Murky and Quirky
Explore these wetlands, where mud and marvelous creatures rule
By Katharine Wroth
AMC Outdoors, August 2012
When a free day beckons and you're trying to decide where to take the family, the region's wetlands might not leap to mind. But these unusual natural areas are worth a second glance. The swampy, sodden expanses of the Northeast are full to bursting with rare plants, curious critters, and enough oozy muck to make any card-carrying kid happy (though staying on marked trails is a must). Best of all, these curious corners are not as crowded as more popular destinations.
"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
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
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
1. Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, Errol, N.H.
2. Manchester Cedar Swamp Preserve, Manchester, N.H.
3. Ponkapoag Pond, Canton, Mass.
4. Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Morris County, N.J.
5. Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary, Prince Frederick, Md.