Urban Safari

A hard day’s journey across Portland proves that even in Maine’s big city, wilderness is close at hand.

By Elizabeth Peavey
Illustration by Brian T. Jones

“I don’t like the looks of this.”

That’s my husband John’s assessment of the trailhead as we slowly approach in his car. It’s 7:20 a.m., and we’re at the terminus of a dead-end street, confronting a tangle of brush, brambles, and a fortress of thick trees. I look up from the map splayed open on my lap at the two well-marked entrances to the trail. It’s the kind of place you could envision disappearing in.

But no time for pussyfooting now. I have a daylong hike ahead of me that I’ve been planning for weeks, and I need to get moving. So I reassure John that everything’s fine, grab my pack, and send him on his way. After I wave and watch his car disappear up over a hill, I turn to examine my options for starting. I mean, what does he — or I, for that matter — have to worry about? The adventure I’m embarking upon is only a walk. It’s only one day. And, come on, it’s only Portland.

OK, I have to confess, I’m something of a Maine outdoors snob. Because, as devoted as I am to living in Portland, I spend as much time as I can in our state’s wild spaces: walking the Bold Coast Trail or the periphery of Monhegan; summiting Katahdin or Baldpate; taking Mount Battie in winter or the backside of Cadillac in a popup thunderstorm; strolling the Ovens Mouth in Boothbay or Step Falls in Newry. To tide me over between outings, I walk or ride my bike around town almost every morning before sequestering myself in my office for the day. So, the prospect of tackling a trek across Portland is not exactly daunting. What are a few extra miles?

But during my morning jaunts, I’ve discovered a number of hidden paths and public access trails, with the familiar Portland Trails marker inviting me in. Some turned out to be nothing more than a jog through a few backyards. One wove through woods and opened up into an old railway workers’ graveyard. Another cut through the dense overgrowth above the sewage treatment plant and the paved East End Trail. With each foray, my heart thumped a bit. Where was I? Would the trail continue, or would I need to backtrack? These were brief thrills — ones I normally associate with out-in-the-wilds adventuring, yet they provided the same adrenaline rush I crave in the woods.

That’s when the idea of an urban safari came to mind — cover as much of Portland as possible in one day by connecting as many of its green spaces as I could in one necklace around the city. As luck would have it, Portland Trails, a local urban land trust, established such a route in 2011 to commemorate its twentieth anniversary — the ten-mile Forest City Trail — that stretches from the southwestern corner of town on the Westbrook line to its northeastern corner at Presumpscot Falls on the Falmouth line. All I needed was to get there and home.

That’s how I came to be standing here, feeling a little like Alice, wondering which rabbit hole to chase on this trail that hugs the Stroudwater River. According to my excellent Portland Trails map (which will become my best friend and sidekick over the course of the day), I see that the Forest City Trail heads east. But it also looks like a mini digression west will take me along the river and to some possible excellent early-morning birding and river views. I haven’t bothered with breakfast, thinking I would find a nice place to sit and meditate on my journey before really setting out. Besides, I have all day, don’t I?

The Stroudwater is as still and brown as the old Big Muddy itself. While it’s piney and serene in these woods, the trail doesn’t seem to be taking me anywhere, and I decide to retreat. I follow a fork, but it dead-ends, making me feel a bit turned around. Facing east, the sun dazzles my eyes. Robins, catbirds, jays, and crows start squawking and cawing at me. Mosquitoes swarm. Ferns brush my legs. I stumble over a root. A small snake slithers across my path. I’m beginning to feel like that lost cartoon hunter on the cover of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife guide, You Alone in the Maine Woods. What’s next? Am I going to strip naked and start running in circles?

Fifteen minutes later, I’m back where I started, at the two trailheads. I right myself, adjust my pack, and begin my hike in earnest. No more detours.

I finally find a place to wolf down my breakfast and feel more fit to carry on. My iPod pedometer tells me I have walked 3,779 steps and burned 162 calories. The mosquitoes are brutal, but I’ve brought no bug dope. This is Portland, after all, right? Except these critters don’t know anything about town lines. I swat and slap and pick up my pace. I pass Portland’s regional waste center, which thrusts up out of the earth like a khaki-colored Oz, and soon cross under roaring Interstate-95. I see from my vantage point all the cars lined up for their exits. All those people going to work, to do real jobs, while here I stand, notepad in hand, scribbling down exit numbers under the turnpike at eight o’clock in the morning. I feel a small surge of joy.

After leaving the river trail and bracing myself against the din of the morning commute on outer Congress Street, I duck into my next green space, the Fore River Sanctuary. A red-winged blackbird divebombs the marsh, defending his turf, while swallows wheel overhead. An egret glides down the river. A kingbird perches on a telephone line, while two small black specks (starlings?) chase off a red-tailed hawk. It’s hard to believe moments ago I was in the midst of traffic. For all it matters, I could be deep in the heart of the Maine woods. I shed a layer of clothes and move on.

