridge over flowering marshland and stand beside the full-running river.
"We need a footbridge across to the airport," quips Bud Quinn. The Portland Jetport is directly across the river.
"I did talk to the city about building a trail along the water on that side. It could connect to the Stroudwater River trail." Jewell shakes his head. "But they have terrorism concerns."
A collective groan.
"Yup. I told them that terrorists would be kept in check by birders and hikers, but so far, they've said no." He sounds bemused by the city's response. "Trail building is like doing a jigsaw puzzle with pieces you can't move. Takes patience and imagination."
We tumble after him through waving, waist-high grass onto outer Congress Street. Drivers frown as they whiz by us, clearly mystified by hikers on an urban sidewalk.
"These were our first attempts at trail signage." Jewell points to small red letters stamped on the sidewalk that spell TRAIL. We contemplate the faded notice.
"Only a toddler would ever see that."
"True," he laughs. "The new ones are better."
Sure enough, the twelve-inch, blue and green metal sign that reads "Fore River Sanctuary" is unmistakable. Silence descends as we walk single file beside the river, which sluices like liquid indigo through a meadow. In 1820, the grass-filled depression on our left was the Cumberland/Oxford Canal; the berm beneath our feet was once the canal's towpath. I try to imagine the thud of mule hooves on the path, but my ears are filled with birdsong and the swoosh of our legs brushing buttercups and wild asparagus. Within hailing distance of Congress Street the tranquility of the sanctuary is profound.
Jewell calls, "Baltimore oriole!" We watch orange and black wings flap into blue sky. "Hear those crows arguing?" Their raucous voices fill the air. "Either a baby has fallen from the tree or hawks are nearby."
As if on cue, a silvery raptor lifts up and away.
In the forest beyond, ferns replace flowers and - "Moose tracks!" Amidst snaking tree roots and fallen pine needles, cloven feet have stamped a deep impression. Jewell is delighted, as he's never seen moose on this trail.
"And look!" Barbara Nelson finds the next set of prints. "It's going our way."
"Should we be quiet?"
"Depends on whether we wish a close encounter."
We climb on in anticipatory silence, but the prints vanish just as we hear Jewell Falls' rush of water. We've been walking for three hours, and despite our eagerness for the scramble, we collapse with groans of relief on the naturalistic granite steps that skirt the water. The shaded glen with its tumble of white froth is exquisite.
"I came along today to discover Portland by foot, but I didn't know it would be this beautiful," says Norma Kraus-Eule, who joined Portland Trails in 2005 after running in its annual 10K. "I had no idea this was here," she says.
"Most people don't. And actually, it almost disappeared." Jewell waves an arm toward the semi-vertical land. "When I was in college, I heard that the city planned to sell house lots here."
"But it would have been impossible to build on."
"True, but I couldn't take a chance, so I asked my parents to buy the whole thing. They paid three thousand dollars for three acres and the falls. They were named Jewell Falls after we donated the land to Portland Trails. Being proactive is the key. If we don't get people outdoors, appreciating Portland's green spaces, the property becomes a subdivision. Then it's gone forever. We need to preserve this kind of land as common open space and encourage intelligent development in between."
"Tom's our visionary," says Bud Quinn.
The visionary grins. "So, let's get walking. We have some bushwacking to do."
First, though, we thread past abandoned grocery carts and mattresses in a park off upper Brighton Avenue. "Got to get the neighbors out here," Jewell muses, adding, "Thought you should see everything."
We admire a pristine nature trail built by students behind Hall Elementary School. "When they build it themselves, they care for it." Beverly Stewart, the woman in the ankle-length white dress, retrieves a discarded soda can. "We'll help them by keeping it clean."
Now, as we amble through the Nason's Corner neighborhood, remarking that we had no idea this pretty area existed - "The city seems so different when you get out of the car and walk" - we run smack up against a giant granite outcrop topped with lichen, moss, oak, and pine trees. We're at the back of Evergreen Cemetery's 239 acres.
"Everyone set for a real adventure?" Jewell scrambles up the boulder. We
follow with various degrees of agility. "There's no map of this area, so I've placed sticks at forks in the trail." Jewell gestures to twigs lying horizontally on the ground, each end pointing down a different path.
"How do you know which direction is correct?" asks Jennifer Nelson.
"Good question." He selects a course - at random? - and leads us into the forest, saying, "Most people are intimidated in the woods, but if I notice a side trail, I have to follow and find out where it goes."
That's when I have an epiphany. Jewell's guise as a successful real estate lawyer is as effective a disguise as Clark Kent's spectacles were for Superman. He may look like an adult, but at heart he is still a ten year old roaming the woods. For him, every footpath through a forest or trash-strewfield is a potential nature trail and every sidewalk, however cracked, a possible bond between neighborhoods.
As we slither down the far slope after him, someone says, "I haven't had this kind of fun since I played adventure games as a kid."
"It's like being back in Scouts."
"Careful of that branch."
"Watch out! Poison ivy on the right."
After twenty minutes, Jewell stops crunching through dry oak leaves. Sounding triumphant, he calls, "I knew if we kept going this way we would discover a trail!"
The excitement is soon replaced with wonder as he leads us into a
dappled glade carpeted with ferns that is so beautiful it belongs in a fairy tale. We find a tree trunk pocketed with the distinctive holes of pileated woodpeckers. "Other woodpeckers make round holes." He traces the ovals. "Nifty, don't you think?"
Indeed we do. In the final hour of our walk, we agree that everything we have seen is nifty. On the way back to Deering Oaks, we stop in Baxter Woods to see the stone marker commemorating Mayor Baxter's vision of inner-city sanctuaries for wildlife and people. Foot-sore, happy, and grateful, several of us give the marker an appreciative pat. With a Portland Trails map and the guidance of a Baxter disciple, we have walked ourselves into a new understanding of our city and a renewed enthusiasm for it.