NEWRY — Scott Cowger of Hallowell participated in the first Trek Across Maine bike ride in 1984 because he wanted to get into better shape and needed a goal “to pay in for.”
Since then he’s become heavily involved with the American Lung Association and its mission for clean air: advocating for the cause as a state legislator, running an inn that was named in the top five “green” hotels by Yankee Magazine and volunteering at Lung Association events.
And he’s never missed a ride, raising about $75,000 for the cause in the past 34 years.
“I’ve done so many other things in my life that were much shorter-lived than the trek,” Cowger said.
“I was a state legislator for 10 years, I’ve chaired the National Resources Committee,” he said. “The environment is my passion.”
The 35th Trek Across Maine began Friday at Sunday River in Newry. Cowger, who showed up in his Tesla sporting the license plate “NO FUMES,” was one of the 1,500 riders bouncing on their feet at the start line, eager to get pedaling.
“I still get butterflies in my stomach, even though I know exactly what’s happening and what to expect,” Cowger said. “I’m fine in my mind, but it’s hard to eat breakfast.”
As Cowger made his way to the trucks that would transport participants’ luggage to the University of Maine at Farmington, the trek’s stop for the night, people called out and waved to him, or rushed up to give him a hug, as if he were at a family reunion.
It hasn’t been easy to attend every year, Cowger said, and there have been some years he wasn’t able to ride the entire route because of other responsibilities, but the trek takes priority over all else.
“When I was in the Legislature, the session would sometimes go right up to the first day of the trek,” he said. “I have missed a few days because I was in the State House but wanting to be on the road. I’ve had to miss a friend’s wedding, and sometimes I have to come back to my inn if there’s a wedding that weekend.”
Some years he wasn’t able to train at all before the ride, and those years were the most difficult, he said.
“It gets really hard on your behind after the second day,” Cowger said. “You sit down and go, ‘Ouch.'”
Sore behinds aren’t the only hurdle riders must overcome on the open road. Cowger recalled that during his first trek he sliced his tire on a piece of glass in the road. Now, when a rider has a flat tire, they wave their hand and are taken to the next rest stop where they can get their tire repaired, but things were different in 1984.
“I waited in the rain in Rumford for the one mechanic the trek had,” Cowger said. “They patched it up and sent me on my way. I was the last trekker at that point, trying to find my way in the rain. We had no signs back then, just a map, which kept getting wet.”
In the pouring rain and 45-degree temperature, Cowger may have questioned his resolve to participate the next year, but the end of the first day solidified his commitment to the cause.
“They had a keg of beer and a party at the end, and I made some good friends and we all said, ‘Let’s do it again next year,’” Cowger said.
On the trek’s 35th anniversary in 2019, the route will be coastal, with less traffic and fewer main roads. Cowger said he’s excited about the change.
“I was skeptical about the new route at first, but then I took detailed look and loved it,” he said. “It’s mostly back roads whenever possible, with good views and lots of rivers. It’s going to be a beautiful ride, and different.”
The route will be the only change for Cowger, who plans to ride in the trek until he is physically unable to do it.
“I was 25 years old when I started, and I figure I’ve got another 10 or 20 years in me,” he said. “I don’t see any reason to stop.”
Scott Cowger of Hallowell gets ready to embark on his 35th Trek Across Maine at Sunday River in Newry on Friday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Scott Cowger, center, of Hallowell gets ready to embark on his 35th Trek Across Maine with his riding buddy Eric Dombrowik at Sunday River in Newry on Friday. This is the third Trek Across Maine for Dombrowik of Freeport. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Glen Widmer of Montville and his 10-year-old son, Ruben, pull away from the Sunday River ski resort at the start of the Trek Across Maine in Newry on Friday. Widmer’s 13-year-old son, Isaac, and father-in-law, Bob Price, follow close behind. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Evan Carney of Ellsworth clips into his pedals at the start of the Trek Across Maine at Sunday River in Newry on Friday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Scott Cowger, left, of Hallowell hands his overnight pack to Jim Bowers of Rockland prior to Cowger starting his 35th Trek Across Maine at Sunday River in Newry on Friday. The riders’ overnight gear is taken by truck to the day’s destination. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Scott Cowger, left, of Hallowell talks with Matt Sturgis of Gray prior to Cowger starting his 35th Trek Across Maine at Sunday River in Newry on Friday. Sturgis has ridden in 17 treks. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Bicyclists cross the High Bridge over the Androscoggin River on the South Rumford Road in Rumford on Friday during the first day of the American Lung Association’s 35th annual Trek Across Maine. (Bruce Farrin/Rumford Falls Times)