Difficulty: Easy-moderate. The 1.41-mile Oak Point Trail is wide and changes elevation only slightly as it travels over small hills.
How to get there: Start on Route 2 (Main Road) in downtown Milford. Near Memorial Park, turn onto County Road and drive 6.5 miles to a small parking area on the left. Recreationists use this parking area if visiting Carter Meadow Road or Oak Point Trail. From the parking area, walk about 0.3-mile farther (north) on County Road, and the trailhead will be on the left.
Information: Once a peat bog destined to be destroyed by a peat mining company, Sunkhaze Meadows is now a sanctuary for a variety of wildlife. Established in 1988, Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is one of more than 500 national wildlife refuges in the country.
The 10,000-acre refuge is open to visitors year round, sunrise to sunset, for a variety of low-impact recreational activities, including cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, wildlife watching, hunting, fishing, trapping (with a refuge permit), canoeing, and snowmobiling on designated trails.
Oak Point Trail is one of seven hiking trails shown on the Sunkhaze Meadows trail map. Located off County Road, the Oak Point Trailhead is marked with a sign that reads “Oak Point Trail,” so there’s really no missing it. A fence spans across the start of the trail, likely to deter snowmobilers from entering.
The trail first travels through a young forest along an old logging road. Aside from a few gentle hills, the terrain is fairly even. For a good distance, the trail remains wide and fairly exposed to the sun. Bog bridges will help you travel over soggy sections.
A little less than a mile in, the trail enters a denser evergreen forest. In the mature stand, you’ll find shelter and shade. The trail becomes a bit narrower at this point, but it’s still easy to follow, even though there are no blazes marking the way.
As the trail nears its terminus at Spencer Meadow, the forest will abruptly transition to deciduous trees (birch, beech, oak, etc.). In the winter, this makes for an eerie sight, but through the skeletal trees, you’ll be able to see the open meadow long before you reach its edge. Keep an eye out for woodpeckers and beaver in this habitat. I found evidence of both. Through this area, the trail is marked with orange flagging tape.
The trail ends at a view of Spencer Meadow, through which flows Birch Stream. To complete the hike, simply retrace your steps. The total hike, including the walk along the road from the parking area, is about 3.4 miles long.
While the vast majority of Sunkhaze Meadows is located in Milford, over the years, the refuge has expanded to several other towns. In the early 90s, two small divisions — the Benton Division in Benton and the Sandy Stream Division in Unity — were added to the refuge under the auspices of the 1990 Farm Bill. These small areas are managed for grassland-nesting birds. In addition, the refuge manages conservation easements in Corinth, Exeter, Fairfield, Starks and Patten, as well as the Carlton Pond Waterfowl Production Area in Troy.
The refuge mission is “to preserve the peatland ecosystem and maintain a biologically-diverse area for native wildlife and plants, while offering opportunities for wildlife-dependent visitor activities.”
The nonprofit volunteer organization Friends of Sunkhaze Meadows, currently 170 members strong, is dedicated to protecting the refuge and is involved in activities such as building boardwalks, general trail maintenance and community outreach.
For information about the refuge, including trail maps, visit sunkhaze.org. The website includes the following “tips for visiting”: observe wildlife from a safe distance; restrain all pets on leashes; during the summer months, insect repellent is highly recommended; bring foul weather gear in case you get caught in unpredictable weather.
Personal note: While snowshoeing the Oak Point Trail on Feb. 15, 2014, I came across a number of pileated woodpeckers in the hardwood forest near Spencer Meadow. The pileated woodpecker is the largest of Maine’s woodpeckers. It’s nearly the size of a crow, and to me, it seems even larger because of its long, sharp beak and the bright red crest adorning the top of its head.
For several minutes, I observed a male pileated woodpecker, identifiable as male by the red streak on its cheek (females don’t have any red on their cheeks). He moved between a few trees, chipping away at the wood with his beak. And at one point, he let out a high-pitched, haunting call — “wuk wuk wuk” — something any Mainer has heard a few times, even if they can’t identify it.
The pileated woodpecker is just one of more than 200 bird species that have been identified on the refuge, according to the refuge website.
I decided to explore the trail alone — without human or canine hiking buddy — for two reasons: 1. for that relaxing but rare feeling of being entirely alone and 2. to have a better chance of observing wildlife. But as soon as I started the trail, I realized that there’d be no chance of me sneaking up on any wild animals. My snowshoes made unnatural racket as I crashed through the hard layer of snow with each step.
Fortunately, Mr. Pileated Woodpecker must have been focused on excavating insects. Drilling away, he probably didn’t hear me approach. He was all “thock, thock, thock,” while I was doing a little, “crunch, squeak, scrape, crunch, squeak, scrape,” breaking trail through the crusty snow. When the bird did finally notice me, he flew away. I sat and waited for several minutes. Luckily, he returned, and I was able to capture a few images of him at work on a dead tree.