Column: Trail divides town but not sense of community

Micki Colbeck. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Micki Colbeck. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

By MICKI COLBECK

For the Valley News

Published: 10-24-2023 2:55 PM

The little dogs and I went for a hike yesterday. We go hiking most days, but this one was different.

I had been feeling tense and distracted from some conflicts in town in which I was a major player. Hiking trails versus snowmobile trails. It was complicated, and if not handled carefully, could have divided the town. A little way up above the Justin Morrill Homestead as we hiked the Cross Town Trail (one of the 26 miles of trails this little town maintains), I noticed I was having an out loud conversation with the dogs about ferns and mosses and mushrooms. I was laughing at them and at the crows overhead. Just laughing.

“I am deep down happy,” I thought.

What is it about being in the woods that makes me (and maybe you, too) genuinely happy? Is it a chemical the trees exude or a subconscious remembering that we belong with plants and rocks and wild water? There have been many studies about how nature bathing makes us feel better. I don’t need to know why. I just know that it is true.

The little town of Strafford doesn’t have any large businesses to tax, nor gravel pits, nor sand deposits for road repairs. Eight miles from the interstate, it supports a quintessential general store and a sweet little elementary school.

John Freitag, chairman of the Selectboard, likes to remind us that what Strafford does have is its people — people who care for each other, people who are willing to work together to find compromises, people who get things done. Another thing Strafford has is our 26 miles of hiking trails, trails that go from one end of the town to the other.

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These trails were negotiated with landowners by Mike Hebb, a member of the Strafford Conservation Commission, and are maintained by him and his team of volunteers.

Our local snowmobile club, the Justin Morrill Drift Skippers recently found themselves cut off from their traditional trails. A large central property had been sold and was now closed off. The easiest way to connect their two sections of trails would have been right over the top of Whitcomb Hill Scenic Overlook, but there were serious problems with this route.

The land had been given to the town of Strafford as a natural area with the written condition that there be no motorized vehicles. Hebb, who had negotiated with the Nye family, had the letter, but those conditions were not in the deed.

The town was equally divided on the issue.

The Conservation Commission, which manages the property, was against the snowmobile trail, citing the many people who backcountry ski and hike up to the overlook for the peace and quiet, where one can watch the sunrise over the Whites and the sunset over the Greens. They felt the intent of the donors needed to be honored even if it was not legally binding. Neighbors of the overlook were afraid that the trails would be illegally used by off road vehicles — they might suffer trespassing and late-night noise.

Half of the town was sympathetic to the Drift Skippers, long-time Strafford folks who are respectful snowmobilers, and who do a lot of good in town. Both sides had passionate support.

Decisions like these come down to just five people, our five Selectboard members. Before the vote, Mike Hebb and Mike Mann, the head of the Drift Skippers decided to forge a compromise. They went out walking and found an alternate route, one that would be more difficult to build but would stay far away from the overlook, just skirting the edge of the Whitcomb property. This new trail would not be visible from the overlook and hopefully, not noisy. They found a compromise — the Selectboard approved.

Neither side completely got what it wanted, yet in the end, we kept our strongest asset — being able to work things out.