Mount Tom (Fryeburg, ME)

In January 2020, I hiked Mount Tom (1,073 ft) via the West Ridge Trail, an approximately 3.5 mile out-and-back from the parking lot for Mount Tom Preserve at Menotomy Road in Fryeburg, which took about an hour and fifteen minutes.  Like Hawk Mountain and Mount Tire’m, which I did earlier the same day, this is a short but rewarding Oxford Hills hike.  This can also be done as an approximately 4-mile loop hike by continuing after the summit to the Mount Tom Trail, then returning south on Menotomy Road, which is usually relatively quiet, to the start point.

Kiosk and start of West Ridge Trail from Nature Conservancy parking lot, Mount Tom Preserve, Fryeburg, Maine.
Kiosk and start of West Ridge Trail from Nature Conservancy parking lot, Mount Tom Preserve, Fryeburg, Maine.

This parking lot, and the Preserve, which includes the summit, are maintained by The Nature Conservancy (TNC).  TNC’s excellent description of the Preserve follows:

Mt. Tom Preserve protects a silver and red maple floodplain along the Saco River, and includes the rocky summit of Mount Tom at 1,040 feet in elevation. The 995-acre preserve spans the Saco River and boasts over 3,500 feet of river frontage. Several day-use hiking trails provide recreational opportunities, as does as a 1.14 mile seasonal snowmobile trail that is part of a larger network maintained by the Interstate Sno-goers. Visitors can summit Mt. Tom, canoe along the Saco River, or just walk through the beautiful forests!

River terrace forests support clean water for resident native fish, invertebrates, and other animals that use river beaches. The floodplains provide excellent habitat for spotted salamanders and several species of turtles, with a lush understory of sensitive fern and royal fern. Two regionally rare birds–the golden eagle and peregrine falcon–have been regularly sighted near the rocky cliffs of Mt. Tom, during the breeding season. Two rare plants–the fern-leaved false foxglove and smooth sandwort–have also been found within the dry oak-hickory forest on the south facing slope of the mountain, and old eastern red cedars dot the hillside.

View south from West Ridge Trail, Mount Tom, Fryeburg, Maine.
View south from West Ridge Trail, Mount Tom, Fryeburg, Maine.

The West Ridge Trail, marked by white blazes and small TNC emblems, rolls across that floodplain, crossing small brooks, passing ghostly birches and large rock formations, until becoming steep about a mile in.

West Ridge Trail, Mount Tom Preserve, Fryeburg, Maine.
West Ridge Trail, Mount Tom Preserve, Fryeburg, Maine.

The trail ascends the ridge, with frequent views through clearings in the trees, to meet the Mount Tom Trail, at which point, it turns right, and shortly thereafter, reaches the summit and its rocky ledges and views.

Mount Tom summit, Fryeburg, Maine.
Mount Tom summit, Fryeburg, Maine.

The descent in winter was easy, with microspikes, and I saw several other groups, all with dogs, ascending the trail on my way back.  An added benefit in winter was the lack of bugs, which would be omnipresent in the late spring and early summer in the first portion of the trail.  This hike may be challenging for very young or out-of-condition hikers, but presents an easy to moderate walk in the woods, with views to the south of the Saco River Valley.

West Ridge Trail in winter, Mount Tom Preserve, Fryeburg, Maine.
West Ridge Trail in winter, Mount Tom Preserve, Fryeburg, Maine.

Mount Tire’m (Waterford, ME)

Mount Tire’m (1,104 ft) is a short (1.3 miles, appx. 35 minutes) out-and-back hike via the Daniel Brown Trail, right in the village of Waterford.  I hiked it recently in the winter, but this is an all-season hike, presenting a brief, but moderately steep climb.  A story, too convenient to be anything but apocryphal, has the name coming from the Pequawket tribe near Fryeburg saying the climb would “tire um out.”

Daniel Brown Trail, Mount Tire'm, Waterford, Maine
Daniel Brown Trail, Mount Tire’m, Waterford, Maine

The trailhead is located just uphill from the Waterford Congregational Church on Plummer Hill Road, with parking on the shoulder.  While there wasn’t much snow, the grade of the climb and the ice had me pulling on micro-spikes fairly early.

Views from Mount Tire'm, Waterford, Maine, including Pleasant Mountain and Shawnee Peak.
Views from Mount Tire’m, Waterford, Maine, including Pleasant Mountain and Shawnee Peak.

