“Are there snakes in these woods?” my 4.5-year-old niece, Willa, asked me as we walked side by side into the Rolland F. Perry City Forest on Saturday, June 4, in Bangor.
“Oh,” she said, her brown ponytail bobbing as she strutted ahead on the gravel path. “Are there bears in these woods?”
“Yes, but they’re nice bears,” I told her. “And you probably won’t see them.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“Wild animals are usually pretty shy,” I tried to explain. “They usually run away from people.”
Ahead of us, a large yellow and black butterfly — a tiger swallowtail — fluttered across the trail and landed on the branch of a sapling. I pointed the butterfly out to Willa, and as we drew closer, we watched as it flew away, quickly disappearing in the shade of the forest.
Also known as the Bangor City Forest, the 680-acre forest features 9 miles of trails for running, hiking and biking.
For our adventure, I carried a backpack prepared by her mother — my sister, Jillian. Inside was a lunchbox filled with snacks, a bottle of water, natural bug spray, sunscreen, a superwoman hat and a jacket. I had added my water bottle and a macro camera lens to our gear.
We continued our walk in silence, but that didn’t last long.
“You should have taken a picture of the butterfly,” Willa pointed out, eying my camera.
“I didn’t think of it,” I said, amused by her bossiness. “Next time, maybe.”
Ahead, a small brown cabin came into view. Located in a clearing at the beginning of the Orono Bog Boardwalk, the building serves as a visitor center. A man — probably one of the boardwalk’s many volunteer stewards — sat in a camp chair beside the cabin. The scene caused Willa to later refer to the building as “the old man’s cabin.”
At the east edge of the city forest, the wide boardwalk starts in a mixed forest that slowly transitions into an open peat bog full of interesting plants. Along the way, the boardwalk crosses the town line into Orono and enters property owned by the University of Maine. At the bog, the boardwalk splits into a loop, which visitors are asked to walk counterclockwise.
At a picnic table near the boardwalk entrance, we sat and took a drink of water before starting our mile-long exploration through the bog. My niece had never been to the Orono Bog or any place like it. I was excited to see how she’d react to the unusual landscape, an open area with stunted trees. In the bog — which is highly acidic and saturated with water — only certain plants are capable of growing: carnivorous pitcher plants, sheep laurel, gnarled black spruce and soft-needled tamaracks.
The bog boardwalk is currently being replaced, section by section, because the original wooden boardwalk, constructed in 2002 and 2003, is starting to rot and break. The project, which is being completed in stages, is expensive and has so far required a great deal of fundraising and volunteer hours.
Willa took the lead, walking over the new composite planking of the boardwalk, which was bordered by tall cinnamon ferns and the giant leaves of skunk cabbage. At each of the interpretive displays posted along the boardwalk, she stopped to point out illustrations of animals she recognized.
Moving out into the bog, we simply walked and observed. I didn’t want to overload her with too much information, but I did point out a few different plants, including the sweet pink blossoms of sheep laurel (which she insisted were actually more purple than pink) and cotton sedge, which looks like grass tipped with miniature cotton balls. She paused several times to feel the sedge’s soft white tufts.
We were about halfway around the loop when I asked, “So, what plant do you like the best?”
Walking ahead of me, Willa stopped in her tracks and stretched her arms out wide.
“All of it,” she said with feeling. “I like all of it. It’s brilliant.”
I imagine my expression was that of surprise, happiness and amusement. I couldn’t have asked for a better answer.
As her babysitter for the full day, it was my pleasant job to put Willa to bed that night. As usual, we read a few books. I tucked her in, turned off the light, and just as I was walking out the door, she called out, using one of my many nicknames.
I popped my head back into the room, “Yeah?”
“Can you turn on my new night light?” she asked, pointing to a nearby light.
“Sure.” I flipped on the light and was just stepping out the door when she called out again.
“Can we go on another adventure sometime?”
My heart swelled.
“Of course we can,” I replied. “Really soon. I’ll plan one out.”
“OK,” she said in a soft, tired voice. “Can it be in a forest? But a different forest than the one we went to today?”