Judi Bryan at Saco Heath
Judi Bryan basks in the approaching sunset along the boardwalk in the Saco Heath Preserve in Saco. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)
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I don’t recall having play clothes that were different from my school clothes when I was a kid. I don’t recall my mom minding much when I let the hamster free-range on the living room floor or when I collected a basketful of daddy long legs on the front porch (they all got bored, climbed out, and wandered off within an hour). 

What I do recall is spending an inordinate amount of time digging in the backyard in search of ancient burial grounds, sitting in the warm and squishy mud puddle that formed at the end of the driveway every time it rained, and charging into the woods near the 7-Eleven to climb into long-abandoned cars. 

When I returned from my suburban explorations – shrub scrapes on my shins and dried mud flaking from my ears – my mom, Judi, would simply say, “Well, the dirtier you are, the more fun you had.”

It’s a philosophy I continue to live by. 

Tree-lined Saco Heath boardwalk
Judi Bryan on a portion of the mile-long Saco Heath boardwalk beneath a canopy of trees. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Judi wasn’t just about dirt-centric catchphrases, either. She encouraged curiosity, even if it meant my “Don’t worry, be happy” shirt ended up with grass stains and a hole in the side, and she’d listen to my long-winded accounts detailing where I’d ventured and all I’d dug up. 

She still does. How lucky am I?

Judi lives several states away, so we aren’t able to adventure together very often. Like most families, the pandemic made the distance even more challenging the last couple of years.

So, in honor of Mother’s Day – and all the women in our lives who embolden us to get out and explore, dirt be damned – I’m recalling a pre-pandemic afternoon my mom and I spent meandering the boardwalk at Saco Heath in Saco.

That afternoon in 2019 was the last time my mom came to Maine. Saco Heath itself was closed for a long stretch during the pandemic (a decision made in response to a surge of visitors and an overflowing parking lot, not to mention the 3-foot-wide boardwalk that made it challenging for passersby to maintain social distance). 

On the upside, the closure allowed The Nature Conservancy to make some upgrades and boardwalk repairs. Now Saco Heath is open again, ready to welcome the bog-curious.

Saco Heath is an ecological gem sitting just beyond an unassuming parking lot off Buxton Road in Saco. The more-than-1,200-acre preserve includes woodlands and a raised coalesced bog formed from what originally were two neighboring ponds. Over time, those ponds filled with decaying plant material, and that peat piled up and up, eventually connecting the two ponds with the peat perched above the level of groundwater. Voila – a raised coalesced bog was born. 

Judi Bryan and tree trunk
Judi Bryan inside the spit trunk of a tree along the Saco Heath trail. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

My mom and I would have sunk up to our knees in bog water if we’d stepped out onto the peat decades ago before the first boardwalk was built. Boardwalks matter. That original boardwalk was later replaced by the current one, which has planks of multiple colors that appear to extend into forever. It reminds me of the rainbow bridge we used to walk across at Girl Scout Camp.

The mile-long trail begins in the woods, and my mom and I wound our way through trees and shrubs. She even found a tree with a split-open trunk almost wide enough to stand in.

Soon the overhead foliage made way for the sky and the boardwalk led us onto the bog, where we hovered over a thick carpet of peat and plants – including the carnivorous pitcher plants, which were casually tucked into the moss awaiting the arrival of their next meal. We encountered cool-looking leaves on plants neither of us could identify, and we pointed them out to each other and leaned in for closer looks. We marveled at the late-summer colors and how the afternoon sun made everything look so serene. We spotted tunnel-web spiders, too, but decided not to lean into them. 

While this flat trail could make for a quick family-friendly walk (and it does), mom and I took our time. We soaked in the scenery and we talked as we strolled. We goofed off. We posed for photos. We got curious. We crouched down and we pointed. 

That’s the wonderful thing about superb outdoor spaces like Saco Heath: They’re places where we can be freely curious, where we can explore and crouch and take photos of plants to identify later.

But they’re also a memorable backdrop for time spent with the people we love, especially the people who taught us to embrace adventure and not be afraid to get dirty because it just means you had a lot of fun.

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.

Saco Heath pitcher plants
Pitcher plants at the Saco Heath Preserve. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

The Saco Heath Preserve on Buxton Road in Saco is a 1,233-acre preserve managed by The Nature Conservancy, featuring a flat, one-mile trail and boardwalk. No dogs are allowed on the trail, which is free to use from sunrise to sunset.