The summit area includes some rock formations and a “cave,” a glacial erratic, which is popular with children, as well as summer blueberries.  The sparse winter vegetation and abundant sun allowed for more light through the trees, and views throughout of nearby Keoka Lake, to the east.

View of Keoka Lake through the trees, Daniel Brown Trail, Mount Tire'm, Waterford, Maine
View of Keoka Lake through the trees, Daniel Brown Trail, Mount Tire’m, Waterford, Maine

This well-packed and frequently used trail was relatively empty on this winter weekend morning, with only two other hikers, a fit older couple with a dog.  In this quiet, I could hear the wind rattling and rustling through the winter forest’s dried leaves, the distinctive squawking of crows and intermittent chickadee songs.

Daniel Brown Trail, Mount Tire'm, Waterford, Maine
Snowy Daniel Brown Trail, Mount Tire’m, Waterford, Maine

Hawk Mountain (Waterford, ME)

Hawk Mountain (1047 ft to 1070 ft, depending on who you trust) is a small mountain in Waterford, Maine, with sweeping views of the Lakes Region and Oxford Hills.  Maps and information are available at the Western Foothills Land Trust website.  Trails at the Hatch Preserve at Hawk Mountain are open year-round for hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing, and for my recent hike, I chose a cold late December day.

View north at sunrise, ascending Hawk Mountain, Waterford, ME
View north at sunrise, looking back from the ascent of Hawk Mountain, Waterford, ME

The trails are not well-marked (the website delicately describes the preserve as a little “wounded”), but I summited and enjoyed the views via an ungainly, but very easy, 1.9 mile loop using what I believed to be the Europe and Cyrus trails, taking about 45 minutes.  The fastest way to the top is an approximately 1.4 mile out and back.

Winter sunrise on Hawk Mountain, Waterford, ME
Winter sunrise on Hawk Mountain, Waterford, ME

The parking area on Hawk Mountain Road is well-maintained, and a kiosk contains a small map, walking sticks to borrow, and reminders to carry out what you have carried in.  There were sled tracks and footprints on the trails, but the paths were empty and climbed gradually up, opening out on views to the east.

Forest on Hawk Mountain, Waterford, ME
Forest on Hawk Mountain, Waterford, ME

A short walk back west across the ridge leads to the scenic vista on town land overlooking the Oxford foothills, with views across to Pleasant Mountain.  I didn’t need snowshoes or trekking poles for this simple hike, but some micro-spikes would have been helpful for traction on the packed, icy descent (an alternative would have been a piece of cardboard and a crash helmet, to slide down).

Pleasant Mountain and the Oxford Hills from Hawk Mountain, Waterford, ME
Pleasant Mountain, Shawnee Peak, and the Oxford Hills from Hawk Mountain, Waterford, ME

This is not a very challenging hike, but might be just the size and grade for young children, making it a perfect all-season hike for families in the Lakes Region, with a great picnic spot on top, and big views.

5 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcast Episodes of 2019

It is that time for end-of-year lists.  Last year, we listed our top ten hiking and outdoors podcasts for 2018.  For 2019, we changed the format, and drilled down further, zeroing in on our five favorite hiking and outdoors individual podcast episodes.  We focused on a few distinguishing factors. Was it interesting and inspiring? Was it fun, unique, new? Did it stimulate further discussion, reading, or research?

Based on those criteria, below are the five best hiking and outdoors podcast episodes we listened to in 2019, with a brief description of each podcast.

A warning – playing podcasts or music on external speakers while hiking is basically a capital offense.  Playing podcasts or music through headphones/earbuds while hiking is somewhere in the spectrum of inadvisable to mortally dangerous.  Just from a common sense standpoint, why would you want to have your hearing and attention somewhere else if you want to maximize the benefits of being immersed in the outdoors (or, more basically, fail to hear the bear you just startled)?  All that being said, hike your own hike.

Tree on Second Hill, Mount Agamenticus
Tree on Second Hill, Mount Agamenticus

Off Track - ABC Radio National

1. The Chase – Back From The Dead (February 9, 2019) from Off Track

“All this fuss about a little green bird.”  It’s a short mystery about a possibly extinct bird, but a story much more revealing about the humans surrounding it, all in a uniquely Australian way.  To be clear, this podcast was recommended by the consistently excellent Outside/In podcast from New Hampshire Public Radio, and we were hooked after hearing the story of the night parrot.

