SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

November 15, 2012

Over the river and through the Big Woods

Sunday's annual hike at wildlife sanctuary designed for all ages

By Will Broaddus Staff writer
The Salem News

---- — TOPSFIELD — Families who would like to go over the river and through the woods this holiday can do it, literally, during Sunday’s Big Woods Hike at Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary.

“We do it every year the Sunday before Thanksgiving,” said Sue Baeslack, education and volunteer coordinator at the sanctuary. “Adults and families can do it together.”

The hike, now in its 17th year, has become a popular alternative to sitting on the couch and watching too much football on TV.

Seven walks, each lasting two hours, will depart between noon and 1:30 p.m. to explore some unique corners of this Audubon Society property in Topsfield.

“It gives people a different perspective on the sanctuary,” Baeslack said. “It goes beyond the area that a casual visitor would see.”

In particular, hikers will follow a trail that takes them to Averill’s Island, a section of the property that isn’t technically an island but seems like one, given the way it juts out into the Ipswich River.

Perhaps because of its isolation, the island has avoided the farming and development that has altered the landscape almost everywhere else in the state.

“It’s second-growth, but it has some red and white pine trees that date back to the early 1800s,” said Scott Santino, sanctuary naturalist. “As far as second-growth forest goes, this could be one of the oldest in eastern Massachusetts.”

The spot also offers great views where visitors can imagine what Topsfield looked and sounded like a long, long time ago.

“To the east of the island is the Ipswich River. There are some nice vistas we can enjoy,” Santino said. “To the west is a wet meadow, which is a beaver-enhanced wet meadow, another example of the benefits of beaver in Massachusetts.”

Wetlands offer habitat to a wide range of creatures, from microscopic mud-dwellers to white-tailed deer, and there’s a chance hikers could catch a glimpse of something wild.

“We are seeing a good number of winter finches this week at Ipswich River,” Santino said. “We have had white-winged crossbills and an evening grosbeak. They’re not here every winter.”

Santino thinks that poor food crops in Canadian forests have forced these birds south in search of “suitable food resources.”

But most of the mammals who live in the sanctuary are nocturnal, Santino said, and Audubon staffers and docents leading the hikes will detect their presence from what they have left behind.

“We point out evidence of animals’ scat, or animal browse (where they have been eating),” Santino said.

Hike leaders will also discuss how creatures like squirrels and beavers are preparing for the cold months ahead.

But in addition to describing the wildlife in the sanctuary, hike leaders will discuss the land itself and the humans who have lived there.

“What makes this trip fun and engaging and good for lots of audiences is that it isn’t only a natural history walk, but also a cultural history walk,” Santino said.

“We talk about the building on the hill that dates back to 1700, (about) who were the past landowners and where did the stone walls come from.”

They will also consider geological features of the property, especially where these have been shaped by glaciers. Such features will be pointed out on the return trip from Averill’s Island, when the trail passes Hassocky Meadow.

“It’s what we call our esker trail,” Santino said, referring to a ridge of sedimented earth that is shaped like a railway embankment.

There are also drumlins, or small hills, and kames, which Santino defined as “sediment that dropped out between two chunks of ice — flat, finer sediment areas.”

Birders are welcome to bring binoculars, but hike leaders will tailor their talks for a general audience of all ages.

“It’s a nice way to get out and enjoy a beautiful fall hike in a woodland,” Santino said.

And just like in the old song, the best part of the journey arrives at the end.

“Once we’re done, we bring people back to the barn,” Santino said. “There will be a fire going in a wood stove, with soups and baked items for sale — a nice, cozy wrap-up at the end.”

BIG WOODS HIKE Where: Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, 87 Perkins Row, Topsfield When: Sunday, Nov. 18, departing at noon, 12:15 p.m., 12:30 p.m., 12:45 p.m., 1 p.m., 1:15 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. Cost: $8 adults, $7 children (discount for Mass Audubon members). Advance registration required by calling 978-887-9264. More information: Rain or shine; dress for the weather and wear sturdy footwear. Visit www.massaudubon.org/ipswichriver.