On a summer day after lunch, we park our station wagon, unload the bikes, and I’m already thinking about the trains. Washington Junction is a rambling rail yard of sheds, lots, and remnant and restored train cars a couple of miles from Ellsworth’s busiest blocks of Main Street. We’re in Hancock at the trailhead of the 85-mile Down East Sunrise Trail, which has been opened to the public in sections over the past several years by the Maine Department of Transportation and the Maine Department of Conservation. The idea is that while the corridor is preserved for possible future rail use, it might as well get recreational use.
This is the northernmost leg of the East Coast Greenway system of trails—the once-railway is now trailway. I first read about the multi-use trail in newspaper articles about people cross-country skiing and pedaling here. Residents and tourists with a sense of adventure travel sections or the whole route by hiking, on horseback, or on an ATV. Locomotives and even the tracks and rails themselves are gone—for now, at least—but the names and junctions, depot buildings (sometimes), bridges, and towns are still in place. Almost as soon as we start out on the ride, I imagine we’re chugging along to a train’s rhythm.
The surface is crushed concrete for a few miles and then loose gravel, and I find out quickly that it can be slow going. My thoughts move away from trains and toward the dusty Golden Road in the North Maine Woods—this is a similar trail, except without the barreling logging trucks. Reserved for recreation, the Down East Sunrise Trail is off limits to all cars and trucks. At our first stopping point, photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I talk about how we’re both glad we have bikes with wider, rugged tires, and that we brought padded cycling gloves for the most jarring sections.
On this sunny weekday we feel like we’ve practically got the trail to ourselves, except for birds and animals. Two osprey, one eagle, Queen Anne’s lace and other wildflowers leaning in—that’s just some of the scenery along the 29-mile ride between Washington Junction and Cherryfield. We stop to look out across beaver dams, the rise of Schoodic Mountain in the distance, and mill streams edged by head-high cattails. At one point near the trail, a natural spring of clear water is bubbling up, and we take turns crouching down at the edge of the gurgling pool to splash the super-chilled water on our faces.
It’s not until Cherryfield (population 1,232) that we come to the first town we’ve seen in hours. We’ve arranged to spend the night at the Englishman’s Bed and Breakfast, housed in a late-1700s residence, and owned by England-born Peter Winham and his wife, Kathy. Both archaeologists, the Winhams purchased the historic house and opened it to guests a decade ago. “It was the house that brought us here,” explains Peter, pointing to the home’s Federalist design, orderly architecture that the couple has matched with a frontyard garden of flowers and bushes planted in symmetrically balanced patterns.
This is my first visit to Cherryfield and I ask the Winhams about the town’s name and history. Lined with stately houses from the 1700s and 1800s, the riverside town is known to be named for wild cherries that grew on the Narraguagus River, but our innkeepers have an alternate idea. They surmise that Cherryfield may be a colorful reference to the cherry-red shade of the leaves of the region’s blueberry barrens. Entire hillsides turn red in fall. We enjoy a breakfast in the keeping room with plenty of coffee and tea—including Persian Cardamom Black, Coconut Almond Green, and other loose teas under their own label, Teas of Cherryfield. The just-baked blueberry bread and a mushroom-egg concoction are served on Wedgwood china.
The Englishman’s breakfast is a relaxed, hearty start for another day on the Down East Sunrise Trail. We’re mixing bicycling with driving so we can spend more time exploring the towns and scenery. Our station wagon comes in handy in Cherryfield when I find a set of vintage dinner plates that I decide I’ll need to buy and take home from Four Main Street Antiques. Owner Lynn Chase explains that he lives in Steuben and has a tradition of traveling to France in the winter on shopping trips—the plates are from a hotel in Lourdes. His large shop is filled with interesting finds. Near windows that open just above the edge of the Narraguagus, I find a book of poetry, Boat of Two Shores (University of Maine at Machias Press, 2007) by Harrington-based poet Richard Miles. Chase tells me he reads Miles’s poems slowly, one at a time. I flip through the book and notice a poem titled “In Twilight” that includes rhythmic and beautiful lines:
wheels of the train surge
as it enters fog on the coast
he sees each inlet rock
sometimes through the wave’s green lens a crab’s trail in sand
high tide low tide in a turn of the wheels
Wreathed in Berries
While still in Cherryfield, we stop at Catherine Hill Winery, which is housed in a renovated post-and-beam barn that’s decked out in purple and orange paint and cheerful flowers. Owner Susan Meyer pours a few samples for tasting and tells us about the winery’s good experiences with aging wines in barrels made of Hungarian oak. Open since 2012, the winery uses fruit from Washington and Hancock counties to make wines from the local harvests of cranberries, blueberries, and blackberries. They also make small batches of white and red wines with Maine-centric monikers like Black Fly and King Tunk (after nearby Tunk Mountain). Susan and her husband, Eric Meyer—who had set up a bin of 1970s and 1980s LP records for sale in the winery that day—are obviously having a good time with their venture into winemaking.
