Volunteers race to replace decaying Orono Bog Boardwalk

Posted May 15, 2013, at 12:28 p.m.
Last modified May 15, 2013, at 3:19 p.m.

Walking along the Orono Bog Boardwalk this spring, you’ll view a sea of unfurling fiddleheads and bright green skunk cabbage that smells just as you’d imagine. As you walk to the center of the bog, alien-like pitcher plants emerge from the peat moss, at times hidden under the pink buds of bog rosemary and white tufts of cotton grass. With all there is to see, you may overlook the yellow tape that volunteers have tied here and there, marking where the wood of the boardwalk is being weakened by fungus and carpenter ants.

“The boardwalk is in its eleventh year now, and it’s getting into pretty bad shape,” said Orono Bog Boardwalk founder Ron Davis. “We have a repair crew out here almost every day now — for part of the day — and we can’t keep that up.”

The Boardwalk Campaign, a fundraising effort to replace the existing wood boardwalk with longer-lasting composite material, began early 2012. Since then, the volunteer organization that maintains the boardwalk has raised approximately $170,000. They aim to raise $250,000 by July 1 to replace the first 105 sections (of 509 sections) with composite materials and aluminum supports in late summer and early fall, according to Jim Bird, director of the Orono Bog Boardwalk.

The first section replaced will stretch from the boardwalk’s beginning, at a kiosk and cabin in the Rolland F. Perry (Bangor) City Forest, about 800 feet to the Bangor-Orono town line, where the boardwalk splits into a big loop that travels out to the very center of Orono Bog.

“We want to replace the entire boardwalk in the next couple of years,” Bird said.

The entire project is expected to cost between $600,000 and $1 million, according to a recent press release.

The composite boardwalk (made of wood sawdust and resins) will be more weather resistant than the current hemlock boardwalk. It will also be easier to maintain and level, according to Davis, who researched bogs while teaching in the biology department at the University of Maine.

“I learned what unique and beautiful ecosystems they were, and so I just wanted other people to see them,” Davis said.

Along with more than 100 volunteers, Davis constructed the boardwalk in 2002 and 2003. In eight months, they pieced together the 4,200-foot walkway, which is longer than any other bog boardwalk in Maine and meets federal and state standards as wheelchair accessible. They also constructed a wheelchair-accessible bathroom nearby.

Jointly managed by the Orono Land Trust, the City of Bangor and the University of Maine, the boardwalk is operated and maintained by a group of dedicated volunteers.

“Last year, I think we put in over 3,700 volunteer hours,” Bird said. “There’s a lot of maintenance.

“What we really want to do is educational outreach — going out and talking at schools,” he continued. “Once the new boardwalk is out, we’ll have time to go out and do what we’re supposed to do.”

Last year, they installed an electric counter on the boardwalk and recorded the number of boardwalk visits for the first time. From the boardwalk’s opening in May to its close in late November, it counted more than 26,600 visits.

“People get to experience a northern peatland without having to walk through it and mess it up,” Bird said. “That’s the reason it was built.”

The boardwalk loop hike is about 1 mile long and travels from upland forest out into the 616-acre Orono Bog. For the majority of the hike, the boardwalk floats atop the water-saturated peat, an acidic layer of undecomposed remains of plants including leaves, moss, branches, and even trunks.

At the center of the bog, where the layer of peat reaches down as far as 25 feet, only certain species of plants can grow. Tall red maples and other broad-leafed trees are replaced by stunted tamarack and black spruce, scattered among hummocks, colorful peat moss and low-lying plants. Many visitors gaze in wonder at the three species of carnivorous plants, which trap insects for nutrients, as well as the four species orchids.

“Right now, there are no orchids out there, and another month and a half, there will be hundreds of orchids,” Bird said. “It’s just amazing how things change.”

A series of educational signs help visitors identify the common species of bog plants and animals. And benches are located along the boardwalk (at least every 200 feet) for people to rest and observe wildlife.

A “Nature Calendar,” a list of plants and wildlife that can be observed from the boardwalk by month, based on a year of field notes, can be accessed at www.oronobogwalk.org/seasons.htm.

In May, volunteers led two walks on the boardwalk to view a variety of returning warblers and other birds. Upcoming programs at the bog include:

— Nature guide training for volunteers to lead tours of the boardwalk for groups, 10 a.m.-noon Saturday, May 18, at the boardwalk. Requirements: Interest and love of the bog and desire to learn about bog flora and fauna. Free. To sign up or request information, email john.maddaus@umit.maine.edu or kourtney.collum@maine.edu.

— Two-part program that combines an evening presentation on peatlands and a field trip to the Orono Bog led by Ron Davis, 6:30-8 p.m. Friday, May 24, and 9 a.m.-noon Saturday, May 25, starting at Fields Pond Audubon Center at 216 Fields Pond Road in Holden. Cost is $10 for Maine Audubon members and $15 for nonmembers. Register in advance by calling 989-2591 or visiting www.maineaudubon.org.

— Wildflower photography workshop led by Ron Davis, boardwalk founder, ecologist and nature photographer, 6-9 a.m. Saturday, June 1, at the boardwalk. Free.

— “BogKIP” for World Wide Knit in Public Day, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, June 8, at the boardwalk. Free. To participate in the Bog Blanket Project, stitch a 6-inch square using natural fibers, with colors and textures inspired by the bog. Volunteers will sew the squares together to create one or more afghans to be auctioned in October as a fundraiser in support of boardwalk maintenance and operation. For information, email mary.bird@maine.edu.

— “Hydrology in Bogs and Fens — Where Does the Water Go?” educational nature walk led by Andy Reeve, University of Maine professor of geological sciences, 9-10:30 a.m. Saturday, June 22, at the boardwalk. Free.

Reserve your space on walks beforehand by calling 866-2578 or emailing Jim.Bird@umit.maine.edu (write “boardwalk” in the subject line).

The boardwalk is open 7 a.m.-6:30 p.m. seven days a week during spring and summer, with hours adjusting for day-length changes in autumn. To reach the boardwalk, use the Bangor City Forest entrance at the end of Tripp Road off Stillwater, north of the Bangor Mall.

Before visiting the boardwalk, make sure to review the full list of boardwalk rules at www.oronobogwalk.org. If you have questions about the boardwalk and its future, email jim.bird@umit.maine.edu.

To donate to the Boardwalk Campaign, send a check, payable to the University of Maine Foundation, to: University of Maine Foundation, 2 Alumni Place, Orono, Maine, 04469. Be sure to annotate your check: “For Boardwalk Campaign.” Or visit www.umainefoundation.org/onlinegiving/index.html.