The trail dropped abruptly, diving into a dark forest. Evergreens towered overhead, their needled branches mingling to block out the sky.
Downhill, I could hear the dull roar of Patten Stream as it swept around fern-topped boulders and churned at the base of tiny waterfalls. Having visited the preserve before, I knew that the trail would eventually lead me to the streambank, where I was hoping to find some interesting ice formations.
Located in the small coastal town of Surry, Patten Stream Preserve covers 41 acres along the east side of Patten Stream, just above where it empties into Patten Bay. That section of the stream twists back and forth like a snake, winding through the forest.
The preserve is owned and managed by the Blue Hill Heritage Trust, a nonprofit organization that has protected more than 11,800 acres in the Blue Hill region. Founded in 1985, the land trust constructs trails on many of its properties, and I’ve visited most of them.
I first visited Patten Stream Preserve in September of 2015. But it’s amazing how quickly I forget the details of adventures (thank goodness I take so many photos and write notes). When I returned to the property this month, I really didn’t know what to expect. I recalled the stream being beautiful, and that’s about it.
When I reached the South Loop, I decided I wasn’t in a hurry, so I turned away from the stream and hiked the east side of the loop first, enjoying the quiet forest. Accompanying me on the mini adventure my dog, Juno, dug her nails into the frozen earth as she strained to sniff every moss-lined nook and cranny of the woods.
At the next intersection, I found a letterbox, a little wooden cubby that contained a unique rubber stamp — it was an image of star-shaped flowers. Letterboxes are part of a worldwide game that includes finding letterboxes and stamping notebooks. It’s a mixture of outdoor adventure and art.
We took the connector trail to the North Loop, which is the larger of the two. Again, I chose to walk away from the stream, knowing we’d loop back around to it. I often like to save the best things for last.
Sunlight streamed through the canopy. Snow dusted the mossy forest floor. Juno found a particularly fascinating set of orange shelf mushrooms. All was right with the world.
At last we met the stream on a rocky bend. Ice, stacked in mesmerizing patterns, lined the bank. A thick layer of ice also coated the boulders scattered throughout the streambed, like icing on cake. They sparkled in the sun.
I held tightly to Juno’s leash, worried she’d leap into the frigid water. And even though I wore ice cleats for traction, I was nervous when crossing the footbridges that spanned an offshoot of the stream. If Juno had jumped in, it wouldn’t have been an emergency, but it would have been a cold and uncomfortable walk back to the trailhead.
On a mossy hump near the streambank, I spotted a tiny, red object. As I drew near, I realized it was a painted rock. Just a bit larger than a marble, the strawberry-shaped rock had been painted red with yellow stripes, and on the top was a painted green leaf and ladybug. It was quite intricate for such a small canvas.
My first reaction was to smile. I’ve seen painted rocks before, nestled in flower beds and perched on park benches. A couple years ago, I heard about a local group that shares their rock art. It’s called “Bangor ROCKS!”
I think painted rocks are fun to look at. They spark a bit of joy in me. On the other hand, they might not be welcome on conserved properties where people go to enjoy nature. Painted rocks are similar to fairy houses and visitor-made cairns (rock piles) in that way. They’re a display of creativity and happiness, but they aren’t right for every place.
At the end of the day, I think the best thing to do is ask the landowner what’s OK to leave on their property. Unsure, I left the tiny piece of art behind. It’s probably buried in snow now.
The biggest treat of the day came near the end of our hike.
Following blue blazes painted on trees, we completed the North Loop, then started to navigate around the South Loop. Along the way, we took a short side trail to the water. And there I encountered a whimsical sight: ice pancakes.
I’d seen them before, but only in photos sent to me by fellow Mainers. Ice pancakes are little frozen discs that float on the surface of the water. I’m not sure how they form, but I imagine it has something to do with current pushing around the foam that forms along the edges of waterways.
The ice pancakes on Patten Stream were actually caught in an eddy. I watched as they circled to the shore and out again in a counter-clockwise pattern.
Happy with our icy discoveries, I led Juno back to the trailhead.
If interested in learning more about Patten Stream Preserve, check out the Blue Hill Heritage Trust virtual presentation “BHHT Story of Place: Patten Stream & the 5th Anniversary of the Alewife Restoration Project” on YouTube.