DRA’s wide open spaces broaden GSB Cross Country Program

DRA’s wide open spaces broaden GSB Cross Country Program

runners along great salt bay

At the fire of the starting gun, a crowd of forty boys in multi-colored jerseys launches into motion. They charge downhill, past a cheering crowd of parents, grandparents, coaches, and schoolmates, and follow a broad mown trail winding through rolling fields, past a freshwater marsh and along Great Salt Bay.

From their vantage on the hill above the fields at Damariscotta River Association’s (DRA’s) Great Salt Bay Farm, a public preserve in Damariscotta, spectators can see almost every moment of the race, with an expanse of Great Salt Bay as a sparkling backdrop. They clap and shout encouragement as the leaders toil up a steep hill and make a second loop past the crowd.

This sporting experience is a sharp contrast to that of several years ago, when the Great Salt Bay (GSB) Community School cross-country team trained by running laps around the athletic fields at the school. Lacking an official length course, the school was not able to host meets.

boys racingThe coach at that time, David DesFosses, wanted his runners to have access to trails with a greater variety of terrain. The ideal cross country course has some hills, different types of surface to run on, and a mixture of open and forested stretches. DRA Great Salt Bay Farm, with 115 acres of fields sloping down to the bay, crisscrossed by broad trails, had all of the features he was looking for.

“We recognized that this was a great fit for DRA and for the school,” commented DRA Executive Director Steven Hufnagel, who was Lands and Stewardship Director at the time. “Cross-country season falls at a time when few animals are nesting, and the trails are dry, so there’s little impact on the property. Plus, getting local youth outdoors is very much a part of what we’re about. Cross-country is a fantastic way for kids to enjoy the outdoors and connect with this beautiful place.”

Parents and runners appreciate that the farm is just a short bus ride away from the school. GSB can now host home meets, which is a big morale boost for any team. Great Salt Bay School Physical Education Teacher Jason Adickes noted that GSB spectators as well as those from visiting teams rave about the location. Unlike at many courses, where runners enter the woods and aren’t visible again until the end of the race, here runners can be seen for at least two-thirds of the race.

“As a venue, Great Salt Bay Farm offers everything people would want in a cross-country course,” observed Adickes, “the scenery, the openness, the variety of terrain – I just don’t think you can find a better spot.”

Even better, thanks to the generosity of DRA membership, there is no cost to the school to use the trails at Great Salt Bay Farm.

spectators watching the race

The GSB team is open to runners from any AOS 93 school without its own team, including Bristol, South Bristol, Nobleboro and Jefferson, as well to as students from Damariscotta Montessori School, The Center for Teaching and Learning, and homeschool families.

Current Coach Joel Russ, who is also president of DRA’s Board of Trustees, sports a team shirt whose back reads, “It’s a hill… get over it.” He beams with enthusiasm about the partnership between DRA and GSB’s cross-country program. In the past few years, Russ has seen the program grow from thirteen runners to nearly thirty. “Great Salt Bay Farm is an exciting place,” he confided, “like a giant playground!” The day before the meet, the team played a favorite game called “fox trot.” A team of four “foxes” jogged away down the trail to find a spot to hide together. After an impatient interval, the rest of the team galloped off in pursuit. “The last time we played this game,” grinned Russ, “one group of runners ended up running four miles, without even being aware of it!”

girls finishing a raceRuss sees cross-country as an excellent sport for middle school youth, building general overall health and conditioning, strength, flexibility, and endurance. It also fosters self-confidence, teamwork, and self-discipline.

In addition to physical and mental well-being, thanks to DRA and Great Salt Bay Farm, it’s possible these runners are developing a greater appreciation for the beauty and rich natural resources of this place they call home.

Great Salt Bay Farm, located at 110 Belvedere Road, is open daily to the public for pedestrian use, from dawn until dusk. The property features over 3 miles of trails of differing lengths, including a mile of shorefront, and a wide variety habitats that make it an excellent place for birdwatching. Leashed dogs are welcome.

Photo credits: Hilary Petersen (top and bottom photos)