River Elf Trail (planned) and Willow Farm

Royal River Conservation Trust (RRCT) and Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) In June 2024 announced the establishment of a 150-acre conservation easement including conservation of one mile of Royal River shoreline, on a farm on Cobbs Bridge Road in New Gloucester. The farm — known by the landowers as Willow Farm — remains in private ownership, with a conservation easement held by RRCT.

The easement includes exceptional terms to keep the farm in agricultural use, and to protect high value ecological areas, rare shoreline species, and mature forests. Easement terms allow future public access on a trail to the Royal River. The farm includes 75 acres of Maine’s best agricultural soils.

On the property, RRCT will soon begin to build the planned 1.5-mile River Elf Trail – named in honor of the River Elves of Wabanaki lore. According to typical legend, river elves are infamous tricksters that like to cause mischief upon unsuspecting people.  More information on elves and RRCT goals of Wabanaki cultural acknowledgement is provided below.

The trail will allow public hiking and bank fishing access to a point on the Royal River. No public access to the parcel is allowed until the trail and off-road parking is built, with construction beginning in 2024 with likely completion in 2025. Public access will be on-trail only, respecting ongoing farming operations.

Maps & Public Access

There is no public access to the property until RRCT completes planned trail construction in 2025. Public access will be limited to constructed trails. Dogs will likely be required to be on-leash, to respect sensitive ecology, active farming operations, and nearby residences.

Hunting will be allowed solely with the express permission of the landowners of the private farm.

River Elf Neighborhood Map (Nearby conservation, June 2024): Easily printed 8.5 x 11 PDF

River Elves — Wabanaki educational content

Author: Natalie Waloven, RRCT Native American Intern 2023-24

“Have you ever been traveling along the river, and it felt like someone was watching you? While it might have been an animal or other hiker, Wabanaki culture presents a different, more exciting possibility: the river elves.

“The legend of the river elves can be traced throughout Wabanaki tradition. One of multiple types of little people in the culture of the five tribes that made up the Wabanaki Confederacy (that is, the Abenaki, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy), River Elves are spirits that occupy rivers across Maine and the nearby territories.

“According to typical legend, river elves are infamous tricksters that like to cause mischief upon unsuspecting passerbyers. However, their actual motives are rarely malicious. According to my mentor and relative, activist Imelda Perley (Opolahsomuwehs), river elves mainly try to teach lessons. For instance, when a girl once received a fancy, white dress, the little people splashed her with mud to warn against vanity. 

“In many cases, the river elves (Manogemasak in Abenaki-Penobscot and Wanagemeswak in Passamaquoddy-Maliseet) are actually quite friendly with the Wabanaki people. When barbers refused to cut my great-grandfather’s hair because of his race, the river elves would supposedly trim it for him while he sat in his canoe. Little people will often also leave gifts when infants are born, and ward off unkind visitors.

“Although river elves are rarely seen—supposedly due to their unseemly appearance, albeit the accuracy of this is disputed—signs of them can be spotted in many places around the region. When traveling on the river, canoers can often hear the soft tapping of little people making furniture from the trees or river sediment. Avid artists, the river elves also often carve geometric sculptures with the rocks by their homes, which bring good luck to the people that find them; be sure to keep a lookout for them on your next Royal River hike!

“While using a name based on Wabanaki culture may not seem significant at first, the simple recognition and appreciation of our culture makes a huge impact. There is a common misconception that indigenous people exist only in the past, the culture lost, unimportant, or forgotten. By acknowledging the people of this land, both past and present, an effort is expressed that proves the devotion of unity between the tribes and settlers; through small steps such as with the River Elf property, we make leaps and bounds towards an equal, supportive society.

“So, next time you’re along the Royal River and it feels like someone is watching you, remember that it just might be the river elves!”

RRCT has donated “Little People of the Dawn” books by local author Minquansis Sapiel to libraries in Gray, New Gloucester, and Yarmouth to supplement interpretation efforts. Yarmouth’s Merrill Memorial Library includes these books in Adventure Backpacks, free to check out, to enhance outdoor adventures.

Funders and Conservation History

Both RRCT and MFT provided funds for the project, with support from many funders including the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, and the Ram Island Conservation Fund of the Maine Community Foundation.

The conservation easement and planned River Elf Trail fall within RRCT’s four-town ‘hotspot’ where Auburn, Durham, New Gloucester, and Pownal meet and represents another major conserved property in a critical upriver region. As development in the watershed continues, and as sea run fisheries may be restored by the removal of Yarmouth’s dams, RRCT is accelerating its efforts to conserve and connect resilient lands, protect ecological integrity, mitigate the effects of climate change, and provide accessible respite for the region’s growing population.

The new 2024 150-acre working farm conservation easement is located within one of the larger remaining undeveloped habitat areas in Greater Portland – those greater than 1,000 acres — and includes conservation of one mile of shoreline of the Royal River. In addition, just northwest of this conservation easement is a 239-acre farm conserved by MFT in 2023, and the new 67-acre Little Meadow Preserve conserved by RRCT in 2023.  

“We are truly indebted to the generous vision of the landowners, who worked with us over several years. The establishment of this conservation easement protects valuable Maine farmland and mature forest and will provide fishing and bank access to the Royal through River Elf Trail,” said RRCT Executive Director Alan Stearns. “With the naming of the trail, we acknowledge the Wabanaki people who have lived on and stewarded all of the land within the Royal River watershed – and beyond – for thousands of years.”

“We were pleased to work with these conservation-minded landowners to preserve their property’s agricultural resources,” said MFT Farmland Protection Project Manager Amanda Wheeler. “The farm’s open fields – 33 acres in total – have been hayed by a local commercial farm for years and will now continue to be available for farming in perpetuity. The road-front fields in particular not only produce a valuable hay crop, but are flat, scenic, and otherwise imminently developable if not for these landowners’ decision to protect their property. MFT looks forward to supporting RRCT in ensuring that the property is always stewarded by landowners who are enthusiastic about the agricultural significance of this land.”