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11.15.11

Winter walks

With their austere off-season beauty, the Island’s wild places are a natural draw. This time of year many conservation groups offer education about the terrain, flora, and fauna – as well as entry to some private lands.

A couple of dozen hardy souls gather in a field off North Road in Chilmark. They are expectant. The sun is high, the skies are brilliant, and the air is frigid. Every spoken word or chuckle floats on a white puff of vapor.

“Hi there!”

“Hi,” says another woman in return. She is clueless until the friendly greeter lowers the blue muffler from her face, baring petroleum-jellied lips in a familiar grin. It’s her neighbor from Oak Bluffs, thickened by layers of long johns, woolens, down, fleece, thermal socks, and what have you. Her fellows are similarly padded. They wear boots as rugged as truck tires. Their headgear is largely unflattering: One woman resembles Elmer Fudd; a middle-aged man channels Heidi. They couldn’t care less. It is January, and they are about to hike over Menemsha Hills Reservation to Great Rock Bight, where they will run smack into the mean wind shear of the Vineyard’s north shore.

This being a Sunday, these people could just as well have hunkered down at home with their forced-hot-air furnaces, Snuggies, hot cocoa, and warm dogs, but no! If it’s Sunday and it’s winter, Vineyarders of the outdoorsy sort will surrender to the lure of a guided afternoon tour of a splendid grassland, woodland, coastline, or moraine. A Vineyard winter walk is all at once invigorating, enlightening, picturesque, social, none too rugged, and more often than not, it’s free.

Why Sundays? That’s the day of the week when hunting in Massachusetts is illegal. Winter walkers dare to presume every shooter and archer got the memo.

Guided winter walks have expanded over time from occasional to many, under the aegis of the not-for-profit organizations that steward the Island’s conservation lands. At present, they constitute about a third of the Vineyard’s land mass. Aside from a trail, footbridge, or helpful sign here and there, these parcels are forever protected from further development – if not from Mother Nature.

Hosts of regular winter walks include the Vineyard Conservation Society, the Trustees of Reservations, Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, and Polly Hill Arboretum. People close to the Vineyard Conservation Society are not shy about pointing out that theirs was the first organization to host walks for the public, back in the 1960s.

Why do these outfits send their staff out in the cold on their days off on such nonessential business? “Hikes are the way we try to develop an appreciation for why conservation is important,” says VCS Executive Director Brendan O’Neill. No matter the sponsor, every winter trek is a walking textbook – illustrated, no less – on ecological issues such as water quality, erosion, habitat, and climate change, all as they impact the Vineyard’s own backyard.

Last winter, Vineyarders embarked on at least twenty such winter walks. These are but a few.

 

Norton Point

November isn’t quite winter, but no one quibbles. The temperature is in the sixties and the air is clear, enticing sixty people and a dog – twice the average turnout – to the Vineyard Conservation Society’s first “winter” walk of the season. No less a temptation is the tour du jour: Norton Point, Chappaquiddick side, home of the 2007 south-shore breach between Katama Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

Pat Crosson of Vineyard Haven says, “I read about the walk in this week’s paper and...then I had to decide: Go see the opera at the movie house or do this?” Perhaps the deciding factor was the snickerdoodles. No VCS winter walk is complete without the tailgate treats baked by board member David Nash of Edgartown.

But first things first: The tour begins at Wasque Point. No matter how mild the breeze on the ferry ride to Chappy, Wasque always has more bluster. Walkers zip up and pull on gloves. The sky is clear enough to reveal Nantucket, a faint line of terrain on the southeastern horizon. Little Skiff and Sandbar Islands are visible to the east.

“Seals come to Sandbar Island to rest and warm up in the sun,” says a wildlife biologist with the Trustees of Reservations, who serves as the day’s guide. Nearly every winter walk is narrated by a bona fide natural scientist, brimming with an astounding store of information. “The rip current brings lots of mussels and other food to the shoals,” our guide says as she points just offshore. “In the winter, just after sunrise, you get an amazing spectacle of scoters, eiders...razorbills, sea ducks.” Those walkers who savor the most minute of factoids walk elbow to elbow with her, lest they miss anything.

