Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Pine Tree State Arboretum


The Pine Tree State Arboretum is arguably the most interesting natural area in Augusta, offering ponds, wetlands, tree plantings, fields and dense woods. A wilder cousin of the genteel, groomed arboretums of bigger cities, the PTSA offers visitors a more adventuresome experience in trying to distinguish between the over 300 species and varieties of trees in the collections and the native growth.

Originally part of the vast State Hospital Farm that fed and employed the patients of the Augusta Mental Health Institute (AMHI) from 1840 until 1972, this 240-acre natural gem is owned by the state, but operated by a nonprofit organization under a 99-year lease. plagued by perennial funding and staffing shortages and maintained largely through volunteers, the Arboretum’s trails and tree and plant collections are somewhat worse for the wear, however the beauty and serenity of its quiet trails and wild landscape are well worth the minor inconveniences of broken boardwalks and neglected gardens. For those of us who enjoy these trails on a regular basis, becoming a member and/or volunteering our time gives us an opportunity to give back and help maintain the trails and facilities.

Nature lovers will appreciate the wide array of wildlife to be experienced at the Arboretum. Birds abound among the treetops—over 150 species have been sighted; I saw my first scarlet tanager, American redstart and American bittern here, to name a few—turtles sun themselves on half-sunken logs in Viles Pond, frogs sing from the wetlands, deer travel the woods and numerous species of dragonflies and butterflies color the fields throughout the summer.

Hikers may choose to hike one of the three main loop trails, or connect them in endless combinations using link trails, for a total of nearly five miles of hiking options. Be sure to pick up a map at the kiosk just north of the Viles Visitors Center—trails crisscross frequently with link trails and can be confusing, especially at junctures where there are no signs, although recently-painted tree blazes help to alleviate this problem. Maps are also posted at several points throughout the trails. Dogs are permitted on a leash. The Arboretum is open every day from dawn to dusk, year-round.

Groomed cross-country ski trails and marked snow-shoe routes extend the pleasures of the Arboretum year-round.

Getting There
The Pine Tree State Arboretum is located on the east side of Augusta, approximately 1 mile south of the Cony Circle rotary on left side of Hospital St. (Rt. 9). You can park either at the DEP visitor parking lot (turn left at the light on the Piggery Rd.) or at the Viles Visitor Center (turn left at the Arboretum sign). The official starting point for the trails is located near the old sugar maple just north of the Visitor Center. Pick up a map and membership brochure at this kiosk.

The Trails
Total trail distance: 5 miles

Viles Pond Loop
Difficulty: moderate
Hiking time: ½ hour
Blazes: red

The Viles Pond Loop trail offers a pleasant ramble through the woods and passes by many of the Arboretum’s more interesting natural and historical features. The trail starts near the Visitors Center, at the ancient sugar maple and can be enjoyed in its entirety, or used as an access point for the Woodland Loop. Some of the collections that can be viewed along the Viles Pond Loop include the black ash planting, heirloom apple collections, the Rhododendron Grove (come here in June to see these beauties in full bloom) and the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) Gardens. One of the loveliest spots along this trail and in the Arboretum is the Hosta Garden. Over 290 specimens from 190 varieties of hosta grace the wide, sloping gravel pathway, along with a variety of wildflowers, in the cool shade of graceful white birches. The first 100 hostas in the garden were moved here from the Arnold Arboretum’s collection at Case Estate in Weston, MA in 1994 and are tended by volunteers from the Maine Hosta Society.

The Viles Pond Loop also treats visitors to views of a brick well that houses the valves and pumps that ran the hospital’s vast waterworks and the enormous cistern that held the water for the hospital and now houses the Johnson Education Center, a covered outdoor classroom. Despite its name, the loop merely skirts the west bank of Viles Pond, a small, shallow, manmade body of water that nevertheless teems with wildlife. To get a better view of the pond, rather than turning right at the sign, go straight, past the Piggery, the concrete and metal remains of the building that once housed the pigs raised to feed the State Hospital’s patients until 1944 when it was destroyed by fire, and the farm discontinued raising pigs. Beyond the Piggery, this link trail passes Viles Pond along its north shore, offering visitors a resting spot on a large granite bench. Retrace your steps back to the sign to continue the Viles Pond Loop. The Viles Pond Loop meets the Woodland Loop in a clearing on its southeast corner, but link trails provide access to both of the other trails at several points along the trail.

The Woodland Loop
Hiking time: ½ hour (plus time on connecting trails getting there)
Difficulty: moderate
Blazes: green

The Woodland Loop takes you on a gentle upland hike through the Arboretum’s fragrant pine woods and demonstration tree farms. One of the highlights the Woodland Loop offers is the Space Shuttle Pines, whose seeds traveled aboard the space shuttle Atlantis in 1991, orbiting the earth 93 times and traveling 24 million miles. Upon their return to Earth, the seeds were grown into seedlings and planted here during Arbor Week 1994 by Kennebec County 4-H members and International Paper. Unfortunately, the pines have been vandalized in recent years, as evidenced by the broken and missing tops of several trees.

The Woodland Loop trail takes you past a tree harvest demonstration project and clear-cut demonstration. Both of these projects fulfill part of the Arboretum’s mission as a Demonstration Tree Farm. Near the bottom of a gentle hill, the Woodland Loop passes the Constitution Pine, the Arboretum’s oldest and tallest tree, which dates back to 1787.