Audio quality is very important to host Ann Jones, whose whispered voice sets up the unique nature sounds of Australia’s bush.  The story of the night parrot occurs three to four days’ drive from the nearest town, a setup for the introduction of lively characters obsessed with a tiny, elusive nocturnal bird.  Jones presents the tale with a full 360 view of the conservation issues of the past, present, and future, and voices from indigenous Australians relaying both science and legend.

(Hint: if you are unable to find the episode on the podcast app you use, look for Outside/In Podcast episode “Hunting the Night Parrot” from March 14, 2019.)


 

10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018

2. Leave No Stone (February 14, 2019) from Outside/In

Host Taylor Quimby starts this episode with the story of a small memorial stone engraved with a name atop a New Hampshire mountain, and proceeds to a surprisingly polarizing discussion of what Leave No Trace actually means.  In the backdrop of intensifying recreational use of the outdoors, what mark does human use leave on the land?  And with a larger and more varied segment of society using the back country, is Leave No Trace open to interpretation?

Through interviews and social media, Quimby and the Outside/In crew conduct a whimsical exploration of the deployment of decorative stones and painted “kindness rocks,” cairns, blazes, graffiti, and even a plastic skeleton.  There are those who create and disperse these items, and those who remove them from the landscape, and no matter which side you fall on, this is an interesting discussion.


Backpacker_Radio_new_art3. Episode 37: Jenny & Scott Jurek on the Appalachian Trail Speed Record, Parenting, and What’s Next (May 10, 2019) from Backpacker Radio

This is the longest episode on our list by far, at 2 hours and 28 minutes, but the time moves quickly.  Ultrarunner Scott Jurek has been interviewed before, but this Backpacker Radio episode, hosted by Tom “Jabba” Gathman and Zach “Badger” Davis, is fascinating, with a softer, humanizing touch, starting with Scott’s wife Jenny Jurek and their children in-studio.  Scott talks about his journey in ultra-running, leading up to his record-breaking (at the time) Fastest Known Time (FKT) of the Appalachian Trail in 2015.

Maybe it’s the family atmosphere, maybe it’s the common ground built between a jet-lagged Jabba and Scott Jurek over the “burly” state of Pennsylvania, but this episode hits its stride about 15 minutes in, and becomes a captivating discussion of the outdoors, family, fame, love, friendship, and grueling feats of endurance.


 

10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018

4. Episode 117: Safer Alone in the Backcountry (June 19, 2019) from She Explores

Gale Straub’s series focuses on female exploration, and this episode provides perspective about the safety of hiking in relation to the daily life of some, and the freedom of the outdoors.  This is an interview of Sarah Grothjan, a survivor of stalking, alone in a new state, whose deeper excursions into the backcountry helped her through the ordeal.

Frustrated by the inefficacy of law enforcement, Grothjan relied upon hiking (and support from friends) to feel safe, to find community, to cope with a traumatizing time, and to reclaim independence.  The episode explores the differences between male and female perceptions of safety, the rise in acceptance of female solo hiking, and the skills and confidence built by the outdoors.


10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018

5. Episode 108: The Power of Choice with Edith Eger (May 20, 2019) from Wild Ideas Worth Living

Host Shelby Stanger enthusiastically interviews leaders who break the mold and live wild.  We have no idea what, if any, is Edith Eger’s backpack of choice, but at 91 years old, she is indisputedly, as Stanger says, one of the most “badass people” we’ve ever heard.  Eger grew up in Hungary, and was in training for the Hungarian Olympic Gymnastics team when, in May 1944, she was taken with her family to Auschwitz.  Eger survived, and eventually emigrated to the United States, where she earned her doctorate in psychology, using her training and experience to help survivors of trauma, and authoring the 2017 book “The Choice.”  Eger’s story, her advice, and her perspective are an enthralling journey of perseverance and grace, told in her own voice.


 

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Acadia National Park in 60 Seconds

We received this video submission from a reader through the Contact Us link, and were happy to repost, as Acadia National Park shared with friends to good music (with a nod to Friends of Acadia) checks a lot of boxes for us.  The producer was Patrick J. Lynch, and the music by Doctor Turtle, Often Outmumbled, Never Outpunned.  As snow falls here in Maine, nice to re-visit the possibilities of early summer.

