Difficulty: Easy-moderate. The trails and old roads of the Greenlaw Brook Division of the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge have a total length of about 5 miles and travel over some hills.
How to get there: There are a few entrances to the Greenlaw Brook Division of the Aroostook NWR, but the easiest parking area to find is off West Gate Road in Limestone. To get there, start in Caribou (if coming from Bangor, take Exit 62 to Houlton and turn left on Route 1). In Caribou, take Access Road (Route 89) west toward Limestone. West Gate Road will be on your left, right after C & J Service Center. Drive about 1 mile and you will see the refuge parking area on your right, marked by a sign.
To get to the park office, nature store and the East Loring Division trails, return to Access Road (Route 89) and drive north to Loring Commerce Road, which will be on your right. Drive approximately two miles. Cross a set of railroad tracks and bear right at the fork. The refuge office and visitor station is on the right.
Information: The Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge was established on part of the old Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine, in 1998, when 4,700 acres were transferred from the U.S. Air Force to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Prior to that, the U.S. Strategic Air Command was stationed at the base (1950-1994), flying long-range bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Today, refuge operations focus on restoring wildlife habitats and working to provide recreational opportunities through the construction of walking trails. Furthermore, Friends of Aroostook NWR provide wildlife-oriented educational programs regularly.
The refuge currently features 13.5 miles of trails and old roads for foot traffic. The East Loring Division trails: Beaver Pond Trail (0.7 mile), Don Lima Trail (1.2 mile), Durepo Loop (1 mile), East Loring Trail (3.5 mile) and Swamp Road (2 mile). The Greenlaw Brook Division trails: 13 Beaver Trail (1 mile), Green Pond Trail (0.1 mile), Loop Trail (0.5 mile), Powerline Trail (0.8 mile), Spruce Hill South Branch Trail (0.2 mile), Spruce Hill Trail (0.5 mile) and Swamp Road (2 miles).
Most of the trails are wide and relatively flat, therefore great for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, family walks and wildlife watching. Keep in mind that hunting, fishing and camping is not allowed on the refuge. ATVs are also not allowed.
Certain areas of the refuge may be blocked from public access for visitors’ safety and to protect wildlife habitat. The refuge has an aggressive habitat restoration program that includes demolishing buildings, removing railroad track and fencing, as well as other remnants of the former base infrastructure. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also actively restoring wetlands on the refuge, including a 2.1-mile stream restoration project with the U.S. Air Force. Refuge management also uses prescribed fire to maintain approximately 400 acres of grassland.
The refuge includes valuable wetland and forested habitat for the declining populations of the American woodcock; several species of waterfowl including the American black duck, wood ducks, Canada geese and hooded mergansers; and many species of neotropical migratory birds. While the grasslands of the refuge provide habitat for upland sandpipers, bobolinks and Savannah sparrows.
The land is also home to several residential species, such as river otters, mink, muskrats, beaver, fishers, snowshoe hares, deer, black bear and moose. Several baseline inventories for birds, frogs, toads, dragonflies and damselflies guide refuge management and public use decisions.
Personal note: I first visited Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge on April 30, 2013, to learn about efforts to research treatment of white-nose syndrome, which is killing several species of hibernating bats throughout the northeast. After interviewing the refuge assistant manager, Steve Agius, about bats, I asked him what trials I could explore on the refuge for my ‘1-minute hike’ series. Agius suggested any of the trails on the refuge, but mentioned that I might get some good wildlife pictures at the ponds of the Greenlaw Brook Division (though the wide trails of the East Loring Division, popular for cross-country skiing, are also great for wildlife viewing).
So I left the office and nature store of the refuge and drove back to the Access Road, where I turned right and drove to the West Gate Road, which led me to a parking area for the trail network in the Greenlaw Brook Division. Aguis was right about the abundance of wildlife. In the few hours I spent exploring the many trails, I saw at least seven ruffed grouse (partridge) and heard several more. The ponds were filled with Canada geese and a variety of ducks. Evidence of beaver — downed trees, gnawed wood, stick lodges and dams — was everywhere. One suggestion: wear sunscreen. Most of the trails are open to the sky.
For an entertaining video of rowdy Canada geese in Chapman Pond at the refuge, visit this link.