It is shaping up to be another 100-inch snowfall bonanza this winter, our second old-fashioned winter in a row. That make snowshoes the ultimate all-terrain vehicles to explore the beauty and bounty of winter outside our back doors.
We recently spent an afternoon swallowed up within the magical wilderness kingdom of evergreen splendor nestled in between the Pleasant Hill Road and the Litchfield Road in Freeport.
Many Appalachian Trail enthusiasts harbor the dream of someday hiking Maine’s fabled 100-Mile Wilderness from Monson to Katahdin. If you want to recreate what it must be like those first five miles out of Monson, just spend a few hours on the Brimstone Hill Trail. The fragrant forested knobs and snow-laden slopes leading to secluded vales below are reminiscent of the mystical slate ridges north of Monson. Were we really in Freeport only a few miles from bustling L.L. Bean?
The Brimstone Hill Trail is one of many outstanding land conservation projects undertaken by the Freeport Conservation Trust (freeportconservationtrust.org) over the past 30 years. As beautiful and popular as places like Bradbury Mountain in Pownal and Wolfe’s Neck Woods in Freeport are for snowshoeing, local land trust lands are underutilized gems that offer unique wilderness experiences close to urban settings.
You will be astounded by the amount and variety of land and trails ready for exploring by snowshoe if you visit the Web sites of regional land trusts in the greater Portland area and in the Mid-Coast region. As a random example, bring up the Phippsburg Land Trust “Visit the Land” page on your computer. There are five preserves listed with detailed descriptions and easy-to-follow directions. But for this week, at least, we are staying in Freeport.
To get to the Brimstone Hill trailhead drive down Bow Street from L.L. Bean. Follow Bow Street, which becomes Flying Point Road, for 1.5 miles to a fork. Take the left fork onto Pleasant Hill Road and drive 1.8 miles to the Ringrose Road on the right. Follow Ringrose Road 0.2 miles to a small parking area on the left opposite a black mailbox numbered No. 48. If not plowed, there is plenty of room on the side of the road to park.
The Brimstone Hill Trail starts out with a moderate uphill climb up and around a forested knob. A gigantic pillow-shaped rock, 20 feet by 20 feet, sits at the top with a large evergreen growing up out of a crack in the middle. The tenacity of life never ceases to amaze; a seed, organic matter, sun and rain, and life takes hold even in the most unlikely place.
The trail winds down the other side of the knob onto another forested plateau with drainage bordering each side, eventually leading down into the broad snow-filled white ribbon of Kelsey Brook, which in three miles will empty out into the broad estuary of the Harraseeket River on the western shoreline of Wolf Neck.
The trail is marked with painted white blazes on trees and with occasional blue surveyor tape. The trail is definitely not a linear trail and does a lot of twisting and turning. At major turning points double blazes are marked on a tree at the turn point. If you lose sight of a blaze just stop and backtrack a few yards and get your bearings. An earlier snowshoer had meandered off the trail quite a bit and a few times we found we were following their tracks instead of staying true to the trail.
It was obvious, however, why they had strayed off the trail: there is so much to check out. There is a lot of deer activity in the area, with hoof prints both in the trail and crisscrossing it. Note the amount of deer droppings and yellow urine holes. In one spot we counted seven hollows, each the size of a child’s flying saucer, where a group of deer had bedded down.
The great thing about snowshoes is that you can slow down and take the time to carefully observe. Ice from the recent snow and sleet storm dropped continuously from the evergreen canopy above us, providing a pleasant chorus of rustling and tinkling. As we stopped and poked about areas showing lots of deer activity we noted that they were eating the tips of the hemlock trees, and in some cases peeling the bark off the lower hemlock branches.
Shelves of artist mushrooms clung to a number of trees, each shelf holding a foot deep cone of snow, their undersides a perfectly smooth vanilla color. Blue jays calls out dueled crow calls, while on occasion we’d snowshoe into an active group of black-capped chickadees flitting about sun-splashed evergreen branches above us. On other recent snowshoe outings we have heard, both early in the morning and late in the afternoon, the hooting of owls. This is mating season for owls, making it a great time to get out and listen.
After about 1.5 miles the white blazing stops at the edge of an open area adjoining Kelsey Brook. We turned around here and headed back. You can continue onward for another half hour following blue surveyor tape and then orange surveyor tape on the Antoinette Jackman Trail to its end at the Litchfield Road. We left that for another time.
The stand of trees on the slopes of Brimstone Hill is primarily evergreen interspersed with a few white birch and beech. There are no large hardwood stands full of winter sunlight. There are some very large hemlocks, balsam fir, and white pine, and a few magnificent red pine. This is certainly one of the most beautiful forest stands in the area to explore by snowshoe.
Michael Perry is the former director of the L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery Schools, and founder of Dreams Unlimited, specializing in inspiring outdoor slide programs for civic groups, businesses and schools. He can be reached at email@example.com.