The Cathance River Nature Preserve provides a wooded wonderland for the 55+ set to make an exhilarating fresh start.
Sponsored Content: By Highland GreenWhen Rob Potvin retired from a career in construction management at age 53, he wasted no time sitting still. He and his wife, Kathleen, sailed from Nova Scotia to Maryland. Then they sold their house, stored their stuff, and traveled the country towing an Airstream, in search of a new home. The Potvins wanted to be close to woods where they could hike regularly, and they wanted to meet others who treasured the outdoors too. “I never pictured myself becoming a couch potato,” Potvin says. “Now that I was retired, I just wanted to be active outside.”
After a three-year search, they bought a home in Highland Green, a 55+ active adult community in Topsham, in large part because it backs up to the Cathance River Nature Preserve, a 230-acre expanse of forest, grassy meadows, and 5 miles of trails. The couple loved being just steps from the woods and the water, where they could find themselves enveloped in groves of oaks and beech trees, watch roaring river rapids, hear peepers and belted kingfishers, and spot lady slippers and wild mushrooms emerging in the spring. Three years ago, when Rob began dreaming of hiking the Appalachian Trail, the preserve offered the perfect place to train. He spent hours on the trails, learning how to navigate roots and rocks while carrying trekking poles and a 20-pound pack, developing the strength and agility he’d need to complete the 2,190-mile journey. He hiked the entire AT in 2016.
“It was incredibly helpful to have this preserve so close to home,” he says.
The preserve is the result of a unique compromise forged two decades ago between Highland Green’s developer, John Wasileski, and conservation-minded neighbors who were skeptical when the development was first proposed. Highland Green, originally envisioned as a 700-acre community with an 18-hole golf course and more than 600 homes, drew opposition from a group of residents called Topsham’s Future. The group, led by John Rensenbrink, a Bowdoin professor who founded the U.S. Green Party, worried Highland Green would wipe out a treasured hiking and paddling haven and ruin the rural character of the area.
Their concerns resonated with Wasileski, a former environmental studies minor at McGill University who had worked for the National Audubon Society early in his career. He and Rensenbrink brokered a compromise for a scaled-down version of Highland Green that included fewer homes, a nine-hole golf course, and a 230-acre preserve, to be protected and managed in perpetuity by the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust. Together, Wasileski and Rensenbrink created the nonprofit Cathance River Education Alliance (CREA) to promote ecological education and stewardship on site. It was a landmark deal, says Angela Twitchell, Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust’s executive director.
“Their compromise was, and still is, held up as a tangible example of how developers and conservationists can work hand-in-hand toward goals that are good for developer, the community, and the conservation of natural habitat,” she says.
In the two decades since, a special relationship has flourished between the Trust, CREA, the development group, and residents of Highland Green. Residents have become some of the preserve’s most active volunteers, says Wendy Van Damme, CREA’s executive director. They lead hikes, design and present nature programs for community members, mentor student research, and volunteer at the CREA Ecology Center, which was built in 2006.
Highland Green won a prestigious 50+ Housing Council Award for Best Integration of Nature and Landscaping from the National Association of Home Builders.
The opportunity to walk the trails daily and to enjoy nature was a huge reason why Lisa Durrell and her partner, Ann Gardner, built a home at Highland Green in 2014. Durrell, now 72, taught elementary math and science for over 30 years and worked for Massachusetts Audubon after she retired. Durrell and Gardner, who retired after a long career at EPA, are both active volunteers and serve on CREA’s board of directors. “When we learned about CREA and explored the preserve trails, we saw that Highland Green was truly unique among all other retirement communities,” Durrell says.
Her Highland Green neighbor Valerie Chow has cherished going on those hikes and learning about trees, geology, pond life, and wildflowers. “I always loved nature, but knew very little about it before I moved here,” says Chow, 65. “Now, I’m recognizing and appreciating things I never noticed, and I feel much more connected to the natural world.”
The preserve also provides a special experience for Highland Green residents to share with their families. Chow’s 15-year-old grandson from New York has attended CREA’s camp for the past four summers. Durrell and Gardner loved taking their 3-year-old grandniece to the river, where the preschooler was mesmerized, watching the river current carry away sticks, and examining the icicles and animal tracks.
“We hope this is building a love of being outdoors,” Durrell says, “and a real connection with natural places.”
The preserve has been a huge draw for residents, who come from 32 states. “Our Baby Boomers and Generation X target audiences, appreciate this community’s completely unique integration of conservation,” says Will Honan, Highland Green’s director of marketing and sales.
Potvin, now preparing for his second attempt on the AT, loves seeing so many other Highland Green residents out on the trails. Many neighbors followed a blog he kept while hiking the AT and offered encouragement along the way. Even if they’re not up for a 2,190-mile hike, he appreciates being surrounded by people who appreciate adventure and the natural beauty of the preserve as much as he does. “It means a lot,” Potvin says, “to build relationships with the kinds of people who like the kinds of things you do.”