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Seniors Not Acting Their Age: Riding the narrow gauge

Cyclists arrive at the Stratton Brook Hut Trailhead on the Narrow Gauge Pathway

By Ron Chase

One of the most unique bike trails in Maine is the historic Narrow Gauge Pathway in Carrabassett Valley. The trail follows the former Kingfield and Dead River Railroad bed used to convey logs to a sawmill situated in Bigelow at the northern terminus of the railway in the early 20th century.  Two-foot narrow gauge tracks were chosen instead of the standard size because they were easier to build and less expensive.  An added benefit, the smaller locomotives were able to operate more efficiently in the rugged mountainous terrain.  Passengers and freight were also transported on the once bustling train system. Disuse resulted in discontinuance of the railroad in 1927. The Town of Carrabassett Valley constructed the pathway in 2001.

Traveling next to the boulder-strewn Carrabassett River located in a deep valley between Sugarloaf Mountain and the Bigelow Mountain Range, serene and scenic describe the bucolic 5.2 mile crushed-stone and dirt surface trail. Wider hybrid or mountain bike tires are required on the rough surface.  Motorized vehicles including ATVs and snowmobiles are prohibited.  The trail is groomed for cross-country skiing in the winter.

After a fifteen-year hiatus from the trail, my wife Nancy and I met with our longtime friend Dave Lanman at the Airport Trailhead on a hot steamy summer day. Located adjacent to a small airport about a mile north of the Carrabassett Valley Town Office, spacious parking and a restroom are available.  

We began the ride on a rough .25-mile multi-use connector trail that soon traverses the Carrabassett River on a relatively new well-designed bridge to a kiosk that announces the beginning of the Narrow Gauge Pathway.  Immediately crossing a short footbridge over Houston Brook, the trail began climbing gradually west in a forested area.  Shade from a canopy of overhanging trees during most of the ascent provided welcome relief from the sweltering heat.   While never steep, the path rose steadily for much of the remaining ride to the northern end in Bigelow.  

After leaving the Carrabassett River and persevering uphill for a short mile past a Maine Huts Trail junction on the right, the path rejoined the mountain freshet overlooking the steepest part of the river.  A precipitous attenuated Class IV/V section of whitewater, my paddling companions and I refer to it as Upper Carrabassett.  Memories of previous descents were a significant distraction as we passed the most difficult rapids called Pinnacle Rock, Don’s Hole, Terry’s Perch, and Triple Drop.  

River views coupled with the lush vegetation in this area provided an exceptional scenic contrast.  Picnic tables were scattered strategically along the trail, most occupied by cyclists taking a break or enjoying a snack.  Several overheated riders had negotiated down the abrupt embankment for cool relief in the still chilly river water.  

Shortly after the sixth picnic table, the path left the river and crossed a long bridge over a wetlands area where moose can sometimes be seen feeding.  About a half mile farther, an ancient cabin was passed on the left where the path briefly connects back with the river.  A hunting and fishing camp built by railroad workers in 1900; the hut is privately owned and still in use.  Located in an area formerly called Crockertown, the erstwhile logging community was named for early lumberman Isaac Crocker.   

Proceeding to mile 4.2, a left turn leads to Campbell Field Trailhead.  Our trio persisted northwesterly to a junction on the right for Stratton Brook Hut.  A sign indicates the hut is 2.2 miles beyond.  The outskirts of the old village of Bigelow was reached soon after.  Posted as private property, the former Bigelow Train Depot is situated at the far end near Route 27 and is now a private residence. 

Angling left, we continued over a bridge and past a side trail to the Stratton Brook Trailhead on the right.  Just beyond, the Narrow Gauge Pathway culminated at Route 27 where there is no parking.  The .1-mile spur to Stratton Brook Trailhead was more difficult than the pathway.  The approach to the parking area was steep and rocky.  

Returning to Campbell Field turnoff, a brief ride brought us to the trailhead where there is a picnic table, restroom, and ample parking.  After a lunch break, we cycled back to the Airport Trailhead completing an exceptional 11.25 mile round-trip that included the short excursions to the Stratton Brook and Campbell Field Trailheads.

The return junket was almost all downhill, what a treat for three senior cyclists in paradise!

Author of “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals – New England,” Ron Chase resides in Topsham.  Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors@comcast.net or he can be reached at ronchaseoutdoors@comcast.net.

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