New wheelchair-accessible Trail of the Senses takes shape in Alton

Posted by: Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

The dip in temperature was significant as the wide, smooth trail veered from the sunlit banks of the pond to enter a dark conifer forest. Earthy scents of sap, overripe mushrooms, damp soil and moss mingled in the cool air. And scattered along the trail, breaking up its freshly packed surface, were bunches of long pine needles, mixed with dead aspen and maple leaves.

Completed this fall, the wheelchair-accessible Lac D’Or Trail at Hirundo Wildlife Refuge in Alton is already starting to blend into its natural surroundings. Constructed by students of the University of Maine Department of Engineering and Technology, it is the second pathway in the refuge’s new wheelchair-accessible Trail of the Senses network.

“It will highlight what we have at Hirundo and make it accessible to everybody,” Hirundo naturalist Gudrun Keszöcze, who designed the new trails, said.

The Trail of the Senses network is a three-phase project, consisting of three distinct wheelchair-accessible pathways: the Loop Trail, Lac D’Or Trail and Riffle Trail.

Construction of this network began in fall of 2016, when Keszöcze worked with students from the University of Maine Department of Engineering and Technology to build the first trail in the network: the 0.15-mile Loop Trail, which starts at Hirundo’s main parking lot and travels through a mixed forest and a field dotted with bird nesting boxes. Along the way, the trail has nature stations, displays that visitors can interact with to learn more about their immediate surroundings through their five senses.

Topics of these stations include fungi, lichen, glaciers, oak trees, tree swallows and the difference between grasses, sedges and rushes. And all of these displays refer to a natural feature located right beside the trail, such as a granite boulder dropped on the landscape by a retreating glacier and a log covered with mushrooms.

“The whole idea is to bring people into the environment,” Keszöcze said. “And of course, if you can enjoy it, if you know it’s there, you might want to protect it.”

Surfaced with gravel and stone dust, the smooth pathway is 6 feet wide and bordered by a rope handrail strung between wooden posts. Along the rope, wooden blocks have been placed at the location of each nature station, so visitors who are blind will know the location of each station and can pair them with an audio tour, which is still in the making.

The second phase of the project, the 0.17-mile Lac D’Or Trail, was constructed just this fall, again by students of the University of Maine Department of Engineering and Technology. In fact, the students are still putting the finishing touches on the wheelchair-accessible observation deck located at the end of the trail, on the shore of Lac D’Or, a manmade pond. This spot is ideal for watching wildlife, including a variety of ducks that visit the refuge at different times of year and a myriad of frogs.

“They were really really sensitive to the environment,” Keszöcze said of the students. “[The trail] fits in nicely.”

The cost of the first two phases of the project was estimated at $39,000, which includes the costs of materials and permits, as well as the value of in-kind donations and volunteer labor.

A number of organizations, businesses and individuals have contributed to the project so far through donations and volunteer work, Keszöcze said. These supporters include numerous Hirundo board members and volunteers; the Davis Conservation Foundation; Fields Pond Foundation; Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands Recreational Trails Program; National Parks Service; and Varney Agency. In addition, discounts were given to the project for materials by Sargent Corporation; American Concrete; Owen J. Folsom Inc.; A.H. Harris & Sons, Inc., and Hammond Lumber.

The third and final phase in the project, the 0.19-mile Riffle Trail, is still in the planning phases. Mapped out to travel down to the banks of Pushaw Stream, the trail would travel close to the water over land that has been determined to be an archeological site, meaning the project will need to receive approval from multiple agencies before any construction is started. “They did excavation and found artifacts dating back 4,500 years and potentially older,” Gudrun said. “If this ever gets approved, it’s going to be very tricky.”

Hirundo is seeking funding to create the nature stations along the Lac D’Or Trail, as well as funding and support for the archeological survey required to move forward on the creation of the Riffle Trail.

If interested in supporting the project, email [email protected] or call 207-394-2171.