“I’ve walked around this area a lot on my own,” says Pat as the tour wends its way upland along the narrow Swan Pond, “but it’s much nicer when you get the background information.”

Those less interested in the academics tend to steam ahead or lag behind and chat with one another – to remark on the beauty of a boulder, perhaps, or to figure out if they’ve previously met at a selectmen’s meeting or on a Land Bank tour at Tiah’s Cove. “You meet the nicest people on these tours,” says Edgartown’s Patrice Brewer.

Approaching Norton Point, the walkers encounter a thirty-five-foot section of a wooden hull – flotsam suspected to be from the 1910 wreck of the Mertie B. Crowley, a six-masted schooner. Their saddest discovery is a young, six-foot pilot whale that beached and died the day before. But finally they come to the breach and the waves that muscle their way through it, keeping the South Beach end of the point at bay. “That’s the best place to catch stripers,” says a Chappy lady in the know. Most would agree it is the best sighting of the day.

 

Menemsha Hills

Today’s north shore seems wild and untamed, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Vineyard Sound was a major shipping channel, this landscape was a zone of bustling industry supplied by rich stores of clay and bog iron in the cliffs.

Indeed, this cold January walk over Menemsha Hills is a veritable history lesson, spread over 140 acres purchased by industrialist Nathaniel Harris in the 1860s. Most of the property was transferred to the Trustees of Reservations by his descendants a century later. Several tracts, including the old Harris homestead, are still in the family. “They have deeded conservation restrictions,” explains tour leader Kate Conde, a former TTOR conservation ranger. “They’ll remain open space forever.”

Once a year, the Harris family welcomes the Trustees with a public walk over their private holdings. P.G. Harris and Jane Harris Ash welcome this year’s walkers personally.

The tour begins in the antique Harris farmhouse, now a museum of sorts, with a mercifully warm latter-day propane heater. Built on Noman’s Land some time prior to 1715, the front section of the house was floated to the Vineyard after the smaller island was devastated in the Great September Gale of 1815. In earlier times, the Wampanoags cultivated corn, squash, and beans on the surrounding 140 acres once known as the “great field.” Jane and P.G. recall summer vacations and family history, and entertain a bevy of queries from their guests. James Cagney stayed at the house for a time, and the visitors get to see the bedpost he artfully carved one sleepless night.

But this event was billed as a walk, after all. Back outdoors, everyone trails the guides to the head of the cliffs, where a bracing westerly wind is quickly upstaged by a stunning panorama of the Sound, stretching from the Gay Head Light to Cuttyhunk Island. A stalwart ruin of a brick smokestack stands like a monument on the broad slope of dormant foliage. “This hill was all bare when I was a kid,” says P.G. Harris, a gentleman of a certain age who could once traverse the cliffs like a goat.

Sometimes walkers must put scenery on hold while they focus on their footsteps. The descent to Great Rock Bight on a steep trail of mud and snow is just such an occasion. On many a winter walk, there comes one little point where a walker thinks to herself, “You expect me to go up/over/around/through that?” At Menemsha Hills, that point of pause arrives at the base of the cliffs, where a wobbly sliver of wood tries to pass for a footbridge over Roaring Brook. The prospect of a boot full of ice water does not impress. But onward we go.

Where Roaring Brook meets the Sound, remnants of old bricks lie scattered about the beach and shallow waters. The hillside betrays a few more signs of bygone industry: a rusted iron wheel, the stone walls of a canal.

A young man helps a lady negotiate an icy slope back to the top of the cliffs. They chat. He explains he does these hikes because he gets to see places he normally can’t see. In the summer, he doesn’t have time to get up-Island anyway. But he tours Menemsha Hills whenever the occasion arises, and it never gets old.