Continuing east, we log another 30 miles on the rail passageway that leads from Cherryfield to the small town of Harrington (home of the big Worcester Wreath Co. plant that is wrapped in giant, permanent ribbon), the quaint waterfront town of Columbia Falls, and on to Machias.
Together, the populations of these three downeast towns total less than 5,000 residents. We’re driving in the car for parts of this stretch and we’re never far from Route 1. Again, the light traffic and lack of crowds is remarkable. What we do see is blueberries. At one roadside stand, the pints are selling for three dollars each, and the most cars we see are around the massive blue dome and pie-in-the-sky sign of the landmark Wild Blueberry Land, a famous stop for pies, sauces, and fresh blueberries to take home.
In Columbia Falls on the waterfront, we pass historic houses and churches and wander into the Wild Salmon Resource Center. The wooden building overlooks the Pleasant River and a couple of historic fishing camps—low-profile, wood-frame shacks that look so organically part of the scene that I imagine they’ll one day be swallowed by the tides. Each year in winter and early spring, the center staff explain, the Downeast Salmon Federation’s fish restoration efforts here include raising young salmon in a basement hatchery in the building.
Once in Machias, we’re back on the bicycles. This is the largest town we’ve visited, and our lodging here is at the Margaretta Inn, which from the outside appears as one long row of motel rooms that looks straight out of the 1960s, with parking in front of each door. Inside, our guest room is fresh and modern with a handsome style that includes dark wood floors, oversized showers, and fluffy white bed linens.
The inn is within a half-mile of the Down East Sunrise Trail, and when we ride out I realize that it’s the most beautiful stretch of our travels. The trail follows along the tidal creeks and mudflats between Machias and East Machias. The rail corridor here brings us closer than any road for cars, and the views are spectacular. Early apples fall onto the trail. Tall houses and churches with steeples are perched just above where the tracks and trains once passed. A highlight is watching the tidal action. Tides here on the Machias River can rise or fall 12 or 13 feet every six hours. (“Machias” is derived from a Wabanaki word that means “bad little falls.”) We stop at a concrete-sided culvert on the rail causeway and watch the extraordinary force of the water rushing through. Sounds of water and air crashing and thrashing create a steady roar. I see swirling eddies in the maelstrom of saltwater. Meanwhile, a sunset with deep pink hues is filling the sky over hilly Machias.
The next day we stop downtown at River’s Edge Drive-In for a haddock sandwich and an ice cream cone, and we pedal over to the Machias Hardware Co., which is one of those genuine find- anything places that also sells bulk herbs and spices and local art. We check out the signs that announce that the trail is part of the East Coast Greenway, a developing trail system on the eastern seaboard between Canada and Florida—with links connecting some sections better than others. “I believe the Sunrise Trail is a hidden gem,” says Margaretta Inn’s owner, Sherry Radeka. “We seem to be a stopping point for tourists who are traveling to Canada (PEI, Nova Scotia) or coming back from Canada, and that includes those with bikes.”
Radeka says she and her family get out to enjoy the trail on their ATV sometimes, and she wonders how we’re doing on our bicycle rides. She asks if the four-wheelers have coated us with dust. It’s not the first time we’ve been asked that question on the trip. We’re dusty but doing fine, I tell her. Maybe it’s because we’re visiting on weekdays, but we haven’t seen more than a dozen four-wheelers over dozens of miles, and everyone has slowed and given each other space.
The trail continues north and east from Machias through sparsely populated public lands, fields, and forests toward tiny Dennysville (population 342), and finally the historic railway stop at Ayers Junction. That’s the 85-mile route’s easternmost point, and there it connects travelers with Route 214. We’ll use our car for the return trip. With bikes loaded on top, we talk of our days exploring the trail and how we’re getting hungry. Peter Frank brought along his portable cookstove and we haven’t yet had a chance to use it. (He’s gotten into roadside cookery during bike travels.) At a seafood market we find along Route 1, we buy fresh scallops and put them on ice.
Returning to Ellsworth, we pull into Rooster Brother, the gourmet kitchen store and cafe on the banks of the Union River. I shop inside for olive oil, cucumber sodas, and a couple of those big chocolate chip pecan cookies. Then we cap the trip with some outdoor cooking of sauteed scallops and enjoy the sunshine a bit longer. During our riverside picnic, I recall an East Coast Greenway marker that we saw in Machias. The sign notes that from that point it is 2,759 miles to Key West, Florida, a destination which certainly has its own appeal. But on this trip we’ve been keeping to our singular vision. “Pedal on” has been the mantra. We’re heading east.