Making Westbrook Trails More Traveled
If you’ve enjoyed time in Westbrook’s town forest over the last three years, the man you have to thank is Gene Van Blaricom.
Gene joined the Forest Commission in 2018 in part because he noticed the lack of attention the town forest was getting.
“When I moved down here, I noticed there were signs for the forest and they were all falling down,” Gene recalls.
So, Gene took it upon himself to convince the town’s administration that the signs were worth replacing, which they eventually were. But Gene wasn’t done there.
“I said, ‘This is one of the assets of the town! We should protect it,’” Gene says.
At first, he used to go into the forest with garbage bags and help clean garbage and litter out of the area.
“I worked with the DEEP [Department of Energy & Environmental protection] for 39 years, so that’s sort of where my motivation came from,” says Gene.
The Westbrook Town Forest has access points off of Fairview Road and off of Brookwood Road. As time has gone by, Gene has helped to blaze hiking trails in the forest, clean the forest of debris, and perform maintenance on the trails.
“I think it’s a good thing to take a valuable asset and keep it reusable for the community,” says Gene.
Recognizing that the trail could be of use to people who “run, hike, walk the dog”, Gene has been committed to making the trail as safe as possible. This includes doing things like leaf blowing the trail, mulching to cover up roots and prevent water from pooling, as well as building bridges.
Gene is quick to thank the Department of Public Works for assisting with some of these endeavors.
“The improvements have to be very transparent, though. You have to remember we have wildlife living here and we can’t disrupt them,” says Gene.
So far, Gene says he’s noticed a payoff in his efforts as more people have been using the trails, especially during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been really cool to see that kids especially have been using the forest,” said Gene.
In particular, Gene mentions that people took it upon themselves to paint rocks with inspirational messages and place them along the trails. Gene says that he and others definitely found the messages reassuring in the dark times.
“It was just really nice to see,” says Gene.
Gene says that the positive feedback he has received has been “an exciting feeling”.
“I see people using the forests every day now, which is great. The more the forest gets used, the less trouble we actually have with vandalism and things like that, which to tell you the truth we really haven’t really had problems with anyway,” says Gene.
Though it’s hard work, Gene says there are clear and immediate benefits to the work he’s done.
“My favorite part is after a hard day’s work seeing what I’ve done and knowing that it’ll be enjoyed by people that use it,” says Gene.
“The hardest part is doing the work!” Gene jokes. “When you get a truck of mulch, it might not seem like a lot, but when you’re wheeling it in and doing the work, it’s a lot,” Gene confesses.
Gene’s interest in nature and the outdoors started when he was young. He began volunteering with the state as a seasonal employee, and he stayed working with DEEP for close to 40 years. Gene says he considered joining the national forest service out of high school, but ultimately stayed with DEEP.
“I’ve just always loved it,” he sums up.
Over his career with DEEP, Gene worked in a multitude of positions and worked his way up to doing IT work for the department.
“I was going all around the state to every state park that had a computer,” says Gene.
Gene grew up in East Hampton, but he and his wife Catherine have called Westbrook home for close to 10 years.
“Me and my wife wanted to find a place closer to the shore and we did a lot of looking around,” says Gene.
Now that he’s retired, Gene likes to keep busy by being outdoors and doing activities like metal detecting and yard work.
“I like the fresh air and being outside on a nice sunny day over being inside,” says Gene.
As for his favorite part about Westbrook, Gene says that “it’s a small friendy town and I think that makes it enjoyable.”