A snake slithered across the trail, and I stopped in my tracks, throwing my arms out to the sides.
“Stop, stop,” I said to the three young boys hiking just behind me.
Not having seen the camouflaged reptile, the boys — ages 3, 5 and 6 — shot me some questioning looks but obeyed.
“Look!” I said, pointing to the snake, its long body stretched out over the dead leaves. “It’s a snake. How cool is that?”
My young companions looked a bit unsure. Was it cool? I imaged them wondering. Aren’t snakes sort of scary? Wouldn’t it bite?
“Snakes are good,” I said in an attempt to squash any unspoken fears. “In Maine, we don’t have any poisonous snakes. They won’t hurt you.”
Meanwhile, the people who had been hiking behind us gathered around, and by some miracle, the snake stayed put. This was a teaching opportunity, I realized.
On the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 14, I was the guest leader for Inland Hospital’s LET’S GO! Family Fun Series event, which was a guided hike on the Inland Woods Trails in Waterville.
“What we try to do is link families and free active resources in our community,” said Baylee Doughty, Community Health Program Coordinator at Inland Hospital.
Past Inland LET’S GO! Family Fun Series events have included group swimming at a local pool, guided snowshoe treks and trips to the climbing wall and bounce houses at the Youth Alfond Center in Waterville. The events are held once a month in the Waterville area, and those who participate in three events are entered into an annual drawing for $500.
When I was asked to lead a guided hike for the series, I didn’t know what to expect. But I would never have guessed that 59 people would show up. I hope you can imagine my surprise as I stood near the trailhead that afternoon and cars kept filtering into the parking lot behind Inland Hospital. I was elated to see so many participants, but I was also a bit nervous. I had never officially led a hike before, but the trails were wide and easy, and I had tons of help from Inland Hospital staff and volunteers.
I’d also had a tough week, or two. Changes were happening at work, and at home. And changes are always a bit difficult for me. At the event, I was worried I couldn’t be as upbeat and energetic as usual, but my worries flew out the window when I met Max.
I bumped into the 5-year-old as he wandered the LET’S GO! Family Fun Series tent near the trailhead. I said “Hello,” and Max looked up at me and replied, “Hiking is my favorite thing to do.”
“Hiking is my favorite thing to do, too,” I’d said in reply.
Max then set down his orange LET’S GO! Family Fun series bag — a goodie he’d collected for free — opened it up, and pulled out a book about hiking that he’d recently checked out from the library.
“Want to see the part about bandages?” Max had asked me.
Sure I did. So he leafed through the pages until he located the picture of a person with a bandaged leg.
“I brought bandaids,” Max had said, pointing to his camouflage explorers hat, which featured a tiny pocket with a buttoned flap. “I have a few, if anyone needs one.”
Max’s preparedness and enthusiasm for the hike had hit me right in the heart, reinforcing my determination to be a good hiking guide that day.
For the entire 1-mile loop hike, Max, along with two other young boys (including my 3-year-old nephew, Micah), seemed to revolve around me like little planets orbiting the sun. Each time I shared something about nature, they listened attentively, as did all of the children close enough to hear.
“This is a garter snake,” I said, easily identifying the very common species, which displays a pretty checkered pattern all the way down its body. “It’s a big one, too.”
As more children in the group spotted the snake, they crept closer, and I warned them to keep their movements slow and give it plenty of space so it wouldn’t be scared away. They were lucky the snake hadn’t “run away” yet, I told them. In my experience, snakes in Maine want nothing to do with people. They usually slither away to hide under leaves and rocks.
Continuing on our group hike on the wide, well-worn trail, we traveled through a pretty forest, following arrows that Inland Hospital staff had posted on trees prior to the event so we wouldn’t get lost in the network of intersecting trails. And in preparation for the hike, I had visited the Inland Woods Trails a day before the event to identify a few natural features I could talk about during the program. The snake, of course, hadn’t been planned.
Following the marked route, our group marched uphill and emerged from the forest to enjoy the sunshine at the edge of the LaFleur Airport, where we gathered on a patch of asphalt, the remains of a old runway. There I talked about the snowy owl, a beautiful bird that sometimes migrates down to Maine from the Arctic in search for food. A hunter of mice, voles and moles, this owl often sets up base in Maine farm fields, blueberry barrens, industrial parks and — very frequently — airports. These open spaces are ideal for hunting rodents.
Later, on the Inland Hospital Facebook page, a hospital staff member posted that one little girl, when asked what she liked best about the walk said, “I learned that snowy owls like to live near the airport and need to eat six mice a day.”
Another child, according to the Facebook post, was impressed with the brief lesson I gave on fungi, which included children guessing the color of the underside of mushrooms growing on a dead log beside the trail. It took them quite a few guesses to arrive at “purple,” the color displayed on the underside of the violet-toothed polypore. From the top, they were just tiny, off-white crescents, easily overlooked.
“It’s not pretty, but it’s neat,” said Max, as I showed him the mushroom. “Right?”
“Right.” I said, then added something like. “It’s pretty neat what you notice when you look closely in nature.”
That was the real lesson. And it appeared to me that day that the children in the group wanted to look closely, they wanted to examine and touch and smell and learn. They wanted to experience the wonders of nature, however small.
“Look at all this milkweed,” I said, pointing to a large patch of the plants growing alongside the trail.
“What’s in the pods?” a girl asked, prompting me to wade into the tall plants and pluck a pod from a stalk.
The children gathered around as I opened up the pod to reveal the plant’s brown seeds attached to long tufts of white silk. Peeling them out of the pod, I handed the seeds and silk out to several of the children so they could feel it for themselves. Then, setting off on the trail again, I threw out a question, not really expecting any of the kids would know the answer.
“Does anyone know what eats milkweed?” I asked.
“The monarch butterfly,” Max said, marching on the trail beside me.
“How did you know that?” I asked in a surprised tone, looking down at his camouflage hat.
“I learned it in school,” he replied with an infectious grin.
At the end of the hike, the Inland staff and volunteers working at the event thanked me for my participation, and I thanked them in return. The experience of spending time in the forest with kids, seeing the wonders of nature through their eyes, had lifted my spirits. In return, I hope my enthusiasm about nature and hiking had a positive effect, however small, on those who hiked with me that day. I hope I inspired at least one of those children to spend just a little more time outdoors, to learn more about trees and birds.
While Max indeed stood out to to me from the crowd that day, in this essay, he serves as a representation of all the children on the hike. I believe that by encouraging them to be active today, they’ll be healthier tomorrow. And furthermore, I believe that by fostering an appreciation and love for the wilderness today, they may grow up to be stewards of the environment, to care for our precious wild spaces and wildlife.
Maybe some day Max will help conserve an important habitat, or build a community trail, or rescue someone lost on a mountain. He’s already off to a good start, with his insatiable curiosity and a pocket full of bandaids.
To learn more about the Inland Hospital LET’S GO! Family Fun Series, visit inlandhospital.org/Let-s-Go-Events/Lets-Go-Family-Fun-Series.aspx.