Thursday, August 8, 2013

Afterword: More from St. Stephen, the East Coast Greenway, and Home

Posted by Jeff, 7/3/15

St. Stephen is a company town. It didn't feel like one right off the bat, but as we learned more about its chocolate- and candy-making history, it became clear just how central Ganong has been to the local economy.

Look, for example, at the city's official website. Aside from the unimaginative, formless slogan ("The Middle of Everywhere"), one is bound to notice that the first option in the top navigational bar is "chocolate".

Being located on a major waterway, St. Stephen already has an economic and cultural advantage. It was therefore important to the Passamaquoddy Native Americans as a fishing location and burial ground. Like Belfast, Maine, the town became a shipbuilding hub in the 19th Century. The railroad's arrival in the late 1800s gave manufacturers another option for shipping goods. (Source: city website)

In 1873, two years after the town's incorporation, the Ganong "empire" had its humble beginning:

In 1873 brothers James and Gilbert Ganong opened a grocery store in St. Stephen; when it almost failed, they added candy – then a specialty item – to the list of wares for sale. Meeting with success, they started to make their own candy to sell in the store. From this modest beginning, Ganong Bros. Ltd. grew dramatically. By 1930 the company was a major corporation employing 700 people, and is still a major employer in the town.
The chocolate and candy factory was in a brownstone building in the middle of downtown, on Milltown Blvd. (St. Stephen's "front street" abutting the river), until 1990, when production moved to a larger facility on the outskirts of town.

The brownstone became The Chocolate Museum, and it is the epicenter of the annual Chocolate Fest. Wouldn't you know it? The festival was going on when we arrived. The main thing we did to celebrate was eat a lot of chocolate. There were just free plates of chocolates all over the museum!

Chocolate walking tour, in which we viewed old, stately houses where various Ganongs lived. The mansion in this photo is actually a university now, whose 2013 enrollment was something like 85.

Chocolate history

Chocolate fountain

Chocolate taste test

Not chocolate, but curling. I hear this may be a popular activity in Canada.

* * *

The Chocolate Fest, while delicious and educational, was a little underwhelming. Attendance was more trickle than flow. The rain we had (thank you for waiting till we were done riding!) might have played a role, but it is surely something that could have been better marketed. On the other hand, the sparse crowds meant it was easier to navigate through the museum and participate in the ancillary events. And more chocolate to ourselves, haha! We bought boxes of chocolate from the museum store and shipped them to family, friends, and "major donors" to our East Coast Greenway First Giving page.

The humble festival in a modest Canadian town was proportionate to our bike ride. In the world of bike touring, 500 miles is no "epic" feat, hence the hyphenated adjective in this blog's description. Several friends of mine have ridden across the country, and the most intrepid cyclists have tackled the whole world (like Mark Beaumont). A legally blind couple even rode a tandem from the southern tip of South America to the northern tip of Alaska. Besides, "epic" is the most overused adjective today, with an adverb ("literally") claiming the overall most-overused-word title.

The bigger point is that a long-distance bike ride is really fun, and not super difficult! We averaged just under 50 miles per day, and neither of us had previously done anything more than a long day ride. Sure, there were sore knees, hands, and forearms. But a 500-mile trip is not something only reserved for the Mark Beaumonts of the world. A bike has been my main mode of transportation now for 10 years, so I have a healthy level of maneuvering ability, particularly in urban traffic. But long distance rides were a new thing, and this one went smoothly for both of us "rookies".

An East Coast Greenway trek could become even smoother in the future, to the extent that the states, counties, and cities and towns through which it runs commit to finishing the network. The more Downeast Sunrise Trails, Eastern Trails, Chester River Greenways, and even small facilities like the Androscoggin River Path and Beth Condon Pathways arise along the route, the more opportunities for healthy, explorative, outdoor recreation and touring will accrue to the tens of millions of people who live near the route.

