When the tree swallows return in the spring to their nest boxes at Hirundo Wildlife Refuge in West Old Town, Stephanie Larouche thinks about her family.
Her father, Charles, his twin brother, Oliver, and their siblings grew up in part on the land that would become the 2,460-acre wildlife preserve and outdoor recreation facility along Pushaw Stream, which Oliver Larouche founded in 1965.
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Ollie and his wife, June, installed hundreds of nest boxes for swallows and for wood ducks all over the preserve, alongside countless fruit-bearing trees and shrubs to entice other wildlife. Though the founding goal of the preserve was to protect all native flora and fauna and encourage their survival, the swallows are special.
They’re a symbol of what the Larouche family has tried to do at Hirundo for more than 50 years — preserve wildlife habitat in the area and, more recently, use the acreage to expose children and people who cannot always easily enjoy the outdoors to nature.
“Hirundo is Latin for swallow, so it’s really kind of our symbol,” said Stephanie Larouche, now chair of the board of the nonprofit that runs Hirundo. “This is our family’s legacy. It was our home, and now it’s for everyone.”
In the early 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, Larouche’s grandparents, Jean-Charles and Leontine, were, like most Mainers at the time, barely surviving financially. Rather than simply scrape by at their house in Milo, Leontine had a mind instead to find a little slice of land where they could spend the warmer months in a cabin, growing crops, fishing, hunting and generally living off the land.
The land they could afford was three wooded acres in Old Town with a tiny hunter’s cabin located along the banks of Pushaw Stream. Jean-Charles and Leontine named the cabin the Twin’s Nest, for their twin sons, Oliver and Charles. Throughout the 1930s, the family spent summers there, catching pickerel, perch and bass, spying muskrats and porcupines, and listening to the serenade of whippoorwills and pewees.
Four of the five Larouche boys — Oliver, Charles, Roland, Eddie and Virgil — went on to serve in World War II. Eddie was an army cook, while the twins enlisted separately, with Charles entering the Marine Corps and Oliver joining the Navy. Both Charles and Roland, who was also in the Navy, fought in the Battle of Guadalcanal.
“They both knew the other one was there — Roland was watching from the ship, seeing the Marines land on Guadalcanal, while my father was watching the Japanese planes bombing the ship,” Stephanie Larouche said. “They were both wondering how anyone could have survived, and they didn’t know the other had made it until much later.”
All brothers survived the war, and today, a shrine stands at Hirundo honoring their service. All the brothers went on to careers and families — Roland working for a power company in Pennsylvania, Charles as a career military lawyer and Ollie as an electrical engineer in Massachusetts. When not working, however, Ollie was in Maine, and over the decades began to buy up bits and pieces of acreage surrounding the original three acres.
By the 1970s, Ollie and his wife, June, had, thanks to a bequest from family friend Parker Reed, amassed more than 2,000 acres and dubbed it Hirundo Wildlife Refuge. The Larouche family did the bulk of the work in that era, including building much of the 7 miles of trails stretched out across the land and flooding a large field to create Lac d’Or (Lake of Gold), a man-made pond that is now home to turtles, frogs and a wide array of birds.
In 1983, the couple deeded Hirundo’s 2,460 acres to the University of Maine in an arrangement through which UMaine owns the actual land to use for research and educational purposes, and Hirundo, a nonprofit organization, maintains the land and runs all public programming. Ollie died in 1996, Charles died in 2010 and June died in 2017.
The birds and the bees
Gudrun Keszocze, staff naturalist and program director at Hirundo since 2009, is in charge of much of the preserve’s daily tasks — from signing out canoes to visitors to keeping a close watch on the various creatures that arrive and depart as the seasons change.
“There is so much about this land that is special,” said Keszocze, who is also a registered Maine guide and experienced canoe and kayak instructor. “There is a great variety of habitat here, which means there’s a great variety of wildlife.”
Keszocze has worked closely with Stephanie Larouche over the past few years to expand Hirundo’s mission from one solely focused on preservation to one that places equal emphasis on recreation and education. In the past three years Hirundo has received more than $50,000 in grants to support the expansion of its educational programming and to make major improvements to its trail system.
Among the most popular events at Hirundo are the monthly Full Moon Paddles. Paddlers sit in 28-foot “war canoes” on loan from the Penobscot Riverkeepers, and each month during the full moon go on a two-hour paddle down the Pushaw and Dead streams in the moonlight.
“In May, we saw moose, we saw both green and blue herons, we saw beavers, we heard an American bittern, and saw a coyote pack,” Keszocze said. “This was all in one two-hour period one night. It was pretty incredible.”
There are an array of school programs that Keszocze offers at Hirundo, as well as a monthly series of workshops for adults on foraging for food and medicine in the wild. On the recreational side, though bicycles and motorized vehicles are not allowed, hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are popular activities, alongside canoeing and kayaking.
In 2017, as part of its mission to become more accessible to the public, Hirundo opened a long-planned new trail, geared toward people with limited mobility or visual impairments. The “Trail of the Senses,” as it is called, features little to no incline, a carefully graded, wheelchair-friendly, walkway and guide ropes along its entire half-mile. It passes through three distinct habitats — meadow, pond and forest — and has interpretive signs throughout.
“If you’re able to get out and hike, you can easily take for granted the fact that walking and climbing is easy for you,” Larouche said. “Nature should be accessible to everyone, and that’s what we are doing here.”
Getting the word out
Despite the fact that Hirundo was founded more than 50 years ago, it is still little-known in southern Penobscot County. Though it is located just 20 minutes from Bangor, even on a beautiful day in the summer, visitors can spend a day walking its more than 7 miles of trails or paddling in the Pushaw or Dead Stream and not encounter another person for hours.
Larouche and the rest of the board and Hirundo staffers have busily been trying to raise the preserve’s profile in the area. They recently entered into a partnership with the city of Old Town to promote Hirundo locally, and this year launched a new initiative called 1,000 Kids in Nature, which aims to bring 1,000 students in grades K-8 to Hirundo this year. Hirundo is also now featured on the Bangor Area Trail Map & Guide, published each year by Bangor Greendrinks.
The land on which Hirundo stands has been valued for many more generations than just the few since the Larouche family came there. In addition to its ecological significance, Hirundo is also the site of a stand of old-growth Eastern white pines underneath which stood an early Wabanaki peoples fishing village circa 5,000 B.C., which is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Excavated in 1972, the artifacts found there — including arrowheads, fishing artifacts and pottery — are now displayed at the Hudson Museum in Orono.
“There’s a reason why people first came here thousands of years ago,” Larouche said. “It’s the same reason my family came here. It has just about everything you need to survive.”
Hirundo Wildlife Refuge is open, free of charge, from dusk to dawn seven days a week, and parking is available at Gate 1, the entrance just off Route 43. From April 15 through Oct. 31, the Parker Reed Shelter is staffed from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesdays through Sundays, during which time canoes and kayaks are free to use, and parking at Gate 3 is available. Dogs are not allowed. For more information, visit hirundomaine.org.