The outside temperature was 12 degrees Fahrenheit and falling when I loaded my snowshoes into the car and headed for the Francis Malcolm Science Center in Easton on Jan. 23.
As I traveled east from Caribou, a full moon rose over snow-covered fields into a cloudless sky the color of dark blue ink.
I felt lucky to be among the participants who had signed up for a moonlight snowshoe hike sponsored by Cary Medical Center’s Healthy You program. When I called to register, the event was full with 60 people on the list.
A few cancellations created space for me, but the cold did not discourage the more than 40 snowshoers of all ages who gathered in the center’s lobby as cars filled the parking lot.
Those who did not bring their own snowshoes selected pairs from buckets containing a variety of sizes provided by the center. Once shod and bundled, two groups of 20-some hikers each crossed Route 1A and headed through the woods on separate trails led by Vaughn Martin, nature educator and fifth-grade teacher, and Larry Berz, center director and astronomy teacher at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone.
“I grew up in Caribou, but I had never been snowshoeing in my life,” said Bethany Zell, director of the Healthy You program, which is dedicated to making wellness programs accessible to people in Cary’s service area. She was seeking venues for activities to foster good health when, inspired by friends who snowshoe, she decided to explore options for snowshoeing,
“I searched online and the Francis Malcolm Science Center came up,” she said, adding that her search for a place to snowshoe near Fort Fairfield led her to other discoveries. She learned about trails at the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge in Limestone, where another snowshoe hike will be held in February. She also found that the Caribou Wellness and Recreation Center rents snowshoes for use on local trails, such as those at the Caribou Country Club.
“Pursuing one event led me to others; things snowball,” she said of the job she loves because it enables her to exercise her passion for promoting health and wellness.
The moonlight hike was one of five activities scheduled for January in the Fort Fairfield area. The others were called enVISION, a program at the Fort Fairfield Library to help participants focus on goals for the new year; a Bone Builders exercise program open house at the Fields Lane Community Center; a demonstration on how to read labels and choose healthy foods in the grocery store; and a group walk at the Fort Fairfield Community Center to introduce participants to the Healthy You Walking Club.
Fort Fairfield is one of six communities served by the Caribou hospital’s Healthy You program. A similar array of free activities is scheduled for Limestone in February, Van Buren in March, Presque Isle in April, Caribou in May and Washburn in June.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Zell said. “We are trying to connect people to things that are already happening in their communities. Sometimes it takes promoting to know what is available.”
The Jan. 23 hike in Easton was a first for many of the participants. A long line of snowshoes scuffed the crisp surface of the trail as Berz’ group filed into the woods.
He stopped in a clearing and the snowshoers clustered, following his gaze to the stars overhead.
“Many a night I saw the Pleiades rising thro’ the mellow shade / Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid,” he recited. “Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote that.” The hikers were observing what Tennyson described in “Locksley Hall.”
The moon was high by the time the group reversed direction.
“I encourage you to turn off your headlamps and flashlights and let the moon light the way,” Berz urged. We obeyed. With the moon at our backs, our figures formed distinct shadows on the snow as we followed each other on narrow paths through the woods.
We stopped in a cluster of tall evergreens and listened to the silence. I thought of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Evangeline” — “This is the forest primeval / The murmuring pines and the hemlocks.”
Hot chocolate and sweets awaited our return to the science center and, as we departed, we were invited to view the moon magnified by the lenses of a pair of telescopes Berz had set up outside on the deck.
“We astronomers serve as local Prometheans, claiming a snatch of cosmic fire to share with a cold community,” Berz wrote in a column published in the local weekly newspaper, the Aroostook Republican & News on Jan. 13. “Celestial realities initially mock our personal importance, but if we come to the dawn humbly, we leave transformed, initiated into the cosmic neighborhood.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.