 

Felix Neck

The only point of pause on the February “Winter Wandering” at Felix Neck is the hundred-yard “hockey rink” from the parking area to the visitors’ center. This is no big deal for Patty Kaplan in her pull-on cleats, however. She’s the envy of her fellow walkers – all two of them on a day that follows a minor snowfall hard-packed by subfreezing temperatures.

Ice notwithstanding, Felix Neck is perhaps the most user-friendly of organized walking venues on the Island, drawing Vineyarders of varying ages and abilities. The terrain is flat, the trails are wide, and the mileage is short. Besides the monthly Winter Wanderings, Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary hosts walks just for seniors and “Moonlight Meanders” on full-moon evenings. The walks are never scheduled on Sundays, but no worries – there’s no hunting near the premises at any time.

“In winter, when the trees are bare, it’s nice to see the vistas all the way out to the water,” says Susie Bowman of West Tisbury, a longtime naturalist for the sanctuary, which runs a host of educational and recreational programs under the umbrella of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. The water Susie speaks of is Sengekontacket Pond, a large brackish ecosystem known to many as “the Jaws pond” for its prominent role in a certain movie. Felix Neck is the foremost bump of terrain that protrudes from the pond’s western edge.

So what if only three walkers – Patty, Bill Glazier from Edgartown, and a scribe – show up for that February walk? Felix Neck’s education coordinator Cristina Pereira doesn’t disappoint. Leading the way down the main path, the enthusiastic guide shares a bit of history about the Neck and George Moffett, the naturalist who purchased the acreage in the 1960s and gifted it for use as open space.

Cristina comes to a halt and points at a pair of lines in the snow that resemble sled tracks. They cross the path between a small pond on the left and a salt marsh on the right. “Otter tracks,” she says with conviction. “Otters feed in the salt marsh and then go to the ‘latrine’ in the pond. They slide back and forth on their tummies; it’s more efficient that way.” She points out a series of paw prints that reveal how the otter pushes off. Later, she happily spots evidence of an otter latrine. “See? It’s got fish scales and tiny bones in it,” she says, poking at the small mass with a stick. “If you pick it up and sniff it, it smells like seafood.” The walkers take her word for it.

They won’t see a single otter that day – or any other four-legged animal, for that matter. The turtles are deep in muddy pond bottoms. Skunks and raccoons are holed up sleeping somewhere. “They’re dormant animals,” says Cristina, “but they get up and eat now and then, when the weather is mild.” That is not today. Deer sightings are common, but that doesn’t happen on this day either.

Still, there are flora if not fauna to learn about. Like how to identify trees when they’re leafless. Cristina grabs the tip of a branch. “Look at the terminal buds and how they’re grouped together and whether they’re blunt or pointy.”

The sanctuary’s favorite summer residents – an osprey couple – are on vacation in Venezuela or Columbia, but there are other birds to behold, especially at Sengekontacket Pond. Loons and other migrants from the north like to “summer” over the winter in Sengy’s waters. Best of all, as the walkers arrive at a small pond, something large flaps overhead and lands in a nearby evergreen. A hawk of some kind?

The walkers whip out binoculars. “Study the field marks,” whispers Cristina. “The feet, the beak, the way it sings, the colors.”

“It’s gray with a light-greenish breast and orangey feet,” whispers Bill.

“Wait, I think there are two big birds in the trees,” whispers Patty. “This one looks different.”

The birds take off, leaving the walkers with only the vaguest of details. By this time, the members of the small band know each other personally. Patty is a “winter person” from California. Bill is a summer person from Connecticut who turned year-rounder to be near his grandchildren. Both are new to winter walks. Both have become converts. As Patrice Brewer observed on that mild day on Chappy: You meet the nicest people on these walks.

 

Consult the following organizations for their 2011–2012 winter walk schedules:

 

Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, www.massaudubon.org

Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, www.mvlandbank.com

Polly Hill Arboretum, www.pollyhillarboretum.org

Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, www.sheriffsmeadow.org

The Trustees of Reservations, www.thetrustees.org

Vineyard Conservation Society, www.vineyardconservation.org