Pondicherry Park Hike

By Wayne E. Rivet
Staff Writer

As a child, Jon Evans’ playground was the woods.

“I was born in the old hospital on Main Hill and have lived in Bridgton most of my life to this point,” he said. “I took for granted the lands — I hunted, fished and hiked on — would always be there.”

Wanting his own son, Maxwell, and other children to enjoy the marvelous woodlands he did, Evans has poured his energies and time into two major projects. One, he is a member of the Bridgton Recreation Advancement Group (BRAG), which is developing a sports complex off Portland Road.

Two, he serves as the Stewardship and Volunteer Coordinator for Loon Echo Land Trust.

“What I enjoy most about being Loon Echo’s Stewardship and Volunteer coordinator is giving folks of all ages an opportunity to see first hand what we have preserved for future generations, especially children,” he said. “When I tell kids that places like Bald Pate Mountain and Pondicherry Park are theirs to share with their children someday, I want them to feel ownership and pride in that. The natural resources we have chosen to protect for the benefit of the public and the many recreational opportunities Bridgton has to offer have a direct impact on the local economy. I am very proud of how Bridgton has balanced much needed growth with land conservation.”

Evans is “excited to see all the positive growth at a time when so many towns are in decline.”

One could sense Evans’ pride and sense of accomplishment as he guided a small group of hikers on a casual Veterans Day walk through Bridgton’s newest recreational gem — Pondicherry Park.

Gathering at the Greater Bridgton-Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce parking lot at 8:30 a.m., Evans led hikers, sporting warm hats and gloves, down a banking onto the old Narrow Gauge rail bed. He pointed out that the park has three defined “trail heads” — one, off Depot Street near Downeast Industries and the Magic Lantern, the site of the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge; two, off Willett Road, just past the town garage; and three, off South High Street, to the right of Bridgton Chiropractic — each containing trail maps.

Only a wide path exists now, but Evans painted a picture for hikers of a time when steel tracks cut through the area, delivering a wide assortment of goods. While carving a trail a short distance from the path, volunteers actually uncovered a piece of rail track.

Crossing the Kendal C. and Anna Ham Charitable Foundation Bridge, hikers marched along a well-defined path leading to the first “landmark” of the morning — a large stone fireplace, the last remnant of the former Cook homestead, which was claimed by fire. Volunteers had to “shore up” the fireplace, and added decking to the front side, creating an outdoor teaching space, used during youth educational programs.

“We brought in stone and about 500 pounds of cement and ferried it across the brook because there wasn’t a bridge in place yet,” he said. “This is a perfect amphitheater-type setting, so we decided to make it a classroom, where teachers can have a platform to talk to kids about beavers, plants and the environment.”

Another trail, marked by a “turtle” (trail maps identify trails and “legends” such as the turtle and snow hare to make it easy for hikers to find their way through the 66-acre property) veered to the right. Hikers could see plenty of downed trees — the work of beavers.

Evans pointed out that an effort is underway to create a “stable” trail, which would allow wheelchair-restricted folks an opportunity to enjoy the park. A trail from Willett Road to the Dunning Memorial Bridge has been widened by a father-son team using a small excavator. Volunteers then covered the path with wood chips. Evans said some type of material, possibly stone dust, would be used to create a surface passable via wheelchair.

As Evans led the group up a small hill toward a big pine that had been stripped of its bark by a bear, Max Evans gladly assumed the role of the sweeper — making sure all members of the group stayed together.

“I really enjoy my time out here with my dad. We do a lot together. The views are great,” he said. “My favorite part of the park has to be the Dunning Bridge. It’s just a work of art.”

Max and his dad reiterated throughout the hike that the park’s development is the end result of many hours of hard work and dedication by volunteers (including members of Loon Echo and Lakes Environmental Association), as well as a work crew from the Appalachian Mountain Club, which was responsible for the “original leveling of the trails (“establishing where the trails were going to go,” Jon Evans said), built a bridge and a “trademark” wooden bench during their two-week camping stay at the park.

Pointing out an array of rock walls, Evans encouraged hikers to use their imaginations to picture a time when the land was open fields rather than the home of towering pine trees, divided by huge boulders moved into place by oxen to delineate newly-created homesteads.

“When you look at these tremendous stone walls that dot the landscape throughout the park, you get a sense of appreciation of the hard work put in every day by those folks years ago. It’s a testament to their work ethic,” Evans said. “And, when you think that they didn’t have the benefit of machinery, it’s pretty amazing.”

Playing the role of investigator, Evans pointed downhill to what looks like a long trough. Knowing farms equipped with big barns existed on South High Street, Evans speculated that the trough was possibly created by cattle, which made their daily hike from the field back home. Evans and others followed the trough, and it did lead right toward a barn.

“It has to be a cattle or sheep run. Over a hundred years of walking the same place back and forth every day, this is what you get,” he said. “That’s what we try to impress upon kids when they come to the park — to be detectives, read the landscape, see all the marvels that exist here. Try to imagine all the changes that have occurred over the past 200 years. The big picture is Bridgton has a rich history, and this park is part of that history.”

Little “hints” of yesteryear exist everywhere in the woods. While working on a trail, Evans uncovered a huge rock that had chisel marks. Just a few yards below is the Kneeland Spring, which has cut stones surrounding its edges. Evans suspects that the larger rock was cut, and stone was moved downhill as part of the natural spring.

As the Pondicherry Loop Trail curled toward Stevens Brook, hikers could see the “pride and joy” of the park — the Dunning Memorial Bridge. Evans pointed out to hikers that 16 species of trees were used to build the bridge, which will be officially dedicated on Nov. 27. (See related story.)

Heading back on the same path, Evans noted that once the park development is complete, the plan is to turn it over to the Town of Bridgton. To be sure the park is maintained at no real cost to the town, Evans plans to organize volunteer crews and schedule work dates at the park.

As the hike concluded, Evans encouraged participants to visit the park at other times of the year and let others know about Bridgton’s “gem.”

“It’s truly remarkable what we’ve been able to accomplish here because of many wonderful people who wanted to create something special here — for today and the future,” Evans said.

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