CHINA — About 400 acres of town-owned land bordering Albion and Palermo has gone nearly unused for decades — until now.
Roughly four miles of hiking, snowmobile, mountain bike and snowshoe trails will be unveiled at Saturday at Thurston Park, a 387-acre plot of land, most of which has been owned by China since the 1950s.
The trails are shielded by a forest canopy, run along creeks and bogs with several areas that allow views of the scenery.
Creating the trails was a four-year project, from plotting route of the trails through the wild to the grand opening on Saturday, according to Bill Seekins, member of the Thurston Park Committee.
Much of the work was done by volunteers, Seekins said, with roughly 100 different people donating money, volunteering time or lending equipment to see the project to completion.
“I’m really happy that people have taken up the challenge and contributed to make this into something finally,” Seekins said.
Seekins was one of the few with an avid interest in Thurston Park before the facelift began in 2010. A resident of China since 1985, Seekins would hike and mountain bike over the wild terrain with his children.
“It was really rough, you couldn’t even drive down here a year ago,” he said as he viewed the area about two miles down York Town Road. “But there’s a lot of nice features here, there’s different types of forests and different terrains.”
In 2010, there was talk at the annual town meeting of extracting gravel from glacial esker areas within the park, Seekins said, but that was put on hold until the town could research other uses for the land.
“There was quite a lot of reaction to the gravel extraction,” he said. “The selectboard decided to appoint a committee to do a study and look at the land to see what we could use it for.”
A researcher for the Department of Agriculture for more than 30 years, Seekins said he always had a strong interest in forestry and recreation growing up.
With the professional background, general interest in forest recreation and a rough knowledge of the layout of the park from mountain biking, Seekins spearheaded the campaign.
“In December 2010, we submitted our support to the selectboard and they voted to approve the plan for development,” he said. “We spent much of the next year looking for funds and applications.”
The project cost about $50,000, Seekins said. Roughly $35,000 came from a recreational trails grant through the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, while the other $15,000 was raised through fundraising.
“A lot of the work we’ve done on the trails was funded by that grant,” he said, adding that there were a variety of fundraising methods, including personal donations and auctioning naming rights to trails.
“A group of Quakers, some that live here seasonally, others that are here year-round got together and raised enough money to name one of the trails Rufus Jones Trail,” he said.
Rufus Jones was born in South China and was a writer, philosopher and Quaker historian. It cost $1,000 to name a trail, Seekins said.
Conversations for what to do with Thurston Park have continued off and on for years, according to Town Manager Daniel L’Heureux.
“The topic has come up several times before in the past,” L’Heureux said. “This time it got some traction with passionate volunteers.”
Though China is surrounded by scenic lakes and forests, there aren’t many ways to take advantage of the natural beauty without owning the land. the free multi-use, all-season trail system that showcases the natural changes from season to season will benefit the town, L’Heureux said.
“This could serve as a place where people can go and be away from traffic and other hazards while getting outside and near nature,” he said. “If you want a healthy population, you had to build those type of options for people.”
L’Heureux said the lack of municipal funding and urgency elsewhere delayed the process of developing Thurston Park until a committed group of volunteers worked to provide time and raise money.
“I think the group of people involved is passionate about outdoor recreation and conserving natural spaces,” said Sheri Wilkens, a Thurston Park Committee member. “We want to share the beauty and resources and inspire our community members to explore their own backyard. This fills a niche that has been overlooked and that the community has long needed.”
Getting to the park isn’t easy. The route begins about a mile from the intersection of Route 137 and U.S Route 202, with a turn toward Albion on Dutton Road, then a turn onto York Town Road right after the town line. York Town is a long dirt road that runs through the center of Thurston Park — although non-authorized vehicles cannot be driven straight through the park. About a mile down York Town Road, the trails begin to split off, some strictly walking trails while others allow snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles.
There are areas to explore throughout the trail system, including a bit of archeology — foundational remnants of communities that used to be on the property can be spotted from the trails.
“There are about nine cellar holes from the two communities that used to be on this property,” Seekins said.
Near one of the main picnic areas a large u-shaped stone ditch that was once the cellar of a home was overrun with weeds and shrubbery. The steps into the cellar hole were mostly covered by shrubs, but rehabilitating and re-purposing the stone foundations is one of many potential future projects the park could plan, Seekins said.
“There’s tons of stuff still to do,” Seekins said, adding that the most likely next step is applying for another recreational trails grant to further manicure the existing trails and develop more trails.
“We have a whole eastern loop of trails that needs work,” he said. Altogether, Seekins said he could see the trail system grow to cover some six or seven miles.
In August, Seekins and the committee plan to sponsor a 5-kilometer walk/run event to help raise money for the park. He’s currently in the process of designing the course.
“We’re going to try to have loops that intersect so that the people here watching can see runners go by multiple times,” he said.
At 1 p.m. on Saturday, members of the Thurston Park Committee will formally open the new trails and show off the work that has been done for residents of China and the surrounding communities. After decades of nothing but bogs and forests filling the 400 acres, Wilkens is excited about what the community’s reaction will be.
“This 400-acre parcel has been there and available and nothing has been done with it, until now,” Wilkens said. “I think this project is people coming together and saying this land is here and it’s a gift.”