A couple of bikers head down the main trail at Mount Apatite Park in Auburn. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

AUBURN — It’s a sunny Tuesday afternoon in mid-May and something strange is happening at Mount Apatite Park on the western edge of the city. 

What’s strange is that from one end of the 350-acre park to the other, things just seem so normal. 

Here is a young couple walking a trail with a sleeping baby stowed in a back-mounted carrier. 

Here are two bicyclists riding side-by-side up the dirt slope headed toward the quarry. A pair of older women, walking briskly in the opposite direction, nod politely to the bicyclists and keep on chugging. 

John Clukey, left, cleans a discovery with a brush at Mount Apatite in Auburn in hopes of finding a piece of tourmaline. Nathan Baker looks on. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

A pair of men, dust coated and sweaty, are prowling for gems in the rocks along one of the main trails. It’s hot work and they’ve been at it for a while, but whenever someone stops to ask about their toil, the men take the time to explain what they’re up to. 

It’s all good. In the sun-dappled shadows cast by the very tall trees of Mount Apatite, men, women and young folk are going about their business as if the rest of the world hasn’t lost its mind. 

There are signs of social distancing at Mount Apatite, sure. Many of the walkers wear face coverings and there is the occasional pause for doses of hand sanitizer. People are clearly taking pains to keep their distance from passing strangers, too. Most encounters entail passing nods or waves of the hand instead of up-close conversations — nobody has forgotten COVID-19 and the various problems it brings, but it all seems much easier to bear out in that wilderness. 

“We’ve been doing our social distancing,” said Patricia Brousseau, out walking with her friend and in-law Pat Baril, “but we decided that we needed to start moving, so now we’re out walking.” 

Like so many others, Baril and Brousseau had been staying home, trying to get exercise around the house, which can be, let’s face it, dull and uninspiring. 

“This is a little more rigorous,” Brousseau said. “We did a mile and a half up and we’re going to do a mile and a half back.” 

Mount Apatite Park is a kind of city oasis that for decades has drawn a range of outdoor enthusiasts, including dog walkers, joggers, bicyclists, hikers, bird-watchers and gem hunters. 

Thatcher Riley clips overhanging branches over a new trail at Mount Apatite Park in Auburn last Tuesday with a group of about 20 volunteers. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

On this day, one of the first really warm days of spring, there seems to be an almost even sampling of each type. 

Up in their pile of rocks, winding down after an afternoon of mining, John Clukey and Nathan Baker take a pause to talk about that side of Mount Apatite. 

“This is one of the only places that you can even collect for free,” said Clukey, of Poland. “You’d have to pay $50 a day to go dig somewhere else.” 

This isn’t amateur hour at Mount Apatite, though. Mining for gems is serious business at this place, which was named after a particular mineral found in abundance here. 

According to a city fact sheet: “Exploration of Mount Apatite began as early as 1839 when records show that three specimens of tourmaline were added to the collection of the Maine State Geologist. Over the course of the next 100 years, some remarkable finds have added to the renown of Mount Apatite as a great place to look for semi-precious stones and other minerals. 

“In the 1880s, some 1,500 tourmaline crystals were removed from an exploratory mine here. These varied in length from 1/2-inch to 4 inches, occurring in lovely shades of pastel pink, blue, lilac, yellow and green. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City displays an exquisite green rectangular tourmaline stone weighing 11.87 carats that was cut from Mount Apatite.”

The fact sheet continues, “In 1902, the Maine Feldspar Company began mining feldspar at Mount Apatite. During this early period, a massive crystal of smoky quartz of approximately 19 1⁄2” long and 9 1⁄2” thick was discovered. Large masses of flawless material may be seen in this specimen, which is deep amber in color.” 

The Mount Apatite sign at the Small Road trail head. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

That’s the kind of talk that gets miners like Clukey and Baker excited. Clukey has been mining gems for 30 years now and he’s come to understand the hit-or-miss nature of it. 

At Mount Apatite, there’s a mine dump he calls Rainbow Ridge because he has found three different colors of tourmaline in there. 

“One summer, we probably got 400 carats of gemstones,” Clukey said. 

There’s also quartz and Cleavelandite, which Clukey describes as “feldspar turned gemmy.” 

Some days, he’ll find something really unique and maybe even valuable in the rocks at Mount Apatite. More commonly, he finds just a few oddities that aren’t worth much, but which look good enough in his backyard to impress visitors. 

“You know, 30 years of digging, bringing stuff like that home and throwing it out on the rock wall, it’s like, ‘Wow, where’d you find THAT?'” Clukey said. “Once you find something, you get the bug. The problem with finding something nice is, now you’ve got to beat it.” 

PEDAL POWER

Of course, you can’t talk about Mount Apatite without talking about the mountain bikers who flock to the area for the network of trails. In a lot of cases, its the bikers who design, build and maintain the trails that are then enjoyed by joggers, walkers and everyone else. 

“It’s important for people to understand that we’re not a bunch of selfish cyclists,” said Chris Riley, president of the Central Maine chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association. “Yes, that’s our sport and we’re super excited about it. But we also realize that there are a lot of other people out on the trails and we’re psyched to share them. 

“You’ll find bikers and runners and bird-watchers,” Riley said. “It’s not like there are trails that are specific only to the bikers, and I think that’s a good thing. That’s how it should be. People should get to experience all the trails.” 

