LEWISTON — Peter Rubins remembers a time when no one went near the Androscoggin River if they didn't have to. It was covered with nasty foam. It was stinky. Recreation was the last thing a person thought of around its roiling waters.
"There were chunks of wood chips that coagulated into big sections and they were just floating down the river," Rubins said. "You could almost walk across it. And the smell came right off the river. It was a prevalent smell and it literally took paint off the houses."
What a difference a couple of decades make.
Members and followers of the Androscoggin Land Trust gathered Thursday night to celebrate their 20th year of land conservation. No cake and candles, no funny hats. Just a lot of talk about how far they've come in matters of conservation, preservation and recreation.
"Twenty years ago," said keynote speaker Alix Hopkins. "Who would have thought it?"
To see what the trust has accomplished, a person can travel in any direction along the Androscoggin River. There are the river walks on both sides of the river in Lewiston and Auburn. There are neat, maintained trails behind Tall Pines in Lewiston.
A little farther north, the work of the ALT becomes apparent on a larger scale. In Turner sprawls the Androscoggin Riverlands State Park, a 2,600-acre stretch the group helped to acquire for all forms of recreation.
Instead of holding their noses and sprinting past the river, people are out in droves biking, hiking, hunting, canoeing, fishing, riding ATVS and walking along roughly 9 miles of shoreline, and taking in the scenery.
"We have a strong attachment to that particular parcel," said Board President Jason C. Libby.
Naturally. At one time, that area of Turner was almost chopped up into plots and developed commercially. Instead, it has become the first new state park in Maine in 22 years and the first to be river-oriented.
But it's not finished. Next week, the final plans for Riverlands will be unveiled.
By all accounts, Riverlands is an out-and-out success story. The land trust is doing similar work in areas along the river in four counties and 19 towns. No one would question the notion that ALT is on a roll.
It wasn't always easy. At the beginning, no one saw the value in connecting populated areas and open spaces near the river via a network of trails. Back when they first proposed the idea of a foot trestle between Lewiston and Auburn, opposition was immediate.
"The minute you open that trestle," one Auburn resident said at a meeting when the proposed bridge was discussed, "we'll be hit by all the low-lifes of Lewiston."
The trestle went up, anyway. Soon after, there were foot trails along both sides of the river.
"That Riverwalk was just a dream 10 or 15 years ago," said Jonathan P. LaBonte, executive director of the trust. "But we all know what that has become."
The trust is at work on similar projects just about everywhere the Androscoggin River roams. Conservation efforts are under way in Jay and Canton and around Jersey Bog in Buckfield and Hooper Pond in Greene.
LaBonte and Libby are quick to point out that they've been able to make so much headway because of the people who came before them. Rubins, a Bates College graduate, was among a loosely formed group of people in the 1970s and '80s who went up against the big paper mills to get the quality of the river improved.
It wasn't easy. The mills didn't want to make changes to their operations and not many people were bemoaning the sorry state of the Androscoggin.
That changed. Rubin and his small group got people interested in fishing on the river and recognizing other potentials.
"My contention was that if people started using the river, they'd start looking at it more closely," Rubins said.
Then came important legislation: the Clean Water Act and the aptly titled Color, Odor and Foam bill.
"It's come a long way; it really has," Rubins said. "It's usable for just about everything."
Judith Marden remembers a time when you could count on one, maybe two, hands how many local people were interested in the river and the land around it. Back in the 1970s and '80s, she bought a house in Greene and only later realized how pristine the area was around the river that ran through it.
"You get out there and it's like the Allagash," she said. "You can't see a single house, and yet I'm just 5 miles from my home."
Back then, there was no Androscoggin Land Trust. There were people like Marden, Rubins and a handful of others with grand visions.
"I just started working with people who had environmental concerns, as I had," Marden said. "We didn't have a land trust back then. We really didn't know what we were doing. We were amateurs. Now, the whole movement in the state — nationwide, really — has really taken off. But it started as a kitchen table group."
Twenty years down and plenty of work left to do, LaBonte said. The economy of the state could be shaped by how the Androscoggin River is used. The past 20 years have been hugely successful, he said, but that doesn't mean the hard work is over.
"Everyone is always there for the ribbon-cutting, but they're not always there for the stewardship," he said. "You have to maintain that momentum."