Explore these wetlands, where mud and marvelous creatures rule
By Katharine Wroth
"In a wetland, families can experience the kind of languid exploration that lends itself to highly imaginative thinking," says author Barbara Hurd, whose book Stirring the Mud is a literary tribute to swamps and their secrets. "Parents can teach children—or maybe vice versa—how to walk through wobbly, uncertain landscapes, which seems like a good skill to have in increasingly complex societies."
Hurd points out that wetlands "don't usually lend themselves to 'life lists,' so even the already nature-oriented explorer isn't likely to be ticking off accomplishments while...in the muck." In these special areas, it's all about slowing down to appreciate the small things, whether it's the curling leaves of a carnivorous sundew plant or the larval shell of a recently hatched dragonfly.
Intrigued? We've put together a few good ways to convince the kids it's fun to venture into the world of wetlands, and five suggestions for unforgettable trips.
Swamps vs. Bogs: A Wetlands Primer
Before we dive in, a quick refresher for those who haven't given wetlands a thought since seventh-grade science class. Found on every continent except Antarctica, wetlands are areas where water is consistently at or near the surface of the soil. There are three basic types: bogs, swamps, and marshes. What's the difference?
Bogs, generally found in northern climates, have no inlets or outlets. Often carved by glaciers, they are usually fed by rain and snow only. Because bogs are highly acidic and low on oxygen, plants decompose extremely slowly in them, compressing instead into the thick, spongy mat known as peat. While these environs are inhospitable to fish, they are popular with insects, birds, grazing animals, all manner of vegetation, and wide-eyed human wanderers. (For an up-close look at a Northeast bog, follow AMC naturalist Nancy Ritger on a nature walk near AMC's Lonesome Lake Hut in New Hampshire.)
Swamps are defined by the presence of trees and shrubs, and by their location closer to rivers and streams. In stark contrast to bogs, swamps are found in many regions, not just in the north, and their waters are habitable for fish, clams, shrimp, and many other creatures.
Marshes, found more often in plains and coastal areas, are the less-private cousins of the swamp. Here, trees and shrubs give way to grasses, reeds, and other soft-stemmed plants.
"Bogs and swamps are more biologically productive than open water," says AMC guidebook author John Hayes. "They are shallow and are often choked with aquatic plants. Those plants provide food and refuge for small animals. That's where you’ll find frogs, salamanders, turtles, snakes, dragonflies, damselflies, fish, ducks, and more."
Five Good Reasons to Do the Swamp Stomp
"Wetlands are some of my favorite places to go," says AMC Senior Naturalist Nicky Pizzo, who leads groups of schoolchildren and others to these spots and, in her down time, enjoys exploring them with her young daughter. "They're always interesting—they're cool and damp and mysterious."
If you (or your kids) still aren't sure that wetlands are worth getting excited about, consider these unassailable attractions.
1. Two words: carnivorous plants. In bogs, Little Shop of Horrors comes to life, as several varieties of plants representing the more bloodthirsty branch of the vegetative family work their magic. What kid—or adult, for that matter—wouldn't be fascinated by that? Pitcher plants, sundews, and bladderworts are all examples of plants that trap and feast on insects, using various techniques to snare their prey. Pitcher plants lure bugs down into deep pools of digestive enzymes, while sundews trap hapless creatures using sticky hairs on their leaves, which then curl up so the plant can chow down; bladderworts do their dining via tiny underwater traps. "It's a cool, magical thing," says Pizzo. Sundews in particular, she says, are "so tiny, you really have to get down to the level of the plants, so it's great for kids." You can learn more about this gruesome and fascinating bit of biology from the New England Carnivorous Plant Society. And when you've had your fill of these hungry bog brethren, you can spot other colorful plants including sheep laurel, leatherleaf, and rare, delicate orchids.
2. Frogs, bugs, and footprints. You never know what you'll discover on a wetland walk, says Pizzo, but she suggests bringing a small, aquarium-style dip net (you can pick one up at any pet or discount store) and bug boxes so you can catch critters, inspect them, and release them unharmed. "My daughter is really into looking for frogs and dragonflies," she says. "With a dip net, it's really fun to see what's in the water—things that you just can't see by looking at the surface. It doesn't matter if you don't know what it is, it's fun just to see it, talk about it, and ask questions." Keen observers can also spot tracks and other signs of moose, deer, beaver, and other wildlife—or maybe catch a glimpse of the animals themselves.
