Winter’s grip on the Northeast is slowly loosening even in places far less traveled. In part two of our spring series, WAMC’s Berkshire Bureau Chief Jim Levulis found spring is running nature’s course...just at a slower pace this year.
One of the most common signs of spring is a patchwork of puddles. On paved roads they’re recognized by last-second swerving and the pounding on the steering wheel exclamation of “pothole.” But on a winding, dirt road where you can’t drive much faster than 30, the only evidence those spring puddles leave is splattered mud on tires and wheel wells. This journey is usually necessary for the first hike of spring and the pick this year is Mass Audubon’s Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Lenox.
Inside the sanctuary’s office and check-in point, shelves of bird watching books and stacks of snowshoes leaning against the wall of a “staff only” room are further indicators of the season’s change. But in hopes of seizing the somehow mild feeling temperatures of the low 40s on this the last day of March, the stop inside is really just a place to lace up the boots.
Becky Cushing is Mass Audubon’s Berkshire Sanctuaries Director and served as my guide for the early spring trek, which featured a mix of different walking surfaces.
Under the cover of trees most of the trails are still covered with a foot of soft snow, the kind where if it’s slushy enough your next step goes six inches deeper.
Along the way, the signs are clear that spring is near. Snow has melted at the base of trees and brooks run rapidly under continuously dripping snow caves feeding mini rapids at each turn.
Past the still frozen pond, we come across a worksite that shut down for the winter but will soon be busy like beavers. And I mean actual beavers. The area is scattered with remnants of smaller trees hauled off by the animals while some larger trunks still stand with obvious marks that they gave felling them a shot. Cushing explains the beavers use the wood to build dams, lodges, which serve as their waterfront homes for the winter, and food.
“That tree for example, that really big tree over there, it looks like they got started and then maybe they decided there was an easier one to go for,” Cushing said. “So they kind of gave up. But if food gets scarce, they may go back to it.”
Despite some water level controls, Cushing says the sanctuary is at the mercy of the beavers and whatever plot they decide to flood next, much like Mother Nature.
“The beavers kind of manage us around here sometimes,” she said. “We can’t control where they’re going.”
Back at the trailhead, Cushing reveals what event she relates to the coming of spring.
“The big night,” Cushing said. “The first warm rainy night when the salamanders do their big move to the vernal pools. That signifies the start of the spring. That can happen anywhere from sometime in March to it looks like it’s going to be in April this year.”
Over at the Arcadian Shop just down Route 7, spring’s arrival is much more visible at the outdoor specialty store according to owner Larry Lane.
“Hiking, kayaking, paddle boarding, bicycling and camping,” Lane explained. “There’s a big change in what the store looks like from not only an equipment point of view, but from a color point of view. We also carry all of the related clothing so that helps give us a really spring feel to the store when people come in.”
Back at the sanctuary, water drips off of the center’s roof while birds make runs to the feeder, like planes landing and taking off. If you listen closely enough you can hear their wings flap.
Appreciating sights, sounds and smells is a big part of the outdoors. At Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Mass Audubon staff make that apparent with the All Persons Trail. Accessible for those with mobility limitations, the trail is lined with Braille markers while audio tapes corresponding with the seasons complement the path with the sounds of birds and the smacking of a beaver’s tail on the water.
It also has a very timely message, especially this year.
“The trail is often snow and/or ice-covered during the winter months, November through March,” reads the recording. “You may wish to call our office to inquire about trail conditions during those months.”