Chris Riley explains the trail clearing protocol to a group of volunteers at Mount Apatite Park in Auburn last Tuesday night. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

This past Tuesday, Riley and more than a dozen other volunteers were out at Mount Apatite putting work in on the trails. Because of COVID-19, the group has had to adjust the way they gather for trail maintenance. These days, with social distancing on everybody’s mind, they’re going out every Tuesday in the early evenings to get done what needs to be done. When they ask for volunteers to help, Riley said, the slots fill up almost immediately. 

Part of what makes Mount Apatite a unique place, Riley suggests, is that so many people are working together to make it that way. City leaders tend to stay involved in part because they love the place, too, but also because the Mount Apatite community is just good for business. 

“It’s a really active community that is just so hungry for increased resources and places to ride,” Riley said. “The other piece of it is that it’s a huge economic engine. Cycling itself is a really significant economic engine when you look at every one of these riders and what they’re riding for bikes — on the low end bikes are a thousand bucks. And you’ve got people out there on bikes that are five times that, or six times that. And so you trickle that down to the economy aspect and you look at the bike shops that are being supported, and then the jobs. And then, during normal times, it’s ‘Where do we go to get a beer and a burger after we ride’ and all the social aspects of it. 

“Working with the city has been just amazing,” Riley said. “They’ve been really open to establishing a good network there, utilizing the landscape and creating a resource for people. They’ve been wonderful to work with. It just keeps getting better.” 

Ryan Walker, of Auburn, is involved with a Facebook group dedicated to the park called Friends of Mt. Apatite (FOMA) and with the Central Maine chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association. Like Riley, Walker believes that the enthusiasm of the bike community is a benefit to other, non-riding visitors to Mount Apatite, since their efforts aim to “protect and improve some of the best single track trail riding in central Maine.

“We recognize that we are far from the only user group that enjoys Mount Apatite and the trails we ride and maintain are for multi-use,” Walker said. “We are committed to fostering relationships with other organizations and user groups with a stake in Mount Apatite. The FOMA group has provided a great space for us to do that. When you have so many different user groups utilizing the same trails, conflicts can arise. So the FOMA group has really helped open some of those lines of communication between various groups. It has also provided an opportunity to educate members of the public around sustainable trail construction and maintenance.”

A little history: The bulk of the Mount Apatite property was purchased by the city in the early 1970s. In the summer of 1994, with assistance from a Land & Water Conservation fund-matching grant, just over 3 miles of multi-purpose trails were constructed within the park. In 1997, the park received two grants through the National Recreational Trails Act, which are being used to improve park signage, existing trails and to add trails to the quarry area. In the winter, the trail is groomed for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. 

A collection of tools brought for the weekly trail day at Mount Apatite sit in a truck. The day is organized by the New England Mountain Bike Association. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The location of the mountain doesn’t hurt. When you’re out there on its trails, doing whatever it is you like to do, the park feels remote, like a place you’d have to travel a ways to get to. 

The fact that it sits just a couple turns off busy Minot Avenue — minutes away from anyone coming from the downtown area — makes Mount Apatite an easy temptation to give in to. If you’re hankering for a bike ride, a jog, a hike or one more go at the gems, it’s not like you have to sit in your car all day to get there. 

“It’s convenient,” Riley said. “It’s really close to town and it’s very easy to get to. There’s a couple different places to park and the trails have always been fun. But I think of late, with the energy that’s been put into some of the trails and creating more purpose-built bike trails that are really in line with the kind of riding people want to do, and using building techniques more contemporary, it’s just only getting more appealing to the riding community.

“So when you add a large parcel of land in the middle of a city that’s relatively easy to access, and then you start putting the time and energy into developing it in a way that it appeals to the growing riding community, you know, you’ve got a great recipe.” 

WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM THEIR ‘FRIENDS’

On any given day, while dozens are out prowling the Mount Apatite landscape, you’ll find an equal number of people engaging on the Friends of Mt. Apatite Facebook page. 

It’s not a huge group — there are presently about 500 members — but its an energetic one. Pretty much every day, one will find posts from people who visit the park and those who help maintain it. 

You’ll find a post from a group administrator with photos of new informational kiosks and pet waste receptacles put up at the park entrances at Garfield Road and Small Road. 

Valarie Reubinsky and Nicole Hudak check out the trail map at the Small Road entrance to Mount Apatite Park in Auburn. The two decided to take their dog, Deborah, for a walk. It was their first time enjoying the trails. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Next, you find a question from a local rider wondering if a particular trail is open. That post is followed by comments from other riders reporting the condition of said trail. 

There are photos of some of the oddities walkers find on the Mount Apatite Park grounds, trail reports and all kinds of daily accounts from people just returning from the park. 

“A nice morning on the trails with my dog,” writes Paul Savignano, of Auburn. “The new Pet Waste Center is a great addition to our park. The trails are drying out and turning green with the trilliums making trail side appearances.” 

The Friends of Mt. Apatite page also tends to serve as a hub for complaints from people who witness bad behavior — littering is a common complaint, as is riding on trails that are not yet open in the park. 

Out in the woods, though, whether you’re running or biking or digging through piles of rocks, it’s easy to forget the madness of the outside world, at least for a little while. And let’s face it: Where else are you going to go? 

“With everything being closed, I feel safe up here,” says Clukey, the gem hunter. “We’re outdoors. There’s no coronavirus out here. Social distancing just kind of happens on its own.” 

Chris Riley and his son Thatcher lead the way up to work on a new trail at Mount Apatite in Auburn. The New England Mountain Bike Association gets together weekly to work on the trails at the park. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo


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