The sun hovered just above the trees as I walked along the banks of Lac D’Or. In the shadows, a small painted turtle lounged on a half-submerged log. A chipmunk scurried 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 chock-full of nature and beauty.
Ahead of me, the Pond Trail was wide and surfaced with hard-packed crushed stone. Measuring a half-mile, it was designed specifically for visitors who have impaired mobility and senses. It’s wheelchair-accessible, plus it includes a rope handrail. Benches are spaced out along its length.
As I followed the trail, I quickly formed the opinion that it was one of the nicest wheelchair-accessible trails I’ve seen. Bending around the pond, it explored a shady forest, passing interpretive signs about local wildlife and habitats along the way. The trail ended at a wooden observation platform, perched over the pond’s edge.
There I spotted a second turtle, lying on a log among the lily pads.
Nearby, the shorter (0.15 miles) Meadow Trail was also designed with accessibility in mind. It offers views of a meadow that’s filled with nesting boxes, a great place to go birding in the spring and summer.
In a place as rocky and root-filled as Maine, wheelchair-accessible trails that travel through the wilderness are pretty rare, though I have noticed more being built in recent years. Every time I find one, I get excited. It’s important that everyone can experience the joy of being surrounded by nature. Clearly the folks at Hirundo agree.
Hirundo is home to more than 7 miles of intersecting trails. That afternoon, I didn’t have time to walk them all. So, using a map to navigate, I just sort of moseyed around.
From the Pond Trail, I turned onto the Pushaw Stream Trail. I carefully stepped over roots and rocks, my boots occasionally squishing in mud, as I made my way down to the sunny banks of the stream.
White-breasted nuthatches chirped while brown creepers darted up tree trunks. A red squirrel spotted me and instantly took offense, chattering and stomping its feet.
High in the oak trees, blue jays cracked and dropped acorns. I was a little concerned I might catch an acorn in the head. The thuds they produced when they hit the ground were intimidatingly loud.
I made my way over to the Wabanaki Trail to visit another section of Pushaw Stream and read interpretive signs about alewives and birch bark canoes. The trail was named in honor of the area’s Indigenous people, who lived on the property for more than 5,000 years.
An archeological dig conducted there in the 1970s uncovered evidence of that long history. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Fall colors had started to seep into the trees along the shore. Red, orange and gold leaves adorned the tips of their longest branches, while the rest of the foliage held onto shades of green. Reflected in the water, the scene was doubly enchanting.
Heading 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, though I had to rely on my eyes rather than my ears to find them. During the fall, birds are a lot quieter than they are in spring and summer.
I paused often, searching for the flutter of wings. Through that method, I spotted several goldfinches and black-capped chickadees. I watched a hairy woodpecker drill holes in a half-dead tree. And I followed the flight of a northern flicker, which perched in a tree to survey a field. I wonder what it was looking for.
The property was filled with chipmunks, which were busy storing seeds and nuts for winter. I watched as one stuffed an acorn into its cheek.
During my brief visit, I saw just a handful of other people — a group of three, a couple and a solo walker. On such a large property, there was plenty of room for us to spread out and give one other space.
I’d visited Hirundo several times before that day. I’d visited in the winter, when the forest was cloaked with snow. And I’d 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 autumn, those natural delights included an abundance of mushrooms growing in the forest and bright blue berries adorning bushes in the fields. Aspen trees had started to drop yellow leaves, and maples were blushing red.
Evidence of wild animals could be found everywhere. Down by the stream, the wooden post of one of the interpretive signs had been gnawed at by a beaver. Another interpretive sign by the meadow was streaked with bird poop. It must be a good spot to perch.
If you’ve never been to Hirundo, I highly suggest you put it on your list of outdoor destinations to explore. But you’ll have to leave your dog at home. They aren’t permitted 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 amazing outdoor destination. If you know anyone who uses a wheelchair or walker or baby stroller, let them know about the accessible trails at Hirundo. And for nature lovers looking to hike rougher trails, the preserve contains plenty of those, too.
Access is free, though donations are welcome. The refuge is constantly hosting events such as group paddles and educational workshops. To learn more, visit hirundomaine.org.