Thursday January 19, 2012
Just imagine 262 acres of field, forest and wetland skirting the Housatonic River, only a mile from the center of Pittsfield, open year round except Mondays, and free to Pittsfield residents and Mass Audubon members. (Those from out of town are levied a $3 admission fee -seniors and children, $2.)
This property is Canoe Meadows.
Cooley Graves Crane gave it to the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1975, and it is a wildlife magnet. It attracts a wide variety of birds, even in winter. Since 1976, 180 different species have been recorded, and during the warmer months, close to 85 bird species nest there.
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Otters, beavers, muskrats, raccoons, foxes, coyotes and deer are all present, and quiet visitors in late afternoon or early morning may be rewarded with a glimpse or two.
On a recent November-like January afternoon, with temperatures closing in on 40 degrees, Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary looked like the perfect setting for a late fall walk. Harold Nelson joined me. He and his wife, Jody, are sanctuary neighbors. Their property abuts the sanctuary.
Canoe Meadows got its name because the Mohicans beached their canoes on the meadows along the river. The name appears in the early records of Pittsfield. In 1932, Merle Graves lived on and developed the estate, naming it Gravesleigh.
He began to cultivate the land for buckwheat, and he grew timothy grass for livestock. He would sometimes walk behind the plow discovering pieces of pottery, arrowheads and axe heads.
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During his early tenure at Gravesleigh, Graves, who must have had some beaver DNA in his blood, dammed Sackett Brook. He constructed flood control and made the area a veritable trout fishing Mecca with the help of local engineers and contractors Ernie Cramer and “Patsy” Patricca. Remains of their hard work may be seen today.
As Nelson and I walked along the gentle trails, seeing mallard ducks here and there in the still partially open ponds, and signs of beaver activity nearly everywhere, Nelson spoke of a family he once met along the Sacred Way Trail, who were on their way back to New Jersey following a disappointing week-long visit to Maine. He showed them a beaver peacefully munching on a recently felled sapling. Here, within city limits, the family experienced closer looks at wildlife than they had in the wilderness of Maine.
For the foreseeable future, Sacred Way Trail is closed because of high water, according to Berkshire Sanctuaries director René Laubach, who went on to explain that resident beavers have built a dam beneath the bridge on the trail, causing the way to often be wet and flooded in places.
Beavers may have first been spotted by Graves’ son, Walter, at the beginning of fishing season in 1934, when the young man noticed alders clipped off by a cutting tool. Walter soon realized, after closer examination, that the cutting tool belonged to beaver. A pair had moved in, undoubtedly immigrants from Pleasant Valley Sanctuary in nearby Lenox.
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Today, visitors entering the property may take the Carriage Road on the left that leads to a wildlife observation blind overlooking a shrub swamp, and the Wolf Pine trail, a loop that will take you through dense hemlock stand. After reaching the intersection with Owl Trail, continue right to view the trail’s namesake, a spreading giant white pine that reached maturity when it was surrounded by a sunny field.
As Nelson and I explored, we noticed rows of mature pines. Nearly one thousand pines were planted in the late 1920s over the course of several years, and were obtained free as two year old saplings from the Massachusetts Agricultural College (Extension Service – University of Massachusetts).
What: Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary
When: Open 7 a.m. to dusk, Tuesday through Sunday. Pets are not allowed.
Where: Holmes Road, just south of the Williams Street intersection. From Route 7, Lenox, take Holmes Road at the traffic light and proceed 2.7 miles to the sanctuary entrance on the right.