1-minute ski: Hirundo Wildlife Refuge in Alton

Difficulty: Easy-moderate. Hirundo Wildlife Refuge is home to nearly seven miles of trails that vary in difficulty. None of the trails climb any steep slopes. The most difficult trails of the network have tricky footing due to exposed tree roots and rocks.

hirundo0315-3How to get there: Take Interstate 95 to Exit 197 (Old Town/Hudson). At the end of the ramp, turn left onto Route 43 (Hudson Road) and drive west 4.75 miles. Look for large red signs on your right. Gate 1, the main gate, is marked by the first and largest of these signs. There are six other gates marked by red signs. In the winter, an area in front of Gate 1 is plowed. Park outside Gate 1 but do not block the gate.

Gate 1 bars a road that leads to the north half of the trail network. Gate 6, across the road, bars the Trapper’s Trail, which leads into the southern half of the trail network.

Information: Celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this year, Hirundo Wildlife Refuge covers 2,460 acres in Alton and includes sections of Pushaw and Dead Streams, the 4-acre pond named Lac d’Or, an archeological site, vast wetlands and mixed hardwood and evergreen forest. Year round, the public is welcome to explore this land for free on seven miles of clearly marked trails constructed for walking (or snowshoeing) and skiing.

hirundo0315-8The name Hirundo is the Latin word for swallow.

The refuge was founded in 1965 by Oliver Larouche, who expanded his family’s 3-acre camp to the present 2,460-acre refuge with an endowment from Parker Reed. His intent was for the land to be a “haven for wildlife,” according to the refuge website, and to improve wildlife diversity, he planted a variety of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. He also lined the open fields on the property with tree swallow nest boxes, and he lined Pushaw Stream with wood duck nest boxes.

In 1983, Oliver Larouche and his wife June Larouche deeded the land to the University of Maine, and the couple funded research on fish, birds and mammals on the property. The Larouche family currently guides the Hirundo Board of Trustees, encouraging public access, outdoor education and above all, the protection of wildlife and acceptance of nature.

hirundo0315-5Over the years, Hirundo has become known as an excellent place to view and learn about wildlife. A wide variety of bird habitats, the refuge is listed as a birding hot spot on the Maine Audubon Penobscot Chapter website. But it’s not just about birds. The refuge naturalist, Gudrun Keszöcze, currently works with other wildlife experts to organize a wide variety of nature and recreational programs, including guided nature walks and paddles, citizen science projects and presentations.

hirundo0315-10The footpaths are open to the public from dawn until dusk, and so are the waterways. In fact, canoes are available for people to use for free Wednesday-Sunday. (Call one day in advance to reserve a canoe.)

When visiting, sign a guest registry at Gate 1, 2, 3 or 6.  There is no admission fee for visitors, though the refuge welcomes donations in locked boxes located at kiosks. Pets are not permitted.

The trail network is bisected by Route 43.

The north half of the trail network consists of approximately 3 miles of trials: the interpretive 0.4-mile Wabanaki Trail, which travels along the edge of Pushaw Stream; the 0.2-mile Big Spring Trail, which crosses a field and passes vernal pools and streams; the 0.3-mile Thorn Plum Trail, named for its thorn plum (hawthorn) trees; the 0.3-mile White Pine Trail; the 0.3-mile Conifer Trail; the 0.8-mile Pond Trail; and hirundo0315-20the 0.9-mile Pushaw Stream Trail. Also on the north side of Route 43 is Parker Reed Shelter, where many of the refuge meetings and programs take place.

The south half of the trail network consists of about 3.5 miles of trails: the 1-mile Trappers Trail, which is wide and ends at a small shelter; the 0.3-mile Vernal Pool Trail, which is short but difficult because of tricky footing; the 0.5-mile Indian Pipe Trail, for which there is an interpretive brochure; the 0.8-mile Hemlock Trail; and the 0.9-mile Beech Trail.

hirundo0315-11For information, including upcoming programs and trail maps, visit hirundomaine.org. The refuge naturalist can be reached at 394-2171.

Personal note: Winter didn’t seem to be going anywhere last week, so my fiance Derek and I decided to try our best to embrace the fresh snowfall on Saturday by taking cross-country skis to Hirundo. Snow was falling lightly when we arrived Gate 1, which is marked by a gigantic red sign that’s impossible to miss.

hirundo0315-24I’ve visited the refuge several times for programs, including a class on how to monitor the state’s nine species of frogs (including the American toad). It involved learning to identify them by their various calls — something I plan to brush up on before the peepers start peeping this spring.

I produced a “1-minute hike” video on the north half of the refuge a couple of years ago (April 2012, to be exact), so on Saturday, I decided to explore the southern half of the refuge. We parked at Gate 1, crossed the road, scaled the crusty snowbank and buckled into our skis.

Deer hoof prints

Deer hoof prints

A short way down the wide Trapper’s Trail, we found a kiosk with a soggy registration sheet, a laminated trail map, paper trail maps in a dry compartment and a box for donations. Also near the kiosk was a charming outhouse, complete with a moon on the door.

I had heard that Hirundo is a popular place for cross-country skiing, but on Saturday, the trails were free of ski tracks. I wasn’t particularly surprised because it had just snowed. Nevertheless, it meant we had to blaze our own trail. The going was a bit slow, without much gliding, but our skis kept us afloat. I didn’t realize how deep the snow actually was until I took off my skis to find a pileated woodpecker off trail and sunk past my knees. After wading a few steps through crusty snow, I abandoned my plan to photograph the elusive bird and returned to my skis.

While I didn’t have the opportunity to photograph the pileated woodpecker, we did enjoy listening to its distinctive piping call and the startling loud sound of it drumming rapidly on a tree.

Beech trees

Beech trees

We skied down the wide 1-mile Trapper’s Trail to the shelter, passing by trailheads to the Vernal Pool Trail, Beech Trail and Hemlock Trail along the way. A welcome sign on the shelter (which was a small wooden building) encouraged us to open the door and peep inside, where a bench lined two walls. It seemed like a good place to rest and escape the bugs in the summer.

We took the 0.9-mile Beech Trail for the return trip. While we ran into some downed trees near the shelter, the trail soon cleared up and turned out to be a great trail for skiing. Along the way, we pointed out different types of trees, including a large stand of beech trees, with many of their yellow leaves still clinging to their branches and rustling in the wind.

Honestly, the skiing conditions weren’t great. The snow became increasingly sticky as the temperature climbed above freezing. But we enjoyed the workout and the hirundo0315-18fresh air. And at the end of the ski, I persuaded Derek to cross the road and join me on a short ski to the Parker Reed Shelter and the frozen Lac d’Or, near which we spotted a white-tailed deer crossing at a shallow area of Pushaw Stream. I rushed forward to take a photo, realized I was going to ski into the stream, and gracefully fell on my rump. Serves me right. Some wildlife is meant to simply enjoy in the moment. The deer was well into the forest before I recovered my dignity.

More photos: 

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.