Friday, January 25, 2019

A family winter hike at the Mill Brook Preserve

By Briana Bizier

The month of January brings up a lot of associations. Snowstorms, blizzards and freezing rain are probably just a few of the images that come to mind when someone mentions the first month of the year, specifically here in New England. Hiking through the woods, especially with children, is unlikely to top anyone’s list of Maine winter activities. But, even in January, it’s possible to enjoy a family friendly hike in the Maine woods! This past weekend’s sunny weather gave our family the perfect excuse to explore a local trail system in the off season.

Mill Brook Preserve in Westbrook is part of the Presumpscot Regional Land Trust’s system of
conserved land and public access preserves. One of the trailheads for Mill Brook is located directly off Route 302, just past Highland Lake, and my family has driven past the trailhead and peered down the picturesque stream for years. When my eight-year-old assistant told us on Sunday morning that she really wanted to go exploring in the woods, Mill Brook seemed like the perfect place for a local adventure.

According to the Presumpscot Regional Land Trust’s website, Mill Brook Preserve contains 130 acres and a five-mile trail system. The brook itself hosts an alewife migration from Casco Bay to Highland Lake during late May and early June. Like their larger and more famous piscine relatives in the salmon family, the small, silver alewife fish migrate from the ocean to spawn in local lakes. Although they only grow to around 11 inches long, the alewives are an important part of the local ecosystem. In Casco Bay they are an important food source for haddock, mackerel, and cod, and during their migration they provide food for raccoons, mink, herons, and ospreys. After reading a colorful sign about the importance of the alewife migration, we were forced to promise the children we could come back in the spring to look for the little, silver fish.

With bug spray,” my husband added.

The temperature at the Mill Brook Preserve’s northern trailhead was just above freezing on Sunday afternoon when we began our hike. All of us wore several layers beneath our jackets, and we put our little assistants in their snow pants as well, partially because the four-year-old likes to throw himself in the snow at every opportunity.

Although the sun was strong enough to send drops of melted snow sprinkling down from the treetops, the trail itself was covered with a thin layer of crunchy snow or, in some spots, ice. Although most of the trail is level and meandering, there are a few steep pitches. Yaktraks, or similar ice cleats, would have been a very good idea. We haven’t found ice cleats small enough for the kids, however, so our four-year-old assistant solved the problem by sliding down on his snow pants.

There are also a few sections of the trail which skirt cliffs on the edge of the river. These sections are clearly marked, and access to the very edge of the cliffs is barred with rope. As parents, my husband and I really appreciated the visual marker that kept curious kids from the edge of the cliff!

It being January, our family decided to only tackle the very first section of the trail from the northern trailhead, which was labeled “Family Friendly.” After hiking what this reporter thinks was about a mile, we stopped for snacks on a bench beside a beautiful bend in the river and then turned around to return to the car.

By that point, the adults were starting to get a bit cold. The kids, who had kept warm by running along the trail, balancing on fallen trees, and sliding down hills on their bottoms, begged to keep hiking until we reached the section of trail marked in red and labeled “Difficult.” Sadly, we had to explain that we only brought enough chocolate to fuel a one-mile trek.

Then can we please come back?” our eight-year-old pleaded.

I promised both of them we would return in a few months, with more chocolate and perhaps bug spray, to tackle the “Difficult” sections of the trail as we watch the brook for signs of migrating alewives.

If you’d like to explore Mill Brook Preserve this winter or watch for alewives this spring, you can access the trail from Route 302 in Westbrook. The northern trailhead is located at the intersection of Route 302 and Methodist Road, just south of the unmistakable Hawke’s Plaza sign with its iconic walking repairman.

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