* * *

Speaking of home, that time eventually came. The process of boxing and shipping Eve's bike back to California was an adventure in and of itself, about which I'll write later. Through West Transportation and Concord Coach Lines, we had convenient bus transportation from Calais all the way to Boston. I was even able to stow my own bike on both buses (in the back of West Transportation's cutaway bus, and in the luggage storage area of Concord's full-size coach) without partial dismantling and boxing (phew). Eve flew back to California, and I took the train/bus back to North Carolina (with a stopover in New York City).

We went our separate ways then, for the time being. But now, in 2015, we're together again in California.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Land of Chocolate (Day 11: Machias to Calais-St. Stephen)

Posted by Jeff, 6/28/15

Miles: 52

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The morning was cool

So, with jackets on, we rode into Machias for breakfast. The DEST converges with Main St., so there is easy access to the tiny downtown.

For a town of just over 2,000, Machias has both a University of Maine campus and a place in American Revolution history. Machias Bay is the site of the first naval battle of the American Revolution.

Which reminds me of another interesting bit of naval trivia: the Civil War technically ended in the Bering Strait, about 150 years to the week of this writing (late June 1865). Read about it here.

Back to the present

Machias is the sensible place to stock up on supplies and food before continuing north to the apex of the East Coast Greenway. We ate breakfast at the charmingly-titled Bluebird Ranch Family Restaurant. The writing on the wall here says: order something with wild blueberries, because you are in the mecca of wild blueberries. We stocked up at a Subway (for lunch) and a nearby gas station and were on our way. It was still sinking in that we'd be in Canada before dark, if all went well.

It was 30 miles to Ayers Junction, as the DEST turned north through East Machias and its sedate neighborhoods. The scenery along the trail was much like Day 10 (in fact, some of those DEST photos in the Day 10 post were actually Day 11 -- big scandal, I know). The log shelter with snowshoes and a guestbook seemed to be archetypal Maine, and the wooden interpretive sign near Edmunds, with the DEST's history, was a nice touch, too.

All went well for the 30 miles. By midday we were at Ayers Junction, having gone 85 miles on the welcoming DEST! We ate our lunch at the trailhead.

The route from here is simple: northwest on Ayers Junction Rd., north on Charlotte Rd. through the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, and north again on Baring (not Bering) St. into Calais, the triumphant endpoint for ECG travelers.

Round Lake

Charlotte Rd.

* * *


If you look at an online map of Calais, and then zoom out, you might come to two geographical conclusions. First, it doesn't look that far north after all. Maine's inland territory, capped by the vast Aroostook County, extends about 150 miles north. But, second, it is striking how far east it is. Not too far southeast, Quoddy Head State Park arguably marks the easternmost land in the United States. (Now, the most fastidious among us would maintain that, technically, it is an uninhabited island at the western end of the Aleutian chain, which is across the international date line). Near Quoddy Head SP is Lubec, the easternmost incorporated place in the U.S. Calais is the easternmost incorporated place with a population over 2,500.

So Calais sees the sunrise first. But to me it's a bigger deal that it is one of the bookends of the East Coast Greenway. Extremities have a deserved place in American lore. Prudhoe Bay, Key West, Mount McKinley, Death Valley: these places stick out (some quite literally) in dreams of traveling through our vast continent. They are natural destinations, the geographical symbol of achievement.

That said, we didn't get the impression that Calais was assertively marketing its status. The City's website does mention it on the sparse Waterfront Walkway page, but this is something that should be prominently displayed on its home page. The visitor information center didn't have ECG rack cards, so I gave them a bunch from my stash.) If I were mayor, I'd be all over that.

When we got to Calais, it was mid-afternoon. But we needed to go one step further, for chocolate beckoned us from across the border, across the St. Croix River. We eagerly got in line at the Main St. crossing. Except, there was no line, since we were on bikes.

