This is a wonderful time of year to be in the woods. Spring wildflowers are starting to appear in earnest, with new ones blossoming each week throughout May. One of the outstanding places to go to enjoy the bounty of spring is the Blackstrap Hill Preserve in Falmouth.
Like a hike in the Grand Canyon of Arizona, your Blackstrap Hill Preserve hike begins at the high point and immediately starts out downhill. That means the return is uphill. If you follow the Blue Trail and Red Trail down to the Piscataqua River you will drop in elevation approximately 320 feet.
There are a variety of well-marked loop trails throughout the 500-acre site, all traversing the eastern slope of Blackstrap Hill. Trail maps are located at an information kiosk a hundred yards below the parking area.
The Waterfall Trail leads off the Blue Trail and drops a third of a mile down to a series of small cascades. We sat on a cool ledge in the middle of the stream enjoying views of countless braids of water shining like tinsel as they dropped down toward us. The gurgling of water, refreshing coolness of the shadowy ravine, the brilliant emerald green of moss-covered rocks reminded us of the wilderness streams penetrating the remote Dry River watershed in Crawford Notch, N.H..
Leaves are starting to appear on the hardwoods. For now you get the best of both worlds. The penetrating sun provides warmth and the ability to see things scattered about the forest floor that you will miss once the leaves are out. We marveled at the profusion of knobby burls, birch polypores and the variety of barks on slope-side trees. On a warm day the hardwood forest is still open enough to allow cooling breezes to sweep across the trail and provide much needed respite from the heat.
We followed the Blue Trail and Red Trail in a counter-clockwise direction enjoying open hardwood forests on our descent, and a mixture of hardwoods, pine and hemlock on our ascent. Our three hours of poking about covered four miles of preserve trails. In wet areas, islands of dense green False Hellebore (also known as Indian Poke) stood in sharp contrast to the sun-dried beech and oak leaves matted onto the forest floor from the winter snows. The large veined leaves of the Hellebore, while artistic and beautiful, are poisonous. Native American lore has it that chiefs were chosen if they survived a series of daunting tests, one of which was to survive eating the Hellebore leaves and roots.
Along the stream dainty white Wood Anemone flowers nodded from their slender stems. Another classic flower of early May is the regal Purple Trillium. Its distinctive dark green diamond-shaped leaves and drooping purple-red flower are one of many highlights of a spring walk.
The mottled brownish leaves of the Trout Lily dotted the forest floor sporting beautiful swept-back yellow flowers. This wildflower gets its name by the fact that the leaf markings are very similar to the markings on the brook trout.
Each visit brings a completely new experience this time of year as the profusion of life explodes onto the scene. On your walk perhaps the Painted Trillium and Pink Lady Slippers will be out, or the Eastern Starflower.
Eventually the Blue Trail intersects with the Red Trail, which descends further down to the narrow, twisting confines of the Piscataqua River that eventually flows into the larger Presumpscot River four miles to the south. The trail coincides with a snowmobile trail for awhile. If you follow the snowmobile trail 50 yards beyond where the Red Trail turns away from the river and heads up the hill, you will come upon a cut in the white sand banking that drops 10 feet down to the shallow river. This is a fabulous spot to sit and reflect as the river slowly meanders by. The sandy bottom gives the water a honey-like hue. On a warm day it will be very tempting to kick off your shoes and wade in.
As you return up the slope and back to the parking area, the Red Trail follows along a wide snowmobile trail and eventually turns left onto a narrow woods trail. We were busy talking and missed this turn and ended up walking hundreds of yards further up the slope to a power line opening where we realized our mistake and retraced our route back to the turnoff. The small wooden sign on the tree was enveloped in afternoon shadows and we had completely missed it.
A number of vernal pools abut this last portion of trail. We got down on our hands and knees and peered into the leave-choked pools for the true signs of spring: polliwogs. When we found clumps of milky egg sacs our hearts raced just as they did as kids when we went “polliwogging.” You are never too old to be a kid again.
By the time we got back to the parking lot we were amazed that three hours had passed so quickly. And there were still the Yellow and Orange Trails to discover. We will leave those trails for an autumn visit, when the hardwood slopes will be ablaze in red, orange, brown and yellow.
To get to the Blackstrap Hill Preserve from the Portland area, follow Washington Avenue (Routes 26 and 100) north into Falmouth. One mile beyond Maine Turnpike Exit 10 turn left onto Mountain Road. Follow Mountain Road two miles to its end. Turn right onto Blackstrap Road and go a quarter mile to the preserve parking lot on the right, just beyond 365 Blackstrap Hill Farm. The entry into the gravel lot is easy to miss, as the BHP signage is small and blends into the trees. The first few hundred yards of the trail beyond the kiosk are wet, but it’s dry beyond that. Bring your wildflower identification book and have fun.
This preserve is one of many conservation projects undertaken by the Falmouth Land Trust since its inception in 1980. Check out their informative Web site at falmouthlandtrust.org.