Let the masses swerve their cars onto the shoulders of Maine’s scenic byways to fawn over the foliage. You’ll take in the colors from a canoe.
Hirundo Wildlife Refuge in Old Town offers guided canoe trips on Pushaw Stream all season. In the fall, the tours include leaf-peeping excursions as well as sunset and full moon tours, where you can scout for wildlife as the sun goes down and the moon comes up over the remarkable colors of autumn.
Founded in 1965 by Oliver Larouche, Hirundo Wildlife Refuge was expanded from his family’s three-acre camp into a 2,400-acre nature preserve. Oliver and his wife June developed a partnership with the University of Maine (the land was deeded to the university in 1983), and they funded research on fish, birds, and mammals, turning Hirundo into a living laboratory.
The refuge is open to the public for hiking and canoeing on Pushaw Stream. Access to the trails and the canoes is free, although donations are very much appreciated. Hirundo also offers guided excursions on the water throughout the spring and summer, including “Parent and Me Learn to Paddle,” “Kids in Nature,” and paddling skills clinics for adults.
But fall paddles are something extra special.
Canoes, paddles, and personal flotation devices are provided for all tours, as is a knowledgeable guide who’ll lead the group up Pushaw Stream and teach you about all sorts of flora and fauna.
During a sunset or full-moon tour, for example, you’ll most certainly spot some beavers – they’re prolific on Pushaw Stream, their lodges unmistakable along the water’s edge and their presence evident by downed trees or trunks with missing bark.
But even if you don’t have a natural beaver-spotting eye, your guide will help you see things you’d probably not notice on your own.
A few years back, I had the pleasure of going on a full-moon paddle led by naturalist and refuge Manager Gudrun Keszöcze, who knows so much about the birds, beavers, and trees that huddle along the banks of the stream.
During our tour, I learned that beavers are vegetarians, and they store tree branches for the winter by sticking them in the muddy river bottom. Their lodges have three stories, with an underwater entrance at the bottom and dry space at the top, and they let other critters like mice and muskrats share the space in the winter, so everyone stays warm (and the mice and muskrats don’t need to worry that the beaver will eat them).
If you’re paddling in the evening, you might spot a beaver swimming across the stream, starting its day. If you’re too close for its comfort, it’ll let you know with an abrupt slap of its tail on the water’s surface.
We spotted a host of birds and turtles as we paddled at a leisurely pace, our eyes increasingly attuned to what creatures stood in the nearby grass, clung to a log, or flew overhead.
Keszöcze talked about the landscape and the clay under the soil that makes it hard for water to drain and how high the river was in early spring and the kinds of trees that thrive in such a watery environment.
And as those stream-side trees change color this fall, they’ll astound passing canoeists even more so. Besides, it’s our duty to seek out every leaf-peeping opportunity. The season is brief, and we’re lucky to live in such sought-out scenery.
Imagine seeing those bright yellows and oranges and reds reflected on the water, doubling the dazzle. Imagine inhaling a deep breath of crisp fall air and dipping your fingertips in the stream water between easy paddle strokes.
Imagine, and then go!
Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of fitmaine.com, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.