While outdoor folks sit snugly indoors on long winter nights, they have time to reminisce about outdoor fun through the years and decades, depending on age, and one thought often pops to my mind during pensive reveries. Sport pursuits draw hunters and anglers into micro-habitats that most humans never enter, because the latter group has no pressing reason to wander into woodland niches that require ultra-inconvenient walking.

In Maine, alder runs provide a perfect example: Anglers after brook trout in small, alder-lined brooks or upland hunters after grouse and particularly woodcock in alder covers have firsthand knowledge of this habitat. Indeed, much of my sporting fun has happened in these shrubs.

Outdoor wanderers such as hikers may never step foot into an alder thicket because from the outside edge they look like such impenetrable jungles that it’s simply human nature to walk around rather than through them. Once inside alders, though, walking can be somewhat easy with a little meandering, bending and stepping over wrist-sized, fallen stems. I discovered this truth in my 20s while following an English setter through alders, hunting woodcock and grouse.

A single alder clump spreads outward to meet other clumps, and creative minds often compare these alders to Gothic arches, say in a church. Walkways snake between them, and dense foliage ceilings create small rooms – a grand place for brook anglers or bird hunters to walk. These two sports brought me into this habitat, and I’m grateful.

Here’s another Maine micro habitat: Natives call a conifer species that often grows in stands “tamarack” or “hackmatack,” but most of the English-speaking world refers to it as “larch.” This tree sprouts delicate needles that turn a golden gamboge in fall before the tree sheds them, leaving bare limbs like hardwoods. Losing all the needles before winter reduces the tree’s need for water and minerals in extreme cold. Larch needs this advantage to survive the north.

Deer hunters slipping into woods before daylight under a bright moon often notice this tree in fall colors. The beauty of gamboge in yellow-silver light evokes flowery descriptions, and no words do the fall larch justice.

Larch (and black spruce) grow on swamp edges and often divide uplands from lowlands. I fully understand that deer hunting brought me into this habitat in the predawn under a moon. Why else would people walk along a swamp edge during pitch dark in autumn?

And yet another intriguing habitat: All my life I have fished for brown trout and brook trout in a central Maine river that drops sharply for a mile after leaving a huge pond. This freestone water tumbles, rushes and roars between narrow banks until it hits an ultra-fertile bottomland with long gravel glides and pools – still powerful currents but with no rapids.

During mid-spring, carpets of lush, yellow-green false hellebore stand thigh high on the river’s narrow floodplains and grow a huge stem with leaves 6- to 12-inch long and 3- to 6-inch wide. This tropical-looking plant covers the ground under groves of American hornbeam, the latter not particularly prevalent in Maine. Small groves grow aplenty here, though.

Mainers know this hornbeam as “ironwood” or less commonly as “blue beech.” The wood is hard enough to be compared to iron, hence the colloquial name. In pod-auger days, folks used it to make wood-plane soles, tool handles, barn-stall features etc.

Here’s another habitat: Deer hunters anywhere in New England know about red-maple swamps. In these wetlands, somewhat well-spaced maple grow with thick swale grass between trunks. Often enough, alder or leatherleaf grow in patches in this habitat, too.

I have always known about red-maple swamps but once looked at them as a local thing – a provincial attitude. About 18 years ago, though, a recently published Audubon guidebook specifically mentioned red-maple swamps, impressing me.

After heavy fall rain gathers in the swale, deer hide in the alders or leatherleaf, lying on hummocks above water. This offers deer cover with ample visibility across swale to see and hear predators splashing toward them. Deer hunting introduced me to these wetlands – a reason to wade in water clogged with grass.

As snow melts and settles and makes walking easier, habitats bare of foliage prove fun to explore because we can see more. In the next few weeks, folks poke around the woods more as snow recedes on the east and south sides of ridges and in fields, as the new season creeps ever so slowly toward golden warmth, getting us antsy.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at

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