What had been a stretch of dark and cloudy days with stiff, east winds finally let up for crisp and sunny weather, leaving in its wake an invitation to the coast. Responding in kind, my wife and I packed up our boys and headed to “The Neck.”
Offering a charming 18 acres of ledgy scrambles, creaky boardwalks and sheltered trails, Mass Audubon’s Marblehead Neck Wildlife Sanctuary provided a perfect place to burn off some holiday energy while reinforcing some newly learned map skills.
Arriving midafternoon to the sound of local kids running through the park, we gathered our trail maps and previewed our trip. Few maps are as wonderfully detailed and kid-friendly as those from Mass Audubon. Taking full advantage, we decided to follow our boys’ lead and allow them to plot our course and choose destinations.
With loud enthusiasm, they proclaimed that our walk would include a visit to Audubon Pond, Migration Overlook and Vireo Loop. Perfect choices! With maps in their hands, they guided us into the sanctuary, walking under a canopy of bare-branched red maple, birch and shagbark hickory. A small, tired stream trickled alongside as we made our way. Snow-frosted mushrooms and shriveled elderberry lined the mostly brown trail.
The boys ran ahead to the first of three intended stops: Audubon Pond.
Resting quietly near the west end of the park is Audubon Pond, which is a little kettle hole. Since the pond was frozen over from the recent stretch of cold, we took turns testing the ice for safety before exploring the shores. Brown grasses, cattails and tufts of moss-covered earth rose up through the ice and snow. Icy, slick duck slides (like tiny boat ramps) told of the bustle that the pond will see in three short months.
Continuing on to Warbler Trail, the kids led us up and over marbled granite outcroppings to Migration Overlook: the highest point in the sanctuary. Under low branches and up lichen-covered boulders, the trail offered more of a short scramble than a walking route. With views of the pond below and across the park, it was easy to see that the vantage would be fantastic during migration seasons.
Avoiding compass bearings and complex navigation, our boys did exactly as we had taught — holding the maps flat, rotating with each turn of the trail and making sure to note where we were in relation to other landmarks. Before descending the overlook, my 7-year-old, Derek, noted the trail junction behind us and the pond down below, then, with confidence, led on.
We next arrived at an unmarked junction leading to our final destination: Vireo Loop. Stretching into a stand of swamp maples draped in old-man’s beard, a delightfully low boardwalk cut across a small, frozen swamp in a quiet little corner of the sanctuary. With glass-clear ice, the swamp offered a sort of window to its bottom.
Down on our hands and knees, we explored the swamp in a way that only a cold winter allows. Frozen algae hung still on the surface, while grass, leaves and swamp gas lay trapped until spring. Twigs and bark paused their decay like a still movie frame. Even a beetle laid frozen, suspended in ice.
Despite the cold and darkening afternoon, a snack break was requested. We sat together, resting atop a frozen swamp and munching on yummy sweets as the sun began setting a full minute later than the day before. Moments later, with silence around us, a strong chill in the air and colors muting to the setting sun, it was time to head back.
Our trip was short, but one of the best. We walked diverse geology, multiple little habitats and along a perfectly New England boardwalk. We strengthened our map skills and explored frozen worlds. But most importantly, we spent time together on New Year’s Eve, as a family, having fun and goofing off. Not bad for a little under a mile!
Justin Chase is an avid naturalist who lives in Amesbury and grew up in Newburyport. He is the author of the blog Outdoors, By Cracky! Visit his website at www.outdoorsbycracky.com, or contact him via email at email@example.com.
If you go
What: Marblehead Neck Wildlife Sanctuary
Where: Risley Road, Marblehead
When: Trails open daily from dawn to dusk
How much: Free; donations welcome
More information: 978-887-9264 or www.massaudubon.org