Difficulty: Easy. The 3.1-mile trail network is on fairly even terrain and easy to navigate thanks to plenty of signs and posted maps along the way.
How to get there: From Route 1 in Freeport, turn onto Bow Street (across from the L.L.Bean flagship store). Drive about 1 mile and turn left onto Upper Mast Landing Road. Drive about 0.2 miles and turn right onto the driveway to the sanctuary. Follow signs to the parking area, which is to the left by the picnic tables.
Information: Founded by Maine Audubon in 1962 on land donated by the L.M.C. Smith family, the Mast Landing Audubon Sanctuary is 140 acres of fields, old apple orchards, tidal marshland and mixed forest, including stands of mature white pine and hemlock. Located along the Harraseeket River estuary, the sanctuary also includes Mill Stream, which runs over a historic dam before flowing into the Harraseeket River.
The name of the sanctuary was derived from the land’s history. In the 1700s, white pines located on sanctuary land and throughout southern Maine forests were valued as excellent material for building ship masts. Loggers used to haul trees felled on the sanctuary to a nearby ship landing.
The sanctuary’s Mill Stream once powered a saw mill, a textile mill, two gristmills and a woodworking shop, all of which were destroyed by a fire in the 1860s. Their foundations are visible where Mill Stream flows into the estuary. Until the mid 1900s, livestock grazed on cleared land within the sanctuary.
Today, the land attracts migrant shorebirds and songbirds. In the spring, it’s known as a place to observe the courtship flight displays of nesting woodcocks. Other animals that call the sanctuary home include the mink, muskrat, snowshoe hare, red fox, great blue heron, broad-winged hawk, hairy woodpecker, leopard frog, porcupine, raccoon, white-tailed deer, coyote and beaver, according to Maine Audubon.
Maine Audubon runs a summer day camp at the sanctuary, as well as educational nature walks for local school children.
A trail network helps people enjoy the wildlife and landscape.
The Ridge Trail is the longest footpath, measuring 1.6 miles. It starts from the trailhead near the parking area and brings hikers to the old dam site and the historic mill master’s house, now a private residence for sanctuary caretakers. The other trails, all interconnected, are the Orchard and Deer Run trails (0.5 mile in total length), the Mill Stream Trail (0.3 mile in length), Bench Loop Trail (0.25 mile in length) and Estuary Trail (0.4 mile in length).
The sanctuary is open to the public, dawn to dusk, year-round. Entrance is free, but donations are appreciated. Pets, fires, hunting, firearms and alcoholic beverages are not allowed. For information about the sanctuary, including a trail map, visit maineaudubon.org or call Maine Audubon at 781-2330.
Personal note: While hiking on a snowy day, Dec. 1, 2012, I decided to explore a side trail off Ridge Trail (marked with a sign that reads “Larch Spur”). A short distance down the trail, my hiking buddy, Derek, sat on a wooden bench to stuff heat packets into his boots. I left him there to explore farther along the corridor of tall evergreens.
After descending a small hill, I found myself in a marshy area, a clearing of tall grass, brush and ice. Before me, three tall trees had been gnawed through and felled by a beaver. Careful to avoid the thin ice, I moved into the clearing to photograph the trees.
Derek soon descended the hill and joined me in my investigation. He was the first to hear the splashes of a beaver swimming in a nearby pool. I glimpsed the animal’s dark pelt through the snow-dusted grass just before he dove underwater. The animal then startled us both when we heard him surface not far from where we were standing.
I drew aside some grass to find the beaver’s small lodge, a mixture of old wood and freshly harvested branches. Remaining quiet, we listened for a few minutes as the beaver grunted and moved about the lodge. Then we hiked back to the Ridge Trail, which led us to the Deer Run and Orchard trails.