In an effort to get me to stop talking about the beach, Chris bought us a canoe this summer, well used but sturdy and appropriately green. I’m not an expert paddler but I love to float around in boats, so I was appeased by this gesture. Even so, it was almost September before we had mastered our knots (for tying it to the car) and assembled our gear. But all the preparation turned out to be worthwhile once we pushed off into the Retreat Meadows.
The Meadows are an unexpected place to find abundant wildlife, but despite being situated in the middle of town with Putney Road running along its eastern side and an interstate bounding the northern edge, it’s loaded with wild things of all kinds. We have been out five or six times there, and so far, we have not failed to see interesting critters, plants, trees, and above all, birds. If you’re interested in seeing large waders, raptors, and inland shore birds, the Meadows are your spot.
On our first visit to the Meadows by boat, we immediately saw a blue heron. Since then, we’ve found that blue heron sightings are common although they continue to impress us. These shy birds haunt the shoreline on rocky outcroppings, usually on one of the islands where they’re protected from people. If you get too close, they’ll spread their wings, pull up their long legs, and fly away.
On a subsequent visit, we were able to add the cormorant to our list of bird sightings. He sat for a long while on a piece of driftwood out in the water and let us get within maybe a 100 yards before he too flew away. Seeing the cormorant was a surprise as I’d thought they were salt water birds. Perhaps he was on his way to somewhere else.
Another surprise was the lake shore terns and sandpipers