When I reach Jewell Falls, I enjoy a sit on the cool granite bench there, while I rip through my PowerBar and banana that were intended for later. I note my water bottle is getting low. At the last minute before departure this morning, I took the extra quart of water out of my pack, assured I wouldn’t need it. Not in suburban Portland. So here I sit, out of food, almost out of water, and only 9,512 steps and not even an hour into my day. I take out my notepad and write: There is one thing you never want to bring on a hike, no matter how short or long, and that is hubris.

From Jewell Falls, I emerge into a bank of beach roses and someone’s backyard, and soon find myself on crazily busy Brighton Avenue. Across its four lanes, Three D’s Variety shimmers like an oasis in the heat. Now, if I could only cross. When I finally make my way into the store, with its bright lights and air conditioning, I feel like a time traveler. What is this strange place, this alien planet I’ve discovered? I grab a bottle of water and take it to the counter, but I have trouble finding my wallet in the bottom of my pack. When I do, I have to untangle it from my binoculars strap. Then, because my hands are sweaty, I can’t get the money out. When I finally slide the cash toward the clerk, he gives me a square look. The pack, the boots, the swingy yellow hiking skirt, the green sun-block shirt. What a sight. As I prepare to leave (after more fumbling with my gear), I turn and say, “I’m not lost off the AT, you know. I’m just walking across Portland.” Oh, I’m sure he’s thinking. That explains everything.

From Brighton, I head north and pass though a couple suburban neighborhoods and schoolyards, none of which I recognize. Even though I’ve lived in Portland for over thirty years, I don’t know this part of town. It’s not until I enter a wooded area that serves as a back door to Evergreen Cemetery that I’m on familiar turf again. I’ve been on some of these trails, chasing elusive warblers during May migration with the throngs of other avid birders, but today it’s quiet. In fact, aside from the occasional jogger or dogwalker, I’ve hardly encountered any other people using these trails. And, today at Evergreen, it’s just me and two moms with their kids, who are terrorizing (or at least trying to) the bullfrogs in the big pond. I plod on, past the ancient grave markers, lost in the folly of my quest, when it hits me. I’m starving again. I mean really, really starving. I check the time. It’s only 10:45. I’m approaching busy Morrill’s Corner, but who on earth would be serving lunch this early in the day?

I spy a wee storefront bearing the name Bogusha. A table and chair are set outside, and the door is open. I peer into the dim interior. To the right is a Polish grocery with shelves lined with tins of meat, jars of pickles and cabbage, containers of paprika, and rows of snacks and sweets. A doleful cow stares at me from a red label on a can of goulash. The View is just coming on the TV up back, but there’s no one in sight. Another mirage, I think. My heart thuds. I consider leaving.

Just then, Bogusha herself, a petit older woman with coiffed blond hair and bright pink lipstick, warmly greets me. I know I must look like — as my mom would say — something the cat dragged in, but a slightly pungent, sweet/savory aroma is working its way toward me from the kitchen and emboldens me. “You’re serving lunch?” I ask.

After nearly polishing off my entire sampler platter — two pierogi, a golabaki, kielbasa, and bigos — all for a whopping $9.50, I grab a packet of Aha! Sezamki (sesame honey bars) at the register and store it in my pack for later. It feels like backpacking through Europe, circa 1982, all over again.

Having safely forded the five-street intersection of Morrill’s Corner, I’m relieved when the trail of white slash marks resumes, some on the backs of street signs. I am nearing five hours and more than 20,000 steps into my day, and a wrong turn, a missed path would feel like nothing short of a disaster. I know I need to keep my eyes peeled for the white slashes, even in my own backyard. I am nearing the trail’s end.

Like so many rivers, I smell and hear it before I see it. I am working my way toward Presumpscot Falls, through the nuttily named Oak Nuts Park in the North Deering section of town. With each step, the sound of the falls increases. To be honest, I’m not expecting much, but this river is getting loud. A big orange sign announces: “Warning. Waterfall ahead. Portage right.” And sure enough, by the time I get to the falls, the river is roaring. I catch a glimpse of the rushing water here and there through the trees, until I can find a safe spot to climb down and see them from below. Wow.

I’ve looked at a lot of fast-moving water in Maine — falls and rapids and rips — and I can attest this rivals almost any of it. Presumpscot Falls began flowing freely again for the first time in 268 years after the removal of the Smelt Hill Dam in 2002. You can almost feel its exuberance.

I take off my boots and plunge my feet into the water. I’ve been on the trail for six hours, and I still have another two hours of walking in front of me to get home, but for now I lean back to watch a flock of cedar waxwings in one of the most astounding aerial daredevil shows I’ve ever seen. I decide to call John just to let him know all’s well. I dig my phone out of my pack and notice with a grin that I have no cell reception.

At this moment, I could be anywhere in the world.

Elizabeth Peavey is a freelance writer and teacher. She is most recently the author of Glorious Slow Going: Maine Stories of Art, Adventure and Friendship.

For maps and trail guides for adventures across the city, contact Portland Trails at 305 Commercial Street. 207-775-2411. trails.org