You know that old insult, “Build a bridge and get over it”? Hurl that at Oxford’s Gerry McLellan and he’s likely to take you literally. And with enthusiastic agreement.
“I’ve been involved with trails in one way or another since I got my first snowmobile in 1968,” explains Gerry. “I was president of the Cumberland Snowmobile Club for a number of years and we built a lot of trails and received major funding.”
He says he backed away from that volunteer work when he and his wife Marion decided snowmobiling was getting expensive and the trails busier.
“There was a lot of traffic on the trails, a lot of speed, so we decided to do some other things.”
But Gerry couldn’t resist the lure of the Trans Canada Trail, the cross-country multi-use trail initiated in 1992.
“When they came out with the idea, I was nosy so I got involved in the meetings and one thing led to another and we formed the Cumberland Trails Association for the express purpose of building the Trans Canada Trail through Cumberland County,” says Gerry. “It’s a major undertaking and we haven’t got it finished yet.”
According to the trail’s website, www.tctrail.ca, the trail is 75 per cent complete across Canada. Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland & Labrador are 100 per cent complete while Nova Scotia is only 42 per cent, the second lowest completion rate in Canada (Saskatchewan is at the bottom at 34 per cent while New Brunswick is at 60 per cent).
When the trail is complete, it will be 24,000 kilometres from the Atlantic to Pacific to Arctic Oceans. There are 5,700 kilometres to go and Oxford is one of the missing links.
“People ask why we went this way or that way,” Gerry says. “I had a lot to do with picking the route to the New Brunswick border and the reason it’s laid out this way because there are fewer land owners. There’s Bragg, Irving, Department of Natural Resources and maybe ten, twelve small landowners. That’s a lot less people to negotiate with.”
In 2008, Gerry commissioned a map that marks out the trail winding through and around Oxford. Part of it follows the old rail bed to the highway then it runs alongside the TCH back to Upper Main Street where it heads through woods and fields.
According to Gerry, the Oxford section of the trail is the only part that runs close to a closed-access highway. That adds a complication and involves extra work and money.
“We have to plant trees and privacy fences so that the lights from the snowmobiles and ATVs don’t shine into oncoming traffic,” he says.
That’s not the major obstacle, though.
“Oxford is called ‘the black hole of Canada’,” Gerry says.
That’s because a bridge needs to be built over the River Philip near the Trans Canada Highway just east of Oxford’s Exit 6. That bridge is an essential connector.
There also needs to be a tunnel under Upper Main Street and a bridge over a section of Black River where it meanders beyond the Oxford rifle range yet those two projects combined are expected to cost less than the River Philip bridge.
“The money that was given out this summer by the federal government, that was a big shot in the arm for us here,” says Gerry. “That’s all going to the bridge.”
The creation of the Oxford and Area Trails Association was a big help in harnessing interest and fundraising.
“We need a lot of help, a lot of ownership,” Gerry says about why he encourages everyone to get a $5 membership. “When we make an application for funding, to say we have X number of members that are actively participating seems to loosen up a fair amount of cash.”
“I would never believe we would have as much money raised and promised to us as we have right now. We’re approaching $300,000 with emphasis on the bridge,” he says.
Even with that 2017 date looming in the near-future, none of the work of fundraising or trail building is finished.
“Hopefully we can get it done in that time frame but it depends upon the funding, how well it keeps coming,” admits Gerry. “It’ll take a lot more money than that to do the tunnel under Upper Main Street and do the second bridge over Black River.”
What’s really needed to get the trail completed, however, are workers. Making the trail isn’t just stomping through grass to clear a route; there’s clearing and building to be done. It’s a major construction undertaking.
And for those of us with bad backs, Gerry has an answer.
“There is tying ribbons on construction stakes or writing numbers on different stakes. We have to stake it off and the measurement written on the stake so the builders know where they are. There’s all kinds of stuff like that.”
The help needed isn’t just about moving rocks and clearing trees and piling brush, though; there are administrative duties like taking minutes of meetings and helping with funding applications.
“We need a lot of cooperation to get this trail put through,” says Gerry.
When the trail finally opens officially in 2017 as part of Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations, Gerry will have been involved in this project for 20 years.
“I’ve made it known that I don’t want anything to do with it if it’s not for everybody. Hiking, biking, snowmobiling, ATVing, horse-back riding, cross-country skiing. We really want to see people out walking the trail,” he emphasizes. “That will be mission accomplished. I don’t worry about the snowmobiles and ATVs using it.”
What drives his passion for this particular trail system?
“Since I had my little truck and sand pail, I’ve liked building things. That’s my sport and recreation. I like the idea of the benefits that the trail will hopefully bring to Oxford. When this is open,” he says pointing on the map to the spot on the River Philip where the bridge will be installed, “it will be possible for a lot of people to get on the trail and go somewhere.”