The Great Outdoors: Exploring Deering Oaks Park in Portland

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It seemed an impossible undertaking, but we recently turned an early morning dental appointment into an absolutely delightful experience by tacking on a two-hour exploration of Portland’s Deering Oaks Park and the surrounding neighborhoods.

I have lived in the Portland area for 58 years and feel embarrassed that I have never taken the time to stop, park the car, and meander through the park to experience the wonder of our own version of New York’s Central Park.

Portland city arborist Jeff Tarling shared with me some wonderful tidbits and trivia about the park. While not technically an old-growth, forest this former woodlot of the Brackett and Deering families contains about a thousand trees, some 250 years old. There are 60 species of trees within the 54-acre park, and as the name suggests, many are red oak and white oak.

Gazing over the pond at the mallards swimming to and fro in search of the next generous soul with stale bread to share, it is hard to believe this serene pond was once tidal and a part of Back Cove. After the Great Fire of 1866, there was plenty of rubble and debris to dispose of. The massive fill area at the southern arc of Back Cove became part of the earthen barrier that created the pond.

We enjoyed meandering through the magnificent rose garden near the Forest Avenue main post office on the eastern side of the park, where 600 roses were ready to burst forth in a dazzling salute to summer. Three of the trees near the garden are listed on Maine’s “Big Tree” list: a yellowwood, a Siberian elm, and a pin oak.

We decided to add in some Portland neighborhood exploring and trekked up State Street to the Longfellow monument, and down Congress Street to Maine Medical Center. It is amazing how much one sees and absorbs when the windshield of the car is taken away, and the pace is slowed to a walk.

I remembered a wonderful lunch I enjoyed with my mom at the Roma Cafe years ago. Now the Roma is closed. A huge four-dial Seth Thomas clock, badly in need of restoration, stands at curbside stuck on 7:14. It was placed there in 1925 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Hay & Peabody Funeral Home, now out of business. Handsome brick mansions, circa 1884, line this portion of Congress Street, including the Daniel E. Emery Jr. House and Clarence Hale mansion.

At 714 Congress St. stands the home of reformer Neal Dow, often called the “Father of Prohibition.” The home is open for free tours Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dow was National Prohibition Party candidate for president in 1880, and received about 10,000 votes; Republican James Garfield defeated Democrat Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock with the narrowest popular vote margin ever.

(Truly obscure Back Cove- and Garfield-connected trivia: Garfield graduated from Williams College in 1856, and the president of Williams College from 1937  to 1961 was James Phinney Baxter III, grandson of popular Portland Mayor James Phinney Baxter, who championed the creation of Baxter Boulevard.)

We headed down past the Portland Expo and Ice Arena and back into the refreshing shade of the Deering Oaks ravine. A shallow wading pool with timed fountain displays has been created for children and parents to splash about. We walked up onto the arched bridge above the pool and delighted in the shouts of joy from youngsters cooling off on a warm day. At the far end of the ravine sits a tiny pool surrounded by a stone patio and small boulders etched with artwork of oak leaves and limbs. This is a magical spot to reflect on the bounty of the park.

The recently renovated Castle in the Park was built in 1894 as a shelter to escape sudden downpours and a warming hut for winter skaters. Today it houses a staffed information kiosk. The beloved red-with-white-trim duck house on the tiny island in the pond dates back to 1887. Maybe you will sense the spirit of Longfellow wandering amid the woods, too. His 1855 poem “My Lost Youth” contains a stanza that touches a cord in all of us who sense the years going by all too fast:

And Deering’s Woods are fresh and fair,
And with joy that is almost pain
My heart goes back to wander there,
And among the dreams of the days that were,
I find my lost youth again.

Be sure to check out the informative Friends of Deering Oaks website ( for a wealth of fascinating historical information and pictures of how the park used to look in the early days of its creation. The Maine Memory Network ( also has many classic pictures of the park, including a Passamaquoddy encampment in 1920 in celebration of the state’s centennial.

We can’t wait until the next dental appointment. Maybe next time we will enjoy the park in its foliage colors and meander down to check out Oakhurst Dairy and the USM campus on Forest Avenue.

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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. Contact him at