Wachusett Meadow: Different After Decades

Wachusett Meadow, Wildlife Pond, North Meadow Trail

Looking down at the wildlife pond from the hilltop

On Sunday we visited the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s wildlife sanctuary at Wachusett Meadow, in Princeton, MA, where I got a first-hand lesson on how the environment changes over time. We used to go to this old farm for picnics with the kids when they were small but had not been back for decades.

A lot can happen in decades, as I found out.

Goals for Wachusett Meadow

I had two goals on this trip:

  1. Photograph the gnarly trunk of a huge sugar maple, a tree with hundreds of years of history written in its bark, and,
  2. Take the trail through the red maple swamp on wooden walkways over the water before the black flies and mosquitoes hatched.

I started at the Visitor Center by looking at a trail map and wondering why I did not see either attractions listed. Worse, I did not see any enormous old tree where I remembered the sugar maple standing. A volunteer wandered over and asked if he could help so I explained what I was looking for. This is what he said.

The Sugar Maple — RIP

Sugar Maple, Wachusett Meadow, North Meadow Trail

The sugar maple stump

The big old tree needed some help. Branches had grown so heavy that they were splitting and dropping. They called in an arborist to help save the tree and he cabled the branches in an elaborate support web. This helped the tree but had an unfortunate side effect. As the tallest object on the hillside, the metal-reinforced tree drew lightning.

The sugar maple took hit after hit but finally succumbed to the multiple lightning bolts. That happened years ago. All that is left is a rotting, vine-covered stump. One photo opportunity bit the dust.

The Swamp Trail Closed

As for the swamp trail, well, that requires a swamp. After the people of Massachusetts voted to ban leg-hold traps in 1996, the fur trappers moved elsewhere and the beaver proliferated. It turns out that rabbits have nothing on Castor Canadensis when it comes to reproduction. In a few short years sighting a beaver went from a rare wildlife event to finding them everywhere. Doing what they do best, and drawn by the sound of running water, the beaver population flooded roads, back yards, and basements.

Beaver meadow, beaver pond, Wachusett Meadow

The beaver meadow past the tree

Here, they moved in to the stream that went through the swamp and dammed it, creating a beaver pond. This body of water goes through a predictable cycle and has a limited lifetime. Here’s how Nancy Marie Brown describes it in the Penn State News:

“Beaver ponds are active for about 30 years. The first stage (which Prosser calls “new active”) begins when a stream is dammed and a pond forms. The trees and bushes, their roots drowned, give shade and leafy cover. Eventually they die and rot (or are cut down and eaten, depending on their size and species). Then the beavers must travel further afield to forage, and the dam is widened and the pond enlarged, during this “old active” stage. Trunks and stumps dot the pond, but few shade trees remain except on the edges. The pond is carved with channels, a mix of open water and shrubby hummocks. After the beavers leave the “abandonment” stage—the dam eventually breaks and the water subsides. Grasses and shrubs recolonize the pondflats, and slowly it returns to woodland.”

Guess what? In the decades since we had visited, the beaver had taken the red maple swamp through the whole cycle, from first dam to old active, and moved on. They left a classic “beaver meadow” behind. The cool green swamp I remembered had been replaced by open space with hummocks and brush but no trees. The rangers closed the trail.

The Hill Trail to the Glacial Erratic

Fortunately, I found lots to see at Wachusett Meadow. While my husband wandered around taking pictures, I hiked uphill past the farm pond and along the upland hayfield’s edge. Occasionally I hopped from side to side to avoid soaking my sneakers in seeps of cold spring water. (I failed. It’s been a very wet spring.)

glacial erratic, glacial boulder, glacier, Chapma Trail

The glacial erratic

At the top, I veered off into the woods to find the Glacial Boulder. This huge chuck of granite, known as a glacial erratic, rests all by itself on the hillside where the retreating glacier dropped it. Glacial erratics vary in size from small rocks to huge boulders and this one is the size of a recreational vehicle. I walked all around it and got some good photos before heading back downhill.

On the way, I stopped to meditate on a bench near the old sugar maple stump. I sat quietly listening to the bird songs around me until a hiker passed nearby with his music playing so loudly that I could hear it through his earbuds. No birdsongs for him. I joined my husband and we sat and read in the warm sunshine until it was time to leave.

Find a Wildlife Sanctuary Near You

We have visited many Mass Audubon Wildlife sanctuaries like Wachusett Meadow and they are all interesting in different ways and well maintained. You can see a map of them here. The state has so many, you should be able to find one near you.

You never know what you will see but, if you see something you like, don’t wait decades to return. Nature moves on without you.

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