The sun hovered just above the trees as I walked along the shores of Lac D’Or. In the shadows, a small painted turtle rested on a half-submerged log. A squirrel ran out from under a wooden bridge. And a trio of mallard ducks sailed in, landing on the smooth surface of the pond.
Hirundo Wildlife Refuge, a 2,460-acre preserve in Old Town and Alton, is teeming with nature and beauty.
Ahead of me, the Pond Trail was wide and covered in compacted crushed stone. At half a mile long, it was specifically designed for visitors with mobility and sensory issues. It is accessible for wheelchairs, it also includes a rope handrail. The benches are spaced along its length.
As I followed the trail, I quickly formed the opinion that it was one of the best wheelchair accessible trails I had ever seen. Looping around the pond, he explored a shady forest, passing interpretive signs about wildlife and local habitats along the way. The trail ended at a wooden viewing platform perched above the edge of the pond.
There I saw a second turtle, lying on a trunk among the water lilies.
Nearby, the shorter Meadow Trail (0.15 miles) was also designed with accessibility in mind. It offers views of a meadow that is full of nests, a great place to watch birds in spring and summer.
In a place as rocky and rooty as Maine, wheelchair accessible trails through the wilderness are pretty rare, though I’ve noticed more being built in recent years. Every time I find one, I get excited. It is important that everyone can experience the joy of being surrounded by nature. Clearly, the people of Hirundo agree.
Hirundo is home to over 7 miles of intersecting trails. That afternoon, I didn’t have time to walk them all. So using a map to navigate, I just wandered around.
From the Pond Trail I turned onto the Pushaw Stream Trail. I stepped carefully over roots and rocks, my boots occasionally squashing the mud, as I made my way down toward the sunny banks of the creek.
White-breasted Nuthatches chirped as brown vines scrambled up tree trunks. A red squirrel saw me and instantly took offense, chattering and kicking.
High in the oaks, blue jays snapped and dropped acorns. He was a bit worried that he might catch an acorn on his head. The shocks they produced when they hit the ground were intimidatingly strong.
I headed up the Wabanaki Trail to visit another section of the Pushaw Stream and read interpretive signs about alewives and birch bark canoes. The trail was named in honor of the indigenous people of the area, who lived on the property for more than 5,000 years.
An archaeological dig there in the 1970s uncovered evidence of that long history. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Fall colors had begun to seep into the trees along the shore. Red, orange, and gold leaves adorned the tips of its longest branches, while the rest of the foliage clung to shades of green. Reflected in the water, the scene was doubly charming.
Moving away from the water, I explored the Field to Forest and Thorn Plum trails, which explore small fields and lush areas filled with a variety of berry bushes. The area was teeming with birds, although I had to rely on my eyes rather than my ears to find them. During the fall, the birds are much quieter than in the spring and summer.
I stopped often, looking for the flapping of the wings. Through that method, I saw several Goldfinches and Black-headed Chickadees. I saw a hairy woodpecker drilling holes in a half-dead tree. And I followed the flight of a northern flicker, which perched on a tree to survey a field. I wonder what he was looking for.
The property was full of squirrels, who were busy storing seeds and nuts for the winter. I watched as one stuck an acorn in his cheek.
During my brief visit, I saw only a handful of people: a group of three, a couple, and a lone walker. On such a large property, there was plenty of room for us to spread out and give each other space.
He had visited Hirundo several times before that day. She had visited him in winter, when the forest was covered in snow. And I had visited in the spring, when dozens of frogs crowded the edge of Lac D’Or. Like all outdoor destinations, Hirundo has something new to offer each season as the wheel of nature turns.
In early fall, those natural delights included an abundance of mushrooms that grew in the woods and bright blue berries that graced the bushes in the fields. The aspen trees had begun to shed yellow leaves and the maples were blushing.
Evidence of wild animals could be found everywhere. Down by the stream, the wooden post of one of the interpretive signs had been gnawed by a beaver. Another interpretive sign next to the meadow was splattered with bird droppings. It must be a good place to perch.
If you have never been to Hirundo, I suggest you put it on your list of outdoor destinations to explore. But you will have to leave your dog at home. They are not allowed on the property. The rule is an effort to protect ground-nesting birds and other wild residents. Hunting is also prohibited.
I hope this column helps spread the word about this incredible outdoor destination. If you know someone who uses a wheelchair, walker or baby stroller, let them know about accessible trails in Hirundo. And for nature lovers looking to hike more challenging trails, the reserve contains plenty of those as well.
Access is free, although donations are accepted. The refuge constantly hosts events such as group paddles and educational workshops. For more information, visit hirundomain.org.