3. Mud, glorious mud. When visiting wetlands, its important to stay on marked trails, both to protect fragile vegetation and to protect your feet from getting wet (or save yourself from an even deeper plunge—Pizzo has seen at least one person go waist deep in a bog). Most wetlands trails incorporate boardwalk-style bog bridges, and "that right there is an adventure," says Pizzo, "especially for the shorter legs." From some bridges, she says, kids can peer down onto the plants and insects below; others are more level with the natural attractions. As for the non-wooden portions of the trail, they can get muddy depending on the season—thick with the special swamp variety that the poet Mary Oliver refers to as "pathless, seamless, peerless mud." Pizzo says the rule of thumb is to walk through, rather than around, muddy patches. Chances are you won't have to twist any arms when those moments come.
4. The occasional dead body. OK, you're not really going to find a dead body in the swamps and bogs of New England. But hundreds have been found in the northern bogs of Europe, remarkably and eerily preserved after centuries of submersion due to the acidity of the water. So you can tell your resident Junior Detectives to be on the lookout. While they're keeping an eye on the murky shallows, they'll see lots of other wonders they were never expecting to encounter.
5. Peace and quiet. While other families are flocking to popular trails or scenic peaks, you'll feel like you've discovered a private corner of paradise, albeit a slightly soggy one. So where exactly can you find this slice of paradise? Read on for a few suggestions.
Five Terrifically Squishy Trips
The Northeast is home to a colorful patchwork of swamps and bogs, many of them well managed and open to the public. Before you set out, heed a few practical tips: Wear shoes that you don't mind getting wet (and "if you're going on a long hike, try to save the getting wet for the way back," says Pizzo with a laugh); bring plenty of insect repellent; stay on marked trails; follow Leave No Trace guidelines; and make sure you are armed with the 10 hiking essentials, even for a day trip.
1. Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, Errol, N.H.
Today this 25,650-acre refuge is best known by the name of the long, shallow lake that dominates it, but its protection began in the late 1970s under a different moniker: Floating Bog National Natural Landmark. That's because the federal government recognized the area's large "floating bog"—a bog with a thick mat of sphagnum moss or other vegetation on top—as a rare feature worth taking care of. The surrounding lands and waters earned federal protection in the early 1990s, and today the entire refuge—which is home to nesting loons, osprey, moose, and other wildlife—is a popular destination for paddling, fishing, hunting, and more. You can avoid the madding crowds by opting to explore some of the quieter corners along these suggested routes.
2. Manchester Cedar Swamp Preserve, Manchester, N.H.
A taste of nature in one of New England's classic small-scale cities, this remarkable 602-acre cedar swamp was under development by the University of New Hampshire in the 1990s, slated to host a satellite campus before a change of plans led to its protection. Now owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, the swamp is home to Atlantic white cedar, white pine, red oak, and black gum trees, some of which are more than 450 years old, and giant rhododendron thickets, which are especially impressive during June, when they burst with pink and white blossoms. An easy 1.8-mile boardwalk includes three short loop trails, and offers occasional glimpses of wildlife including mink, beaver, great blue heron, and warblers.
3. Ponkapoag Pond, Canton, Mass.
Although the uninitiated might struggle with the pronunciation of this native place name, insiders know there's an easy way to remember: It rhymes with bog (Ponka-pog). That's a fitting mnemonic, because the 230-acre pond, which sits in the midst of the state-run Blue Hills Reservation, boasts an Atlantic white cedar bog on its western edge. Fairly rare in Massachusetts, this mini-ecosystem is outfitted with a narrow boardwalk that lets visitors venture into its center, where you can see carnivorous plants, a floating mat of sphagnum moss, and other natural wonders. Though it's less than 20 miles south of Boston, the bog is a peaceful retreat that has been compared to the more remote bogs of rural New England. Make it a longer hike by taking some or all of the 4.2-mile trail around the entire pond; you'll find AMC's Ponkapoag Camp on the opposite side.
4. Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Morris County, N.J.
Located just 26 miles west of Times Square, this popular natural getaway nearly became an airport in 1959. Named a national refuge instead, its 7,768 acres now provide a home or resting ground for more than 222 species of birds, for threatened species including the blue-spotted salamander and bog turtle, and for mammals ranging from bats to beaver. Two environmental education centers operated by the local county parks commissions, one on each side of the sprawling refuge, offer guided tours, wildlife observation blinds, classes, and miles of walking trails.
5. Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary, Prince Frederick, Md.
Just an hour south of Washington, D.C., lies one of the northernmost stands of cypress trees in the country. Logged by local boat builders and others until the 1950s, the 100-acre sanctuary is now owned by The Nature Conservancy and managed by the county. A nature center offers exhibits on the area's natural and cultural history, with hands-on elements for the younger set, and a quarter-mile boardwalk brings visitors through stands of cypress trees as tall as 100 feet. Wildflowers, warblers, and plenty of places to sit and enjoy the surroundings—now that's what we call a recipe for wetlands success.
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