A new bridge carries hikers across Strawberry Creek at the head of tide. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

Hikers of all abilities can enjoy a peaceful and scenic stroll through the woods alongside Strawberry Creek after about six months of work to transform a section of Cliff Trail from a rough, narrow path into a smooth, wide walkway.

The 2,250-foot stretch of the popular trail now offers a 4-foot-wide, flat gravel surface. Four new bridges carry hikers over brooks and uneven terrain, while a new platform gives them space to soak in the view of the creek and its wildlife.

The project reflects a desire for inclusive recreation opportunities in a town with the oldest median age in Maine — a state with the oldest median age in the country. Volunteers expect to see strollers and wheelchairs on the trail, as well as walkers of all ages.

The section proceeds from the parking lot behind the town office to Cascade Overlook, named for its view of a waterfall at the head of tide. Here, hikers can either turn around and head back to the parking lot or continue on one of two more rugged paths through the 194-acre town property, both of which ascend to the namesake cliff.

A new platform provides a place for hikers to soak in the view of Strawberry Creek. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

Before the project, the Strawberry Creek section “was a very unpleasant part of the trail,” said David Brooks, a member of the Harpswell Recreation Committee and one of the key volunteers behind the project. The path was muddy and roots were everywhere, threatening to trip unwary hikers.

In 2019, the town contracted the Maine Conservation Corps to assess the trail and make recommendations to improve accessibility. The Corps’ trail crews build and rehabilitate trails around the state — including, in 2008, the Giant’s Stairs trail on Bailey Island.

The Corps developed a plan to build the gravel walkway and make the trail navigable with new bridges and drainage improvements, all at a cost of $99,980. Late that year, the town secured a $50,000 grant from the Maine Recreational Trails Program to cover half the cost.

Donors filled the gap. Twenty-one “patrons of the trail” gave $1,000 each. Central Maine Power cut a $15,000 check, while Topsham’s Crooker Construction provided gravel and stone. Three supporters loaned their tractors to the cause; two provided free trucking.

Overall, the Recreation Committee raised $43,617.62 in cash and $11,000 in contributions of labor and materials, according to Harpswell Recreation Director Gina Perow. Voters kicked in $19,000 at the 2020 town meeting, while the committee offered $7,500 in carryover funds.

The budget grew as high as $131,000 at one time, but Perow expects the final cost to come in close to the original estimate.

Harpswell Recreation Committee members Tom Carr (left) and David Brooks stand on the first of four new bridges on Cliff Trail. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

Perow credited Recreation Committee member Tony Barrett with the success of the fundraising campaign.

“Tony was the driving force behind the grant application. He brought the idea to the committee, did the research (and) grant writing, attended workshops and organized volunteer days at the beginning of the project,” Perow said in an email. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it without him!”

Barrett also navigated a complex permitting process to secure approval for the project from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

In a phone interview, Barrett shared a story to illustrate the importance of accessible trails through the woods, which are rare in Maine. He has a friend who uses a wheelchair and likes to go out in the woods.

During a visit to an accessible trail on the grounds of the historic Pownalborough Court House in Dresden, this friend told Barrett and another companion to go ahead. “I just want to go down this trail by myself and be in the woods by myself,” his friend said.

Harpswell wants to provide the same opportunity on Cliff Trail, Barrett said.

Zach Silva, a Maine Conservation Corps team member from El Paso, Texas, attaches rigging to a tree to secure a griphoist cable system. (TONY BARRETT PHOTO)

The town contracted the Maine Conservation Corps to build the trail. Corps workers come from all over — in addition to Mainers, laborers from Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and even Ireland spent time on the project, according to Brooks.

But like the mud and roots snagging hikers on the old trail, an array of challenges threatened to derail the project. Work was going to start in June 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined everything except the permitting.

Construction finally started in June of this year, but worker shortages cut the Corps’ six-person crew to three or four through most of the season. The crew relied on two motorized wheelbarrows to transport materials along the trail — both broke down.

Volunteers came to the rescue. Brooks and fellow committee member Tom Carr estimated that 70-80 volunteers contributed at least a couple of hours each — many on one day in May, when 61 gathered to carry lumber into the woods for the bridges and platform. A core group of about 20 volunteers contributed many more hours to the project.

Deputy Town Administrator Terri-Lynn Sawyer said the project would not have been completed without Barrett, Brooks and Carr.

Brooks and Carr organized equipment rentals and volunteers — and dedicated their own skills and time to the effort. Brooks was on site multiple days a week, Carr almost every day. Barrett chipped in until he left in August to spend three months hiking in the Alaskan wilderness.

Brooks and Carr cut down trees and repaired equipment. With a few other volunteers, they built the largest bridge — a 30-foot span over the cascade — and the viewing platform.

Alyda Twilley, field coordinator with the Maine Conservation Corps, operates a mini-excavator on Cliff Trail. (TONY BARRETT PHOTO)

The volunteer effort allowed the Corps to focus on moving materials and forming the walkway, made up of 647 cubic yards of stone, gravel, top coat and erosion-control mix, a type of mulch.

Brooks called the project a community effort. The town didn’t just hire a contractor and wait for the bill. Instead, residents were active participants from start to finish.

The Corps finished its work on Nov. 19, seven weeks after the scheduled completion date of Oct. 1. Barricades have come down and the section is open, though more work remains.

On Dec. 14, volunteers were moving stone into the woods to stabilize the sides of the trail. This effort will continue, Carr said, and some drainage work will take place in the spring.

But all involved are happy to see the trail open and in use, despite the cold. Brooks and Carr have seen people in their 80s and 90s on the trail — walkers who might never have set foot on the old trail.

The project was a source of aggravation at times, Carr said, but to see three generations enjoy a hike that they couldn’t have six months ago “made it all worthwhile.”

The town plans to host a grand opening in the spring.