* * *

Crossing into St. Stephen

It took a couple of minutes to explain our trip at customs. It's probably not every day that they encounter a teacher from California and an urban planner from North Carolina riding their bikes from Boston. But everything was finished in about 10 minutes and we proceeded to walk our bikes across the border right into downtown St. Stephen and the province of New Brunswick. The Land of Chocolate was under our feet!

After snapping this photo, the first thing we did was go get ice cream.

From there, it was only a few more blocks of leisurely riding to check in at the Blair House Bed & Breakfast. The Blair House ended up being a really nice place to stay. David Whittingham, the host, was about as accommodating as can be. The room was comfortable, the breakfast was fulfilling, and David even let us take over the back porch when it came time to disassemble our bikes for boxing and shipping (which ended up being a mini-adventure in and of itself).

We ate dinner at the Bistro on the Boulevard. It was the only restaurant we could find in downtown St. Stephen that seemed to have a variety of non-fried, healthy menu options -- plus a good beer menu. Not that we were being picky on this trip, as the previously-described fish 'n' chips, lobster rolls, giant breakfasts, and, above all, ice cream can attest to. But since we would spend our next few days not burning over 1,000 calories, and actually consuming hundreds of calories of chocolate, a lighter dinner menu seemed like a good change of pace.

Unfortunately, the Bistro ended up closing down soon after we left. We did our best to keep it in business.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Downeast Sunrise, Part 1 (Day 10: Ellsworth to Machias)

Posted by Jeff, 6/3/15

Miles: 60

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These were our water bottles

Were seven water bottles enough for our needs? Yes. America ByCycle recommends at least 2 to 3 per person. We probably refilled at least once a day. Bicycling Magazine recommends (direct quotes):

  • Sip 12 to 16 ounces of water four hours before hopping onto your bike
  • Two hours before, sip another 12 ounces
  • While riding...the average recommendation is one 16-ounce bottle per hour in cool weather...based on a 150-pound cyclist [that amount varying in hotter weather and for different body weights]

  • * * * We had a long, leisurely, and sizable breakfast at the Riverside Cafe...

    ...which was packed full of people.

    The trailhead for the Downeast Sunrise Trail (DEST), the 85-mile rail trail that was to be our proverbial Silk Road for the next day-and-a-half, stood inconspicuously near a storage yard 2.5 miles east of downtown. Getting there was a milestone; it was the home stretch! Besides, after pedaling many miles next to fast-moving traffic (e.g. US-1), with a topping of hostile motorist threat (see: Salem), the promise of the quiet of the trail was welcoming.

    Gravel driveway off of Main St./Washington Junction Rd. that provides access to the DEST trailhead

    The trailhead

    The beginning of the trail

    The DEST is a jewel at the end of the East Coast Greenway...

    ...a worthy culmination of a long northbound tour.

    Trail history

    More history of this awesome trail

    The Sunrise Trail Coalition (STC) is the nonprofit organization that promotes and helps manage the trail. Their Autumn 2014 newsletter (PDF) includes a more detailed history of the trail's development. Here's an abridged version:

    The Calais Branch Railroad Corridor was a 127 mile long rail corridor for freight and passenger service between Brewer and Calais.

    In 1987 this Corridor was acquired by the State of Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) from the Maine Central Railroad, and service was thereafter ceased.

    After an analysis of the business potential to support future potential freight service was determined not to be economically feasible due to uncertainty of demand and high capital cost to reactivate the railroad, then Governor Baldacci on July 15, 2005 charged MDOT with developing a Trail Management and Maintenance Plan for an interim multi-use trail along 87 miles of the Corridor between Ellsworth and Ayers Junction.

    MDOT formed the Calais Branch Trail Management develop a Management and Maintenance Plan for the rehabilitation of the Corridor and subsequent construction of the Trail.


    Construction would entail removal of the substandard rails, repair of washouts, placement of decking over bridges, rehabilitation of the Corridor, and construction of a 12-foot wide, compact gravel base. Total cost was estimated to be $3.9 million financed by sale of the rails, ties and other hardware.