Mill Brook Preserve (Westbrook, ME)

Information kiosk at Northern Trailhead, Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME
Information kiosk at Northern Trailhead, Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME

Westbrook, with its proximity to Portland and its gritty mill background, does not instantly come to mind when thinking about hiking in Maine. But Mill Brook Preserve is a 130 acre section of delightfully unlikely green space in Westbrook along Mill Brook, bounded by Route 302 and Methodist Road.  The five miles of trails in the preserve, suitable for hiking, mountain biking, and snowshoeing, can be accessed from four different trailheads.  The best information and trail map can be found at the website of the Presumpscot Regional Land Trust, which holds this land, and coordinates the 28-mile Sebago to the Sea Trail.

Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME
Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME

In late May and early June, alewives migrate from Casco Bay upstream in the Presumpscot River, then to Highland Lake through this narrow brook, drawing visitors to the flashing, silvery spectacle. Due to the variation in the flow, breadth, and depth of the Brook, two viewing areas (one north, one south) are identified on the trail map for maximum observation of the alewives’ run.

The Northern Fish Viewing Pool is closest to the MAGAN/Willow Dr trailhead, and the Southern Fish Viewing Pool is by the Methodist trailhead. A note of caution for those attempting a loop – the trail to the east side of Mill Brook from the Southern Trailhead on Perry Court is missing a bridge, and crossing can be anywhere from muddy to difficult in rainy periods.

Flora and fauna, Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME
Flora and fauna, Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME

Alewives are not the only wildlife to be found in the forest valley of Mill Brook Preserve. The Preserve abounds with life, from beautiful and unique insects to small mammals and birds, to wildflowers and vines hanging with Concord grapes. One one recent trip in the early fall, I saw a handful of garter snakes sunning themselves on the sandy trail near the Perry Court trailhead.

Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME
Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME

The mosquitoes and biting flies can be intense in the early summer, or in the evenings. The trails are quiet and mostly bug-free in the fall, and the spacing of the trees in the young forest creates a patchwork of light and foliage.

The Presumpscot Regional Land Trust also recently opened (in October 2019) a new 1.5 mile loop trail through 32 acres of forest in Mill Brook Preserve South, accessible from a parking area at Millbrook Estates off East Bridge Street in Westbrook. This southernmost trail of the Preserve does not currently connect with the northern side.

Afternoon light, Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME
Afternoon light, Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME

The trails are not difficult, overall, but the narrow, winding path up and down ridges in the middle section between the MAGAN and Methodist trailheads might challenge some hikers. Thankfully, the trails provide enough variety that this should not preclude hikers of any ability from enjoying this suburban forest oasis. Navigation along the trails is also forgiving and self-correcting, with maps posted at critical intersections throughout the Preserve.

Mill Brook Preserve in Westbrook, ME, is an unexpected swath of forest, water, and wildlife in the Portland metro area, with five miles of trails and activities for everyone.

Mariaville Falls Preserve (Mariaville, ME)

Mariaville Falls, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Union River, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME

Mariaville Falls Preserve in Mariaville, Maine, is a conservation area along the banks of the West Branch of the Union River in Hancock County, owned and managed by the Frenchman Bay Conservancy, which has a trail map on its website.  This woods and waters gem, the former site of a small village, lies off 181 between Amherst and Ellsworth (look for the wooden sign on the west side of 181).

Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME

We were fortunate enough to visit on a sunny day during the peak of autumn foliage.  The trails are short, and the Fisherman’s Trail (.85 mi) follows the river, with the New Trail (.48 mi) looping further east from the first parking area (look for the kiosk), and joining the Fisherman’s Trail near the falls.

Fall colors, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Fall colors, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Union River, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Union River, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME

We walked slowly, and made the trip out and back from the second (gravel pit) parking area along the Fisherman’s Trail in about 35 to 40 minutes.  The trail is steep in places, but this walk is short enough to be suitable for kids, and the views of the falls are excellent, particularly in foliage season.

Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Observation bench, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Observation bench, Fisherman’s Trail, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME

A bench sits high above the rapids, a contemplative spot to pause and enjoy the view.  Those feeling more adventurous can scramble down closer to observe the falls more closely.  Those in transit in the Downeast region, or anyone looking for a short hike in the area, will enjoy this small but beautiful place.

Union River, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Union River, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME