December 16, 2017
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Orono Bog Boardwalk nears final steps of restoration

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff
Updated:

After seven years of fundraising and careful construction, the $1 million restoration of the Orono Bog Boardwalk is nearly complete, and volunteers are working hard to amp up public events and programming in support of the campaign.

“We want to get it done within a year,” said Orono Bog Boardwalk Director Jim Bird on a recent visit to the popular boardwalk.

A snowshoe hare hopped by the boardwalk maintenance cabin, followed by several groups of boardwalk visitors. Sunny, with a warm breeze that swept away the mosquitoes, the afternoon was ideal for taking a stroll on the mile-long route.

The Orono Bog Boardwalk, originally constructed out of hemlock wood in 2002, is accessed from a trail in the Rolland F. Perry City Forest, which is commonly known as the Bangor City Forest. Beginning in a forested wetland, the wheelchair-accessible boardwalk travels across the Orono town line into a portion of the Orono Bog owned by the University of Maine. In the 616-acre peat bog, the boardwalk forms a loop, making it possible for people to walk through a delicate and visually stunning habitat without making a negative impact on the fragile ecosystem, which is home to a wide variety of interesting plants and animals.

“Over the years, we’ve had [visitors from] all 50 states and about 40 plus different countries besides the US,” said Bird, referring to a registration book that visitors can sign before or after their walk.

In addition, an electronic device hidden on the boardwalk counts people that pass by each day. Last year, it counted about 26,200 visitations.

“I think it may be the longest wetland boardwalk in the Northeast,” said Ron Davis, who founded the bog boardwalk in 2000, after years of leading his University of Maine students out to the bog to learn about the ecosystem.

“I didn’t have any conception that it would be as popular as it is,” said Davis. “But I thought it would be somewhat popular because the Bangor area really lacked a lot of natural attractions in association with visiting the city, so this would fill a niche that was empty.”

Davis, now retired, is professor emeritus at the University of Maine School of Biology & Ecology and Climate Change Institute. He and his wife, Lee Davis, live in Orono and volunteer at the Orono Bog Boardwalk every Wednesday, greeting visitors and answering their questions.

Over the years, they’ve watched the boardwalk slowly deteriorate. Under such heavy use and in such moist conditions, the wooden structure could only hold up for so long. Recognizing this issue, a volunteer committee formed in 2010, to create a plan to reconstruct the boardwalk with more durable material.

Reconstruction began in 2012, and has continued in phases ever since. The boardwalk is made of of 509 sections, each measuring 8 feet in length. To date, 299 of those 509 sections have been replaced with sections built of composite decking, aluminum siding and stainless steel posts featuring floats that keep the sections level in the water-filled bog.

“Right now we’ve raised the money to put in another 96 sections starting in October, and then after that, we’ll have 114 to go,” Bird said.

The boardwalk isn’t a safe structure for winter use so it usually closes in November. This year, however, it will close early so volunteer crews will have time to replace those 96 sections. Bird says the plan is to close at the end of the day on Saturday, Oct. 14, and to start reconstruction the next day.

The goal is to complete the $1-million reconstruction by December 2018, Bird said. So far, the campaign has raised nearly $800,000 through grants, donations and estates, leaving just over $200,000 to raise to fund the project’s final stages.

By the state of things, this restoration is coming just in the nick of time.

“This morning, we replaced three deck boards. Sometimes we replace 10,” said Bird, who works with maintenance volunteers each week to replace broken boards on the old wooden portion of the boardwalk that still remains.

“We’re in our 15th year now, and it’s holding up surprisingly well,” Bird said. “but there’s always parts that need to be replaced.”

The new composite and metal boardwalk, constructed by Great Northern Docks of Naples, Maine, has a predicted life of more than 30 years and will require very little maintenance. This will free up boardwalk volunteers to spend more time on educational programs, tours and public outreach. Already, about 700 people enjoy guided tours and educational programs on the boardwalk each season.

“When you’re out there, you really get a feeling you’re in the wild,” said Ron Davis. “And at the same time, we’re just a few minutes from the center of the city.”

Throughout the afternoon on July 5, several families, couples and solo walkers turned off the East-West Trail of the Bangor City Forest to visit the boardwalk. Some made the transition quickly, likely having been there before, while other visitors stopped at kiosk near start of the boardwalk to read the informative display about the bog.

Also on display at the kiosk was a donation box, as well as T-shirts, hats and other bits of Orono Bog merchandise for sale — all to raise money for the restoration and the annual operating costs, which range between $4,000 and $6,000.

Around 6 p.m., Ron Davis left the screened-in porch of the maintenance cabin to collect the donations left in the kiosk that day. As he counted dollar bills, a group walking by on a trail stopped and considered checking out the boardwalk.

“What’s a bog?” a woman in the group asked.

“It’s beautiful. You should go check it out,” a man in the group replied.

They would have to be quick about it. The boardwalk closed at 6:30 p.m. At that time, Ron Davis closes the gate and walks the entire boardwalk to make sure he doesn’t lock anyone in.

A lifelong naturalist, Davis recently authored the book “Bogs and Fens: A Guide to Peatland Plants of the Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada,” and he’s an accomplished wildlife photographer. He also provided all the information for the boardwalk’s many interpretive displays, which help visitors learn about the habitat as they walk. And as a volunteer docent, he shares his extensive knowledge about the bog with visitors every week.

“I think the bog needs volunteers,” Ron Davis said, “and I hope that more people will come to volunteer because if we have people out here to greet visitors and answer their questions, they’re more likely to enjoy themselves.”

In an effort to increase public awareness about the boardwalk and the reconstruction campaign, the Orono Bog Boardwalk will host a celebration for International Bog Day from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, July 23, with guest speakers, guided tours, a scavenger hunt and ice cream provided by Darling’s Ice Cream for a Cause truck.

“It started in 1991 in Scotland and a lot of countries, a lot of localities, bogs all over the world, celebrate it,” Bird said. “It’s basically just a way to get people interested in bogs, talk about them, show their beauty, show what they do for the environment, carbon sinks, just all sorts of things about wildflowers, the animals, the plants the inhabit it, and just get people more familiar with bogs and the value of conserving bogs.”

Also coming up is a children’s tour of the Orono Bog Boardwalk, scheduled for 10 a.m. on Monday, July 17, for which reservations are required. And there are plans for a workshop on ticks and mosquitoes led by Allison Gardner, assistant professor of Arthropod Vector Biology at the University of Maine. Details for that event are yet to be determined.

To learn more about the Orono Bog Boardwalk, including the restoration campaign and upcoming programs at the boardwalk, visit http://umaine.edu/oronobogwalk/ or call Jim Bird at jim.bird@umit.maine.edu.

 

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the year the boardwalk was first built. It was a typo.


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