The Outer Loop
Hiking Time: 2 hours
Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult
Blazes: Blue

The Outer Loop passes through the most remote and wilderness-like sections of the Arboretum. Unfortunately, this longest of the Arboretum’s trails is closed due to lack of staff time for mowing and maintenance and a broken boardwalk at the “Wetlands Enhancement Project,” on the northern branch of the loop. Segments of the trail are still in good condition and are accessible from the other loops and link trails. One especially lovely section begins at the Governor’s Grove and enters the deep woods. Walk quietly through this dark, mossy forest and you may hear the haunting song of the veery in a high treetop. The trail passes a small open area with a vernal pool and a nearby picnic table before entering another thickly wooded area. A short way beyond this area, the official Outer Loop route, passes a sign that warns “unmaintained trail beyond this point.” Beyond the sign, the trail becomes thickly overgrown with tall grasses for a fair distance, and crosses a couple of wet areas via wobbly but serviceable bog bridges. To avoid the unmaintained section, take a right at the fork in the trail just prior to the sign, and continue on to the Woodland Loop. The southernmost branch of the Outer Loop passes between the Larch Plantation and Green Ash Plantation and joins up with the Woodland Loop before heading off into unmaintained territory.

Kid-Friendly Factor
I have traveled much of the Arboretum with a jogging stroller (both single and double), but it is a workout and some areas are simply impassable. A more practical way to travel with small children is to carry them in a backpack, sling or front carrier. Toddlers will enjoy running around in the grass and trekking short distances along the trails. For preschoolers and older children, the Arboretum offers a wealth of opportunities for exploration and adventure. The frog and turtle-filled ponds will be especially attractive, but the trails, fields, trees and historic remains will all provide endless fascination. At the Sugar Maple kiosk, you can pick up a Quest brochure which takes you on a 10-question scavenger hunt throughout the Arboretum’s trails. This is a great way to engage school-age children in the history and nature of the Arboretum and to become better acquainted with some of the lesser-known trails.

Getting Involved
To become a member or volunteer visit or call 207-621-0031.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Augusta Greenway Trail


Paralleling the Kennebec River on its east bank, the Augusta Greenway Trail offers a quiet alternative to the busier Rail Trail. Although this gravel walkway dead-ends after only a mile, it offers a pleasant, shady stroll with numerous granite benches for resting and viewing the river. The Greenway is a lesson in contrast; it gives visitors a view of the underbelly of Augusta—Memorial Bridge, the snow dump, stormwater overflow pipes, invasive plants—while at the same time birdsong chimes from the trees and shrubs along the trail and cooling breezes drift up from the river. Signs showing a map of the Greenway and providing information about the river’s wildlife appear frequently along the trail. Unfortunately the signs, as well as many of the granite benches have been marred by graffiti.

Getting There
The Augusta Greenway Trail officially starts at the northern terminus of the Kennebec River Rail Trail, in the Maine State Housing Authority parking lot, proceeds north through the Waterfront Park, crosses the river on the Father Curran bridge and then heads south behind Old Fort Western and City Hall. However, if you’re not meeting the Greenway from the KRRT and want to avoid all that urban interface, start from Eastside Boat Landing Park. Take Arsenal Street from Cony/Bridge Street, turn right on Williams Street just past Augusta City Center, and left onto Howard Street, which takes you into the park.

The Trail
Distance: 1 mile (one-way)
Walking time: 1 hour (round-trip)
Difficulty: Easy

From Eastside Boat Landing Park, the Augusta Greenway Trail proceeds south along the river, passing under Memorial Bridge and along the snow dump. The trail takes a fairly straight and level path under a canopy of box elders and other hardwood trees. At about the halfway point, the trail climbs a slight rise and comes into an open area, passing by the soon-to-be-redeveloped Kennebec Arsenal. This collection of eight granite buildings and the recently-restored retaining wall and wharf dates back to the Northeast Boundary Conflict and is the best surviving example of an early nineteenth century munitions depot. Be sure to take a short side trip down the steep granite staircase to get a closer look at the magnificent retaining wall and dock, made up of enormous blocks of granite, and recently restored through a Save America’s Treasures grant. South of the Arsenal, the Greenway becomes wooded again. This part of the trail seems wider and more road-like than the northern segment, perhaps for some maintenance purpose. At a point almost directly behind Riverview Psychiatric Center, the Greenway dead-ends, with no established connecting trails through the AMHI campus to the nearby Arboretum. An adventuresome hiker might choose to climb the steep, weedy hill here or a few-hundred yards north, just below the giant smokestack, but for the casual walker, turning around and returning to the starting point offers the best bet.

Kid-Friendly Factor
The Greenway’s broad, level path is great for strollers, although those with bigger, chunkier wheels do better on its gravel surface. The fairly short distance makes it do-able for beginning hikers or bikers, and they may feel more comfortable on this trail than the busier Rail Trail. The Eastside Park has a beautiful playground for pre- or post-hiking fun, although I avoid it with my toddlers because the smaller slides and ladders are part of the same structure as very high platforms and ladders that make me nervous with two little ones. The park also has picnic tables and a small grassy area for running around.

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