WINSLOW — More people than ever are taking advantage of a branch of the Kennebec-Messalonskee trail system that runs from Winslow to Benton, thanks to trail upgrades and improved access developed over the past year.

A donation of land from Madison Paper in 2013 expanded the Rotary Centennial Trail along the east bank of the Kennebec River, adding 45 acres and a mile of new walking path to the East Kennebec Trail.

Last year, a new parking lot and access road was constructed where the new trail meets the old, just off Benton Avenue in Winslow. Then this year, a chronically wet and muddy section of the trail was transformed with new storm culverts into a hard-packed crushed gravel trail.

Bright sunlight filtered through the leaves of mature hardwoods lining the wide, flat walkway during a morning stroll on Monday. A group of regular walkers grouped together, chatting about the Sunday night football game. Several dogs ran ahead of the group and frolicked, accepting treats offered by the walkers. A lookout not far from the parking lot offered a panoramic view of the Kennebec River and Winslow, Waterville, Fairfield and Benton.

Larry Genest, who lives near the trail in Benton, comes down frequently with his wife, Donna.

“Everything about this is therapeutic,” Genest said.

The improvements have led more people to use the trail, but has also opened it up to people who use wheelchairs or are otherwise handicapped. A sign on Benton Avenue pointing to the parking area prominently displays its accessibility.

The name of the access road, Bob and Ernie’s Way, was named for Bob Morrissette and Ernie Baker, members of the Kennebec-Messalonskee Trails board of directors who have been instrumental in making the new improvements a reality.

Morrissette said that at least 100 people a day use the trails to walk, run or bicycle. On a good weekend, it can have more than 300 visitors, he added.

The popularity of the trail has only grown since the new parking lot and access road were constructed, and the board of directors is already thinking about expanding the parking lot to accommodate the number of visitors taking advantage of the trail.

Compared to other sections of the Kennebec-Messalonskee trail system, the East Kennebec branch is ideal for handicapped access. The trails group is always thinking about how to make their trails accessible, but the fact is that many are too rough, hilly and narrow to accommodate some people. In contrast, the East Kennebec trail is flat, wide and well-maintained. Morrissette donates his time to cut back brush and mow the trail, and trail regulars help out by picking up litter left by less conscientious visitors.

In the winter, the trails are groomed for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, making it a four-season destination. At least 11 separate trails come down from neighborhoods on Benton Avenue to connect to the trail system.

Tina Richard, of Clinton, comes to the trail nearly every day and said she always brings her camera. On most days, especially in the spring and summer, she can easily catch wildlife with her camera lens, she said. There are frequently snapping and painted turtles, great blue herons and bald eagles, to name a few. Last year, she saw a fox raising her litter of pups in a field near the trail.

“This is my favorite trail,” Richard said.

Not too long ago, the landscape was a lot different. Peter Garrett, an active member of Kennebec-Messalonskee trails, said that the area donated by Madison Paper used to be part of a heavy industrial mill complex where bark was stripped off timber headed for the paper mills in Winslow.

Now the new trail passes by a pool built to hold the leachate coming out of the bark yard that is now a wetland with pond weed and bulrushes that provide shelter for red wing blackbirds and other species.

Kennebec-Messalonskee trails is in the process of getting the East Kennebec trail certified as part of the East Coast Greenway, a trail network connecting towns and cities from Florida to Maine.

However, connecting to the national trails isn’t as important to Morrissette as providing a resource that local people can appreciate and use.

“When I volunteer here, it is for our local community,” Morrissette said.

This is a corrected version.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter:@PeteL_McGuire

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