Bogs are champions of long-term storage. Formed over hundreds or thousands of years, bogs are masters at trapping carbon, hoarding dead plants, and hanging on to the occasional 3,000-year-old body.
They’re extraordinary ecosystems, too, but since bogs aren’t in the habit of bragging, their talents generally go uncelebrated. As a result, the average person’s bog knowledge is limited to the hilariously gaseous and smelly Bog of Eternal Stench from the ’80s movie classic “The Labyrinth.”
An in-person visit is a fine way to begin learning more. Here in Maine, bog curiosity is easily piqued with a visit to the Orono Bog Boardwalk.
The Orono Bog Boardwalk was closed in 2020 due to the pandemic, but it has just reopened for the 2021 season. Visitors are asked to wear a mask when maintaining a 6-foot distance isn’t possible.
Situated on the edge of the Bangor City Forest, the Orono Bog features a one-mile boardwalk loop trail that begins in forest and then strikes out over peatland, the vegetation transitioning from overhead tree cover to ground-level mosses. It’s super pretty, and the boardwalk itself is a bit of a marvel.
The idea for the boardwalk was proposed in 2000 by the University of Maine and Professor Ronald B. Davis. Construction began in 2002, and it opened to the public in 2003. The boardwalk is constructed of 509 sections that are 8 feet long and 4 feet wide, and it includes crafty connector bridging at turns.
While the aesthetics are impressive, peat bogs are also a humble, hard-working lot. They cover a small fraction of the Earth’s land surface – about 3 percent – and are masters at keeping carbon on lockdown. They’re comprised of partially decayed vegetation such as grasses and trees that keeled over thousands of years ago but didn’t quite turn into dust because of rising water or already saturated soil. The partially decayed material builds up over time, creating a thick and incredibly flammable layer of peat.
While their decomposition speed is lackluster, peat bogs overachieve in carbon capture. They store more carbon than double what the planet’s forests manage, making them vital to combating climate change.
Throughout history, humans have interacted with bogs in interesting ways. Case in point: bog butter. In 2016 a man found a 22-pound chunk of butter estimated to be more than 2,000 years old in an Irish bog. (Turns out, finding ancient butter in Irish bogs is not all that uncommon.)
And then there are the 2,000- to 3,000-year-old “bog bodies” that have been discovered in raised peat bogs in northern Europe. The bodies are remarkably well preserved because raised peat bogs are low in oxygen, and oxygen happens to be a favorite dish for most decomposing microorganisms.
Plus, raised peat bogs in northern Europe are cold. Like refrigerator-big-enough-to-hold-a-lot-of-people cold. Low oxygen and low temperatures mean there’s a high probability that any body you put in a raised peat bog will still be there in a few thousand years.
In Orono, however, we’re not likely to pull barrels of thousand-year-old butter or cadavers from three millennia past out of the bog. But we can find carnivorous plants.
One of them is an insect-eater called a pitcher plant, and it’s pretty prolific at the Orono Bog. Nestled into the peat moss are pitfall traps made of specialized leaves that are filled with nectar to lure in prey, which usually consists of insects, spiders, and mites.
Keep your eyes peeled for those and whatever else you might discover at this treat of a place.
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.