Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Snowshoeing in the Swamp

DECEMBER 20, 2008

This winter’s first significant snowfall gave me the chance to practice one of my new favorite “sports”: snowshoeing. When my wife and I lived in Boston, she bought each of us a pair of snowshoes, but most of the time they sat around and collected dust. However, now that we live next to Wilbraham’s White Cedar Swamp, I strap on a pair and go tromping whenever I can. Winter is the only time much this 800-acre swamp is hikable, and there is great appeal in walking from your back door into the woods.

In the photo below, the swamp’s wetlands extend to a ravine behind our house after a heavy rain (background, middle of the picture). The gulley sure filled up after a day-long downpour on December 12 (it was an ice storm north and west of here), and my three-year-old son was ecstatic when I hurled rocks in the water the next day. No rock throwing today, though: I must trudge on.

This huge wetland is the westernmost Inland Atlantic White Cedar Swamp in the country, and contains the state’s largest known population of the rare Bristly Buttercup flower. It also has a healthy population of another rare species: the Hessel’s Hairstreak butterfly, and is home to the largest concentration of the Eastern Worm Snake in the state. Last summer, while driving by the swamp’s southernmost edge on Faculty Street, I saw a bobcat at the woods’ edge.

Let’s follow the deer tracks, shall we? No, deer aren’t exactly rare in Massachusetts these days, are they?

Wild turkeys have also made an amazing comeback. In the photo below, follow the tree in the foreground from bottom upward, and about halfway up you can barely see two turkeys to the right.

Below: graffiti on the back of the 150-unit condo complex known as the Woods of Wilbraham. This project, which cut a 50-plus-acre swath into the swamp’s forested areas, was the source of much controversy when it was first proposed in 1995. It received town approval in 1998, only after the developers promised to build on its access road a bridge over wetlands and a tunnel under the road to allow blue-spotted salamanders to cross.

Area residents and salamanders managed to delay the project, but it was finally built. Unfortunately, development is gradually eating away at the swamp’s borders: in 2005, the town gave the OK to build 218 condominiums on the former 76-acre Oaks Farm off Stony Hill Road. There was concern about four endangered species of salamanders there, as well as the endangered spotted turtle, but they couldn’t crawl in the way of progress.

Then, on December 20, 2008, the Planning Board approved a 26-family home subdivision off Washington Road, which will cut into the northern edge of the swamp. Although there are efforts from the town to purchase the former Presz Farm, to the east of this site, and protect it from development, the edges of the swamp and its wooded uplands seem to be getting quickly filleted, year after year.

For now, however, I’ll enjoy the scenery (below) and not dwell on overdevelopment.

Now I’m heading down the Nine Mile Pond area. One great thing about snowshoeing: if you start to get lost, you can always follow your own tracks (below).

Whoa, what is that wet feeling on my right foot? Oops, I stepped into the marsh (below. It’s been cold lately, but not enough to freeze all the water.

Pow! Pow! Pow!

I hear the shotgun blasts from a hunter. No photos of Nine Mile Pond this hike. It’s time for me to get the fuck out of here—but not before snapping a shot of this tree stand (below).

There are no tracks around the tree stand, but someone’s shooting around here, and I’m not wearing bright colors. Needless to say, it’s safer to hike in January, when hunting season is over. But I had been jonesing for some snowshoeing. Before I go I’ll also get a shot of some White Cedars, which were used to build ship masts back in the day.

I choose to snowshoe with my cross-country skiing poles. This way I can get an upper-body workout, fend off aggressive dogs (I haven't had to yet) and whack the snow from the low-lying branches (below), so I don’t get any snow dumped on me as I limbo-dance under them.

Back to my backyard, where a bench built by my grandfather sat on his lawn in Hungry Hill, and then in his yard in East Springfield. Now it’s mine, with a fresh coat of white paint and snow.

Thus concludes my first swamp trek of the winter. If you’d like to know more about Wilbraham’s White Cedar Swamp, check out an in-depth ecological analysis of the area by William Slezak, which is available at the Wilbraham Public Library. Written in 1975, it’s somewhat dated, showing areas of forest and swamp that are unfortunately now paved over.

These wetlands are also in danger of not being a White Cedar Swamp in the future: as Slezak points out, more development around the swamp increases storm and fertilizer runoff and siltation. This contributes to nutrient enrichment, which is bad for the White Cedars but good for such hardwoods as red maple, so it could become a hardwood swamp.

This area is still a winter wonderland and a natural treasure. It’s even big enough to support a bobcat population, but for how long?

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