    Construction began spring 2008 along the easterly 49 miles from Machias to Ayers Junction. A ribboncutting ceremony was held January 31, 2009 at Ayers Junction for the opening of these 49 miles to winter activities. Construction began in the spring of 2009 for the remaining 36 miles from Machias to Washington Junction and was completed in the fall of 2010. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held at Washington Junction in September 2010.

    DEST map (Source: Sunrise Trail Coalition). Larger JPG map

    The trail surface is gravel. The old rail bed means no steep grades or sharp turns. One of the things we heard from the ECG staff before the trip was that rain might render some of the trail impassable. In the winter, the trail has packed snow for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and dogsledding. In the spring, snowmelt can create muddy conditions that close the trail for weeks, if not months, to everything but foot traffic.

    Had it rained, this would have meant getting back on US-1. As I’ve written earlier, when the highway has an 8-ft. shoulder, it’s tolerable if not ideal. When it doesn’t, it’s a little harrowing. The latter characterized a lot of US-1 east of Ellsworth. But luck was with us: the two days on the DEST were sunny. They welcomed us with open arms.

    There weren’t many people on the trail. Of those few, the majority were ATV riders. We maybe saw 2-3 touring cyclists. For miles, we could ride side-by-side without interruption, and this invited lengthy conversations. Eve and I were, at the time, still very much learning about each other. Some attention needed to be paid to avoiding potholes and the occasional critter. Some was paid to the placid meadows, woods, and bogs we passed. But mostly, we could focus on listening to one another.

    At about milepost 15, we reached Schoodic Bog and Mountain, a remarkable part of the route.

    The landscape was getting really rural. At lunch time we reached Cherryfield, which, by the way, is the self-proclaimed Blueberry Capital of the World. (Maybe "Blueberryfield" was too much of a mouthful.) We stopped at the North Street Café &ndash which is not only adjacent to the trail but is also a business sponsor of the STC &ndash to fuel up on fried food and ice cream sundaes and refill the water bottles.

    Bridge over the Narraguagus River, near Cable Pool Rd., Cherryfield

    The afternoon ride was mainly uneventful. Parts of the trail were more potholed than others, parts wider than usual. Parts were causeways with shallow water on each side. We were clicking off the miles.

    We left the trail to find a water source in Columbia Falls, but to no avail. (We didn’t even see a human being, to my recollection.) That set us back a bit as the light of the summer evening was finally giving way to the gloaming. It became the Sunset Trail. We were a long way from Boston, not far from the Land of Chocolate.

    But it seemed categorically set apart from everywhere that evening; the trail was its own tranquil world. And before the short night fully set in, we were asleep in the tent.

    Monday, August 5, 2013

    Day of Rest (Day 9: Bar Harbor to Ellsworth)

    Posted by Jeff, 5/5/15

    Miles: 12

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    Acadia National Park is a worthy side trip for East Coast Greenway travelers.

    If you have time, there are enough sights and activities to fill several days. But you can also make it just one day if your time is limited. This day was our day of rest.

    It was this.

    Downtown Bar Harbor

    And this.

    Jordan Pond

    Pemetic Mountain

    Northeast Harbor

    Two transportation nerd alerts

    1. The bus system in Acadia is, in my opinion, excellent. First, it's free. Second, it covers all corners of the park, with a hub in Bar Harbor. Third, the route information was clear.

    Eve and I used the buses to get to Bar Harbor from her friends' cabin, where we were staying, and to get around the park. Our bikes? Bless their hearts, love 'em to death, wouldn't trade 'em for the all the tea in China...but it was nice to get chauffeured around by the bus system and use our legs for hiking. So, a good tip for planning a tour of this length is to build in a day like this.

