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Gibson Preserve: Off the Beaten Path for Seniors

Wendy C. Kasten and Matt Bonner

On a cold day in January, AWWC received a call from a young professional, Matt Bonner, Trails and Public Access Program Manager, who works for the Georges River Land Trust. The following is an interview with Matt relating a story of what became a very fruitful collaboration.

Matt discussed plans for a senior-friendly walking trail on the Gibson Preserve in Searsmont, Maine (within Waldo County). He explained that the Georges River Land Trust had a promise of $50,000, but that the project would cost about $100,000. Consequently, they were seeking funding sources while also collecting information from interested stakeholders. Matt was interested in assuring that the resulting trail offered features making it accessible and attractive to seniors, families, and those with disabilities.

The Senior-Friendly half-mile trail at Gibson Preserve is a loop.

Matt Bonner: When Kay Gibson presented the original idea I was intrigued, but I was worried we would be investing in a major project that wouldn’t see much use. What started as a search for people who might be interested in the project, turned into finding a great group of stakeholders who all stressed the need for more outdoor opportunities for seniors and people with reduced mobility in Waldo County. Once I realized the benefits of such a trail, the next step was to share the existing trail, our ideas, and listen to feedback from our stakeholders. 

Matt invited interested parties and myself to walk the current trail and offer suggestions on a snowy and icy January Friday. In boots and with ski poles for balance, I was happy to attend. What I saw was potential – a relatively short (half mile) loop with a view of the Georges River and its surrounding marshes, and some magnificent trees lining part of the path. I made suggestions for placement of benches, interpretive signs for trees and birds, and more. 

I told Matt about a grant opportunity pending through AARP with a deadline a few weeks away. I offered to mentor him in writing a proposal for this grant that, and if awarded, would help toward the needed funds.

Matt Bonner: I left that initial group visit with a full page front and back of hastily written notes in my tiny script. While historians may never be able to decipher it, my notes contained ideas from Wendy and others far exceeding the initial scope of the project. Beyond being just a place to exercise, the trail could be a destination for education, relaxation, and gathering with friends and family.

 Wendy and I met to review the grant application to understand what was needed and how to present our project in the best possible way. I used the grant standards to better define our project, outlining interpretive kiosks, rest areas along the path, and handicapped parking. By the time we submitted the grant we had a much clearer picture of what the Gibson Wellness Walk would become.

The grant was successful in the amount of $10,000, the maximum for an AARP grant!

Matt Bonner: Even before we had secured grant funding, I was hard at work trying to find ways to do what we had promised. The building of an accessible trail is generally a multi-year endeavor including planning, fundraising, and construction. We were trying to do this in less than one year. Luck was in our favor as “Off The Beaten Path Trail Builders” had an opening exactly when we were hoping to build the trail. With enough money already to begin the project we went for it. With many visits to the Gibson Preserve, Jed from OBP and I marked the buffer zones to protect the St. George. We walked the trail discovering what parts needed to be moved and improved and finally began construction! We continued to seek funding throughout the course of the project, and while the donors are anonymous, many people were incredibly excited and willing to support such a worthwhile project. 

Imagine my delight when I received an email from Matt that the project was completed, with the exception of a few details, and an invitation to visit. The trail was wide and inviting, with lovely views, and a coolness under those wonderful trees. In fact, the path looked as if it had always been there, blending with the forest floor.

Majestic giant pines line part of the trail.

Matt Bonner: Our original intention was to keep the trail closed and open it once all the amenities were complete. However, we realized that summer was fleeting, and we wanted as many people to use this trail while they could.

 For now there has been a soft opening. In the next few months we will finish constructing benches to place at regular intervals along the trail in addition to various educational materials for visitors to use to watch birds, identify the trees around them, and more. We plan to officially open the trail with its completed amenities this October during our annual meeting at the Gibson Preserve.

Autumn will be a wonderful time to enjoy this gentle walk. See below for directions on how to get there, and enjoy a lovely and peaceful haven in Waldo County.

Tall Pines activity director Denise Hurst tries out one of the sturdy benches at Gibson Preserve.
Tall Pines activity director Denise Hurst tries out one of the sturdy benches at Gibson Preserve.

Directions: From Route 3/Belmont Ave., take Route 131 toward Searsmont. In about 5 miles, turn right onto Route 173, also called Woodman’s Mill Rd. Drive to 637 Woodman’s Mill Rd. The Gibson Preserve parking lot and sign are directly across from that address. You may want to put this information into your GPS device.

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