The interior of Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge features miles of wide-open, tundra-like terrain. Carey Kish photo

A few miles east of the Penobscot River in the town of Milford is a great expanse of wild country, an interesting mix of bogs, wetlands, meadows and floodplain woodlands. The Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge encompasses this ecological melting pot of landscapes, some 11,500 acres in all, including one of the largest peatlands in Maine.

Eight miles of trails provide hikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers year-round access to the refuge. Carter Meadow Trail, Oak Point Trail and Johnson Brook Trail each depart from trailheads along County Road and lead to the edge of the open interior, where the namesake Sunkhaze Stream meanders for 5 placid miles through the heart of the refuge.

On a brilliant blue February afternoon, I emerged from the relative shelter of the hardwoods at Oak Point and was met with an icy wind scouring the flat plain of snow. Donning an extra layer, I struck off in the direction of Birch Stream, then followed its buried route to Sunkhaze Stream, also deep under feet of perfect Styrofoam snow.

Sunkhaze Meadows is home to 11,500 acres of bog, wetland meadows and floodplain woodlands. And 8 miles of trails. Carey Kish photo

The snowshoeing was fabulous, but once out there amid the miles of tundra-like terrain, it was easy to long for Nordic skis to really break free and cover some ground. Next time. Nonetheless, I plodded happily along until the cold demanded a return to the margin of trees, where a sunny snowbank out of the wind provided a welcome respite for lunch and hot tea.

In addition to Sunkhaze Stream, the Sunkhaze refuge protects a dozen miles of tributary brooks and an extraordinary peatland complex of five raised peat domes. According to the Maine Natural Areas Program, the Sunkhaze domed bogs have “… convex surfaces that rise several meters above the surrounding terrain… in the center, peat accumulation is sufficient to maintain a perched water table.”

In the early 1980s, commercial mining interests had the bog’s 15-foot-deep peat deposits in their sights, but a coalition of concerned citizens balked at the plan and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service eventually purchased the land. Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1988, becoming a part of a system of more than 560 federally owned refuges around the country managed for wildlife habitat protection.

The Carter Meadow Trail is one of MNAP’s Natural Heritage Hikes and a detailed fact sheet is available online. A hard copy printout is a fun and informative companion to have along when you visit Sunkhaze in summertime.

“A hike along the Carter Meadow Trail sure can be relaxing and the birding phenomenal during the spring migration, but the view of the bog as the landscape opens up along the trail is the real treat,” said Keith Ramos, the refuge manager. “It’s quite peaceful, at least before the bugs come out or after they’re gone. Early spring and late fall sure are the best times to visit.”

Ramos emphasized the refuge’s voracious mosquito and black fly populations several times when I spoke with him earlier this winter, so come prepared in summer to enjoy the place armed with proper clothing and plenty of bug dope. The latter was something I didn’t have to worry about in the single-digit temperatures of my visit, of course, but was duly noted for future reference.

This hiker has plans to return to check out the refuge’s other trails as well as perhaps try a paddle on Sunkhaze Stream from the hand carry launch site reached by the short Ash Landing Trail on the Stud Mill Road. The busy work of beavers can often make for an interrupted journey along the stream, per Ramos, but hey, that’s why they call it adventure, right?

Ramos and four staff are based out of their office in the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in Baring, near Calais. They manage not only Sunkhaze but Moosehorn, Aroostook NWR up north in the County, six large units and some 60 easements for a total of around 50,000 acres.

Visitors will find the winter trails at Sunkhaze to be in “au naturel” condition, but Nordic skiers can enjoy 3-5 miles of groomed trails at Moosehorn and 15 miles of groomed and tracked trails at Aroostook, the work of terrific volunteers at both locales. All are certainly worth the time and effort to explore and enjoy.

Carey Kish of Mt. Desert Island is the author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast and editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. Follow more of Carey’s adventures on Facebook @CareyKish


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