    2. People love to bike in Acadia! Thanks to a somewhat unlikely source: John D. Rockefeller, Jr. From 1913-1940, the magnate sponsored the building of carriage roads throughout the island. It wasn't pure altruism, of course. Rockefeller wanted routes for recreational buggy rides. But now they form a 45-mile network of car-free roads perfect for horseback riding, jogging, walking, or cycling. Because of the lack of cars, people of any cycling ability can feel comfortable riding on them. To get to them, there are special shuttles with bike trailers on the back, and plenty of bike rental options in Bar Harbor and the park.

    Queueing for a bike shuttle to the carriage roads

    * * *

    In the early evening, we got back to Eve's friends' cabin, packed our panniers, and got back in those familiar saddles. We rode a leisurely 14 miles back toward Ellsworth to Timberland Acres RV Park. There, we met another cyclist who was coming from Montana. He looked to be in his fifties. Talking to him made our own trip seem like a ride to the grocery store. We unloaded our bikes and went back out for pizza at Pat's Pizza with another one of Eve's friends. (They are scattered all around New England.)

    It was a worthwhile day of rest. Tomorrow would be our longest trip.

    Sunday, August 4, 2013

    Four Hundred Twenty Feet Above the Water (Day 8: Belfast to Bar Harbor)

    Posted by Jeff, 2/22/15

    Miles: 52

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    What do you get when you combine the Washington Monument with, say, the Ravenel Bridge in Charleston?

    The answer later in the blog post, but first, news and sports.

    SEARSPORT -- In the morning, we walked down to the rocky beach. Eve waded, and I took a swim, in the cool Penobscot Bay waters.

    The Penobscot River was the home of the Native American tribe of the same name for thousands of years before European settlement.

    The first part of Day 8 involved a 35-mile stretch of US-1. There are no bike paths between Belfast and Ellsworth, and the US-1 shoulders are the only practical route. We left our grassy field among the RVs and started to wind around the bay. Our day's destination, Mount Desert Island, still seemed a way's off.

    * * *

    Transportation Digression: Climbing Lanes

    As I've said, cycling on US-1 is relatively tolerable. Although it's a categorically inferior experience to the serene off-road paths along the ECG, the substantial width (mostly 8') offsets the adjacent traffic's speed and volume. There are two major exceptions. First, US-1 still does have segments with no significant shoulders, where the pavement ends at the edge line. Second, the shoulders disappear on climbing lanes.

    Climbing lanes serve an important purpose, as they let trucks and slower vehicles to stay to the right on long grades and faster vehicles pass them on the left. However, when they take the place of the shoulder, the result is an unpleasant stretch for cyclists. They are exposed in the travel lane, and the incline increases the speed differential.

    Source: Google Streetview, around Stockton Springs (this is a southbound example, but similar situations exist northbound)

    * * *

    At midday we reached the Penobscot Narrows Observatory Bridge.

    The approach

    The bridge

    Built in 42 months for only $85 million. That might seem like a lot, but in the transportation world, that's both fast and cheap, considering the structure.

    To enter the observatory, turn left on ME-174/Fort Knox Rd. just before the river, and after a short distance, the driveway will be on your right. The $7 admission (for a non-Maine resident) is worth it. You look out from a perch 420 feet above the river -- at the widening river mouth, the bridge cables and the traffic below, Fort Knox, Bucksport, and the verdant hills of coastal Maine.

    There wasn't a long wait to go up in the tower, but when we returned to our bikes, it was mid-afternoon, and we still have 30 miles to ride.

    Thanks to the long days and plentiful daylight...

    ...there was little pressure in getting to Mount Desert Island before dark. We even stopped for dinner in downtown Ellsworth at Cleonice Mediterranean Bistro.

    Leaving downtown and heading south on High St. (US-1/SR-3), we met with a pocket of commercial sprawl. It is a four-lane stroad with fast cars. One of those cars blared its horn as it sped around us. In the heat of the moment, I reacted with a middle-fingered salute, something I instantly regretted. Remember, always take the high road (especially on High Street).

    There is a narrow sidewalk to Washington St., but it's not a full sidepath, which would be nice, and there are no bike lanes. It's the main tourist traffic feeder to Acadia National Park. A touring cyclist we met the next night, who started in Montana, remarked that it was the worst stretch of his whole trip.

    An alternative is to take Water St., then left on Foster St. Walking your bike on the sidewalk for a short bit and weaving through vast parking lots will get you past the wye where you split with US-1 to head south to Mount Desert Island.

    Perhaps the longer detour via Bayside Rd. is also an option, but Streetview reveals no shoulders and 40 mph speed limits there.

    Base map source: Google Maps

    SR-3 has its own bike issues. The first stretch south of the wye (uphill) is in great need of a sidepath, for example. But a shoulder and even a bike lane eventually appear on the 9-mile segment to the island.

    And then, crossing the Mount Desert Narrows bridge onto the island, there was just enough light, as seen from a mobile phone camera, to paint this.

    It was a good day, and the next one would be a change of pace.

    * * *

    Oh, and by the way, the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge in Charleston, SC, I mentioned at the beginning? That's also part of the East Coast Greenway. It gives you a glimpse of the great magnitude and reach of the project.

    Saturday, August 3, 2013

    Uplands (Day 7: Thomaston to Belfast)

    Posted by Jeff, 1/25/15

    Miles: 36

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    As we headed north out of Thomaston, it started pouring.

    There was nothing to do but get drenched and keep pedaling.

    State Route 90 (Camden Rd.) had fast traffic but good shoulders. Although coastal towns like Rockland and Camden are on the ECG route, the way to Belfast was, for us, through the Camden Hills.

    Turning north on SR 17 (Rockland St.), we started our climb toward Hope. A driver stopped and offered a ride and a chance to dry off in her house. Her daughter had done bike touring. We declined her kind offer, and kept on. On our right, Mirror Lake exhibited only the gray sky.

    As our route circled around Ragged and Bald Mountains, the clouds departed. The scenery made the elevation gain on Gillette Rd. worth it.

    The new elevation also afforded a fast cruise down Barnestown Rd. into the center of the tiny town of Hope.

    Hope has 1,500 people and a general store that was founded in 1832. True to form, it has a deli, groceries, plenty of beer, and a post office -- clearly the geographic and social center of the community.

    Naturally, this is where we ate lunch.

    Milkweed, a rest stop for migrating Monarch butterflies, lining the road

    Only 8,514 miles to Madagascar* (* if we were going there, and our bikes were oceanworthy)

    Now came the downhill!

    The route into Belfast was SR 173 / Lincolnville Rd., Belfast Union Rd., Back Belmont Rd., and Lincolnville Ave. As with most of the day's cycling, no shoulders, but relatively little traffic.

    The first thing we noticed about the town was the street furniture.

    The Ornithopter and the Ice Cream Cone
    (kind of sounds like an unpublished story by Roald Dahl)

    The town sits on the Passagassawakeag River (my favorite Native American place name on the trip). Along the river there is a harbor walk, brewery, park, and marina. Also located here is the Front Street Shipyard.

    Another cool feature of the waterfront is the footbridge that spans the river, connecting Belfast and Searsport. It was opened in 2006, a reuse of the old US-1 bridge. A pleasant bypass to the current US-1 bridge, it's just the kind of facility for an East Coast Greenway bike tourist, one that we hope to see more of between Key West and Calais. It was dedicated the Armistice Footbridge to commemorate World War I soldiers.

    Looking south from the US-1 Veterans' Memorial bridge. The Armistice Footbridge is in the foreground.

    It was practical for Eve and me, as we were camping in Searsport. Although mostly an RV spot, the campground let us pitch our tent in a grassy area near the office. We biked back across the footbridge for a satisfying Thai dinner at Laan Xang Cafe and an evening walk around downtown.

    When you bike 30+ miles a day, walking never feels so good.