ELLSWORTH — After-school runs along the Union River and hiking in Acadia National Park are unsurprising ways for a young Hancock County woman to spend free time. Amy Niemczura-Sowa just never happened to stop moving as she grew older.
Born in the outdoor-oriented community of Farmington, Niemczura-Sowa moved to Ellsworth at age 11. “This is an outdoors community in its own way,” the 2003 Ellsworth High School graduate said. “It was definitely those two communities that shaped me.”
So, it made sense that a couple years after graduating from the University of New Hampshire in December of 2007, she hit the trail — the Appalachian Trail — for a five-month solo trek in the opposite direction that most take. Instead of starting in a popular spot like Georgia and hiking north, she started on familiar ground in Maine and headed south — hiking over 2,000 miles in five months.
“They say going southbound is a lonely hike, and it was,” she said.
Still, she added, while some people step off the AT and say never again, “it made me want to hike every day for the rest of my life.”
So, the next year she started from a southern point and hiked north on the trail.
“It was totally different,” she said. “After the lonely hike the year before, it was like, trail culture is so much fun.”
These experiences along with a lifetime love of being outdoors that started with her parents, Niemczura-Sowa said, led her to move to Mount Desert Island in 2011.
“I very much wanted to be near trails and be near young people, and MDI did that for me,” she said. She worked at Hannaford and then at a natural foods store. She bought a house surrounded by Acadia Park on three sides. And she hiked.
“In terms of my goal of hiking every day, this [life] allowed me to hike,” she said.
She also began writing about the trails she hiked on the Maine Hiking Facebook group, and on her Instagram page TheWayLifeTurnedOut and website MaineTheWayLifeTurnedOut and, more recently, to compile the Best Date Hikes in Maine.
In 2020, with a partner and a 3-year-old son and a rising pandemic that turned day hikes into a top pastime, Niemczura-Sowa took her son out hiking every day. And on her one free day — her partner and her split weekend child caring — she hit the trails.
“A lot of women get their nails done,” she said, smiling. “I just wanted to find new places I’d never been.” So, she opened the Maine Atlas and went through the trail list in front and started checking them off, one by one.
“It completely opened my eyes to all the mountainous parts of the state,” she said. “And everywhere I saw couples on dates, which I’d never seen before the pandemic.”
Some couples were on early dates, she discovered, and some had been married for 40 years. Yet there was no guidebook for Great Date Hikes, like there are for hikes with, for example, kids and with dogs. So Niemczura-Sowa began her compilation.
“I met a weirdly high number of couples who said their first date was Blue Hill Mountain,” she noted. “If you go up the Hayes Trail, even just at the top of the field you get this amazing view. I would say that is the best date hike in Hancock County, particularly an early date because it gets a decent amount of traffic. So, if things get weird, you’re not going to be alone up there.”
Safety always comes into play when out on the trail, a fact Niemczura-Sowa knew well from her solo Appalachian Trail and local day hikes because if she gets injured, who will call 911 if she cannot?
“The big question is when I’m in a more remote place, like doing the 4,000-footer [peaks] in Maine, what sort of precautions do I take?” she said. The answer is a satellite locator on her backpack with an SOS button that can connect with the Game Warden Service and show her exact location.
For date hike safety, she compiled a few tips to answer the question readers posed after seeing her list of best date hikes, “Do you really want to encourage people to date in the woods?” Tips include not going on a hike for your very first date: “It is best to meet them in person in a non-hiking context first,” she advises. For one thing, not everyone who lists hiking as an interest is ready to walk up a tall mountain in too hot or chilly weather.
For early dates, she recommends short, easy hikes in high-traffic popular destinations.
“Once you have been together longer, you can be more adventurous and choose longer, more challenging hikes,” she says.
Wise packing, appropriate clothing and footwear, meeting in a place with security cameras and driving your own car to the trailhead are other date hike safety tips.
And don’t be afraid to turn back or call for help over unexpected trail conditions or a bad date.
“A hiker’s most important tool is common sense, and common sense is also your best friend on a date,” Niemczura-Sowa writes in her list of tips. Included, too, is staying within cell service, planning for someone to call mid-date to check on you and just keeping your guard up.
Niemczura-Sowa also noted that a date hike doesn’t necessarily have to be romantic. It can be with a friend, with a location, and even with yourself.
“It’s just setting a time to do something you’re excited about,” she said. “That’s a date, for me.”
Read Niemczura-Sowa’s list of date hikes, broken down by county, on her blog mainethewaylifeturnedout.wordpress.com/2021/11/16/best-date-hikes-in-maine.