Maine hopes to get families hiking on New Year’s

Skiers enjoy the trails at Aroostook State Park on Feb. 26, 2011.
Courtesy of Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands
Skiers enjoy the trails at Aroostook State Park on Feb. 26, 2011.
Posted Dec. 21, 2011, at 5:16 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 27, 2011, at 5:42 a.m.

Most aspects of our lifestyles develop over time. Bad and good habits are rarely born on a specific day, and if they are, we seldom recall which day. When was it that you went on that first run, the run that led you to the marathon?

But there is one starting point that can be pinpointed with absolute certainty: Jan. 1, the day that New Year’s resolutions are first put to the test. Some people even hold the belief that how you spend that first day of the year determines how the next 364 days will go.

This year, Mainers have a new, healthy option for kicking off 2012. Guided “First Day Hikes” will be offered at four Maine state parks for free on Jan. 1 as part of a nationwide effort to get people outdoors to enjoy the wonders of their state parks.

“We’re hoping that this becomes kind of a tradition for folks,” said Will Harris, director of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. “We want people to start off the year thinking about getting outside.”

“This is the first time we’re doing this here in Maine, and we are very excited,” said Gary Best, assistant regional manager of the southern Maine state parks. “This is also the first year that all 50 states are participating in the First Day Hike Program.”

The hikes scheduled in Maine are: 8-11 a.m. at Aroostook State Park, 8:30-10:30 a.m. at Cobscook Bay State Park, 10:30-11:30 a.m. at Popham Beach State Park, and 2-3 p.m. at Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park.

And if people are slow getting going that morning, for whatever reason, the parks are open until sunset. Harris has declared that entrance fees be waived at all state parks for the special day.

“I love all my parks,” said Harris. “It’s hard to decide which one to go to.”

First Day Hikes have been held in Massachusetts for the past 20 years. The idea to make it a national program was presented in September by Priscilla Geigis, director of the Massachusetts conservation department, at the annual National Association of State Park Directors Conference, held this year in South Dakota. The other 49 states embraced the idea.

“It’s about getting youth and families back outside and enjoying the simplicity of nature,” said Scott Thompson, director of Aroostook State Park. “How easily it’s forgotten in the struggles to stay above water in this economy that the best way to de-stress and cleanse ourselves is to get outside.”

State parks across the country see 740 million visits annually, but they are looking to increase that number and promote year-round recreation. Maine has more than 30 sites in its state-park system, and these parks generate $100 million annually for the economy.

Aroostook State Park, the most northern state park, has been a hub for winter activity from the start. Today, visitors can explore 15 miles of ski trails and 5 miles of snowshoe trails. If there is enough snow by Jan. 1, a few long-term volunteers will lead a guided ski to the park’s warming hut and back.

Animal trackers, interpretive specialists and rangers will lead the exercise while discussing the natural habitat, history of the park and proper snowshoeing techniques.

“These activities are simple and basic. They don’t cost a lot of money to get into,” Thompson said. “It’s a great day to start to be healthy, set standards and start good family activities.”

Gary Best, assistant director of southern Maine state parks, is also hoping for snow. At Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park, 40 pairs of brand new snowshoes donated by L.L.Bean will be available for free rental for the hike. (Though if you plan on renting snowshoes at any of the four locations, call ahead of time to check availability and reserve a pair.)

“Maine is so blessed. We have some of the most beautiful natural resources right in our backyard, and it’s not just during the summer,” said Best. “We have miles and miles of groomed cross-country trails and snowshoe trails, sledding hills and skating rinks.”

The hikes will be easy to moderate in difficulty, and some parks will offer multiple hiking options.

“These aren’t going to be hiking to the top of Katahdin, and there’s a reason for that,” said Best. “Anybody can come on out and go for a hike with us, no matter what their ability is.”

Though not all Maine state parks are staffed year-round, they are open to the public. But if their gates are closed, make sure to park well off the road before entering the park on foot (or snowshoe or ski). To find state parks in your area, visit the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands website, parksandlands.com, and click on the “Find Parks & Lands” link on the right side of the page.

“We have a lot of winter in Maine, and the parks are as beautiful in their own right in the winter time as they are in the summer,” Harris said.

For winter hiking, make sure to wear appropriate footwear and clothing for cold weather. It is better to overdress in layers than to not bring enough clothing to keep warm. Also, bring plenty of water and food.

As in past years, several Maine state parks will host events, including family fun days and fishing derbies, throughout the winter.

“We always feel good about adding to what we’ve already been doing and moving forward,” Harris said. “We really do put our heart and soul into this.”

For information, visit www.maine.gov/doc/parks/. The National Association of State Park Directors governs the America’s State Parks alliance, www.americasstateparks.org. For information on Aroostook State Park, call 768-8341; Cobscook Bay State Park, 726-4412; Popham Beach State Park, 389-1335; and 865-4465.

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