WATERVILLE — Peter Garrett remembers meeting an elderly woman and two overweight children on a trail in Oakland. It was their first time hiking.
“They were beaming all over because they didn’t think they could do it,” Garrett recalled. “They were very happy. We had these quarter-mile markers along the trail. They were just delighted that they could do it.”
Garrett, president of Kennebec Messalonskee Trails, loves seeing people use and enjoy the $4 million, 40-mile trail system he envisioned many years ago and helped make a reality.
On Thursday, Garrett will step down as president, but will remain a member of the board of directors and continue to be the trail system’s biggest champion.
Garrett, 69, of Winslow, launched the trail construction 10 years ago. The effort was a challenge, but well worth it.
“The thing I really like about it is to have had the privilege of working with so many interested people in this community to make it happen,” Garrett said. “And then to have the pleasure of meeting people who have no idea how it happened and who are thoroughly enjoying themselves.”
Garrett is an anomaly in a world where many people are rushing and pushing and pressuring others. He worked on the trail effort diligently, patiently and persuasively over many years, seeking grants, fundraising, touting it at public meetings and convincing skeptics that trails are a critical part of the health and well-being of a community.
Community leaders said he was the driving force behind the project.
“He certainly has been the inspiration for many of us, in seeing a comprehensive trail system developed,” City Manager Michael Roy said Monday. “One of Peter’s greatest attributes is his persistence — his willingness to stick with even the most difficult problems. He has a dogged determination to see things happen. That’s been the inspiration. He’s indefatigable — incapable of being tired out or discouraged.”
Garrett will formally announce his resignation Thursday at the annual Kennebec Messalonskee Trails meeting, to be held at 5:30 p.m. at Hathaway Creative Center on Water Street. The public is invited to attend the event, at which Jennifer Olson, executive director of Waterville Main Street, will talk about trail organizers and downtown officials working together to help create a vibrant community.
Mayor Karen Heck said that Garrett gave the region a gift “with his ability to not only envision it but to see it through is something that will impact the economic development of the region — the quality of life — and will be there for generations of people to come.” Heck said she has to be in Boston the night of the meeting, but would love to be at Hathaway to congratulate Garrett for his efforts.
Matt Skehan, the city’s Parks and Recreation director, said in his seven years of working with Garrett, he has been impressed with his diplomacy and patience.
“Every single exchange has been pleasant, positive and respectable,” Skehan said. “He’s got such a nice way about him.”
Skehan said the City Council on June 3 will formally recognize Garrett for his efforts and on June 7, National Trails Day, a ceremony honoring him will be held at Head of Falls.
Meanwhile, Garrett on Thursday will hand off the co-presidency to Rick McCarthy and Steve Robe, both of whom are members of Kennebec Messalonsksee Trails Board of Directors.
“It’s always nice to have a shift of leadership after a while,” he said.
Building a trail organization required vision, getting access to sites, procuring funding and then building the trails, Garrett said.
“With a team, one can do it,” he said.
Now, the focus is on getting people to use the trails on a regular basis.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “It happens over a period, and we’re in that period now.”
Garrett started thinking about developing a trail system in the mid-1990s when he went on a mountain bicycling tour with his friend, Chris McMorrow, who had organized a team that explored good biking areas and cut brush for a trail along the eastern edge of the Kennebec River.
In 1995, Garrett became president of Waterville Rotary Club and made developing a recreational trail system a priority. A team was formed, with McMorrow as a member.
“We organized an event in 2000 — it was our first one,” Garrett said. “It was a wild leap of faith but we pulled together a couple hundred people at Head of Falls and hiked to Mill Island Park in Fairfield.”
They had to get permission from four landowners to cross the property — the city of Waterville, the railroad (now Pan Am Railways), Huhtamaki and the town of Fairfield — and all agreed to it.
The team put a proposal together and asked the state Department of Transportation for funding to help build trail from Head of Falls to Fairfield. Transportation officials recommended that they build a trail on both sides of the river, as well as along Messalonskee Stream.
“The commissioner expanded our scope and gave us more money to do what he proposed,” Garrett said. “We were essentially given a challenge — do much more than you ever thought you could.”
It was just the beginning. The federal government ultimately funded about $800,000 of the $4 million system and the rest was built with donations from taxpayers, businesses, organizations, colleges, Waterville, Winslow, Fairfield, Benton and Winslow — the communities in which the trails are located.
For Garrett, who discovered most of the trail locations, the dream became reality.
“Some people, when they dream a dream, have it almost complete, or at least I imagine they do,” he said. “But what I see happening here is that I have a dream, I share it enthusiastically with other people and they take the baton and it goes wherever it goes. People are always patting my back, but there are many others whose backs they should be patting. John Koons is one. Matt Skehan is another, and Ellen Wells. These trails wouldn’t have happened without Ellen.”
Wells, community wellness coordinator for Inland Hospital, helped develop the Inland Woods/Pine Woods section of trail, Koons donated land for and developed the vision for Quarry Road Recreation Area and Skehan worked on all the projects.
Garrett, who espouses the physical and emotional benefits of exercise, said he never rode a bus to school when he was growing up in England, in Norwich, a city in Norfolk. He rode his bike two miles every day to and from King Edward VI School and later, and continued to do it when his family moved 14 miles away.
His father was a doctor and his mother a physical therapist. He had three siblings. Garrett attended University of Leicester, where he rode his bike about four miles from the dorms to the campus.
After receiving a bachelor’s in geology, he entered Graduate Services Overseas, which is the British equivalent of the Peace Corps. He was sent to the Bahamas to study the science of hydrogeology and then attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where in 1971 he received a doctorate in earth sciences. He taught geology at University of Leeds and University of Wales and did research in Bermuda, where he met his wife-to-be, Jean Ann Pollard, who was from Winslow.
They came to Maine in 1973 to get married at Colby College, lived in Libya two years, moved to California and returned to Winslow in 1979. They built a passive solar home on the 100 acres Pollard, an artist and writer, grew up on.
In 1989, Garrett co-founded Emery & Garrett Groundwater Inc., a hydrogeological consulting firm. He retired but continues to be co-owner.
Garrett’s interests are varied. He is a member of Sustain Mid-Maine Coalition, a group that works on issues such as energy conservation, promoting economic prosperity and sustaining a healthful environment.
“I’m very much involved in energy efficiency,” Garrett said. “I’ve kind of shifted my interest. I’m very much involved in Sustain Mid-Maine Coalition. I’m giving a talk at Pecha Kucha Friday on one tiny aspect of sustainability — insulating windows.”
He published the first paper ever on coral disease in the journal “Nature” in the 1970s and is founder of The Bahamas Music Society (he is a violinist). Garrett also founded the Kotlas Connection, the sister-city relationship between Waterville and Kotlas, a town in Russia.
Garrett currently is working with Scott Workman, of Waterville, to help make Waterville and other towns more safe for bicyclists and pedestrians.