WINDHAM - Bracing the steering wheel of his Polaris RZR side-by-side, Jason Palmer demonstrates what ATV riding is all about.
With Palmer at the helm, the machine - basically a golf cart on serious steroids - navigates the twisty approach trail at the Lowell Preserve in East Windham with ease. The bumpy ride requires a helmet and good tough gloves - and strong nerves - but there's a freedom, Palmer says, that only an off-road vehicle can provide.
"It gets you out there, that's what an ATV does," Palmer said.
Palmer is the secretary of the newly formed Windham Trail Runners ATV Club. Along with his fellow club officers, Palmer, a nurse by profession, enjoys long rides through the 300-acre Lowell preserve. Sometimes he rides alone, sometimes with his wife, and sometimes in a group of other club members.
However, the amount he can ride in Windham is limited. Right now, the preserve is the only legal trail system where ATVers can ride. Snowmobiles have their own network, which runs through Windham on landowner-approved trails that eventually connect into the larger statewide Interconnected Trail System. Not so for ATVers. And while the Trail Runners hope a network of interconnected trails is in their future, they must first convince landowners that a trail system can work in one of the fastest-growing communities in Maine.
"Right now, Windham doesn't have an official trail system for ATVs, and there are a lot of people with ATVs, but they have to trailer them a long way just to get to a point where they can ride," Palmer said.
Colby Hildreth, president of the fledgling club, which began in April, has been busy this spring, summer and fall working with the other 20 members to develop a system through town.
"So far, so good. There are a lot of things in the works," Hildreth said. "The town gave us permission to upkeep this trail system here (at the Lowell Preserve). So that's a good start."
Hildreth says the club is also working with landowners abutting the power lines that crisscross town. With many ATV and snowmobile clubs utilizing power lines throughout the state, Central Maine Power has already authorized the club to use the lines, though only if they receive abutting landowner permission, which hasn‘t been so easy.
Hildreth says the group is eyeing a power line that connects South Windham near the intersection of River Road and Route 202 with the Falmouth Road across from the entrance to the Lowell Preserve near the East Windham Fire Station.
"It's taken months to work on that," Hildreth said. "Even though CMP owns most of it, we have to send out letters to all abutters of the corridor. We've had a little resistance from property owners, about 10 people against it. They're worried about the noise mostly."
Other objections from abutters include fear of trail rutting, interference with wildlife and trampling of wetlands.
These sorts of issues don't just affect the Trail Runners, they're region and statewide issues facing ATVers.
According to Ed Coleman, vice president of the southern Maine region for ATV Maine, landowner relations are the prime concern for the 140 clubs throughout the state.
"We don't have any trails without the permission of landowners. So it's important we maintain good relations. And those issues come out when building or increasing a trail network," Coleman said.
Erosion is a main concern for maintainers. They also haul trash.
"There's a lot of heavy lifting for ATV club maintainers. It's hard work to maintain a section. That's a big part of what a club does," he said.
There is a statewide effort under way, Coleman said, to catalogue and connect the state's ATV trails. As director for the southern Maine region, which includes Windham, Coleman has been issued a GPS unit to document the area's estimated 700 miles of existing trail and then focus on making necessary connections.
"We'll start out with trying to connect the shortest gaps and work our way up from there," Coleman said.
Anyone driving the roads of Maine in winter has seen ATVers stopped waiting to cross. They can also be seen fueling at gas stations and massed at trailside restaurants. Not so for ATVers. They're not as ubiquitous, at least in southern Maine.
That's something Coleman and the Trail Runners want to change.
"If we got the trail system in, it'd benefit anybody with an ATV in Windham, it would benefit Gorham, Gray, Falmouth, because you'd have a long stretch, and you've got another draw for tourists who don't want to go all the way up north," Hildreth said. "Sebago Lake is a big draw for people, and if they saw that trail in there, I'm sure they'd come here even more."
Stores that offer dining and refreshments would benefit as well with a locally interconnected ATV trail system, the group argues.
"It would be a good source of income for towns," Hildreth said. "A lot of people already come up here. In Gray, you can access Cole Farms, but at the same time we'd like to go to businesses in our own town. It'd be great to keep that money right here in our own town."
"Talk to any store owner along an ATV trail. It's big business," Coleman said. "Gas, food, really anything. And it's not just a two- or three-month season. ATV season is nine or 10 months," Coleman said.
But without willing landowners or abutters to CMP lines, not much can happen. And even if a landowner plays ball and allows trail to be established, the access may be temporary, Coleman says.
"Part of the problem is we get permission this year, but two years down the road, a subdivision goes in and we lose the trail," he said. "You see that in more developed areas."
For now, the Windham Trail Runners are focused on gaining access to a trail and then doing the best they can to maintain it. Little by little, they hope to build a network and connect to neighboring Gorham, Gray and Standish, each of which have miles of trails and an established club.
"Right now, there seems to be a blank spot between Gorham and Gray, and that's us, Windham. So we're trying to fill that in," Palmer said. "But it's tough because the landowners have this idea in their head that we're going to rip it up."
"And as that reputation's etched in so many people's minds," Hildreth continues, "it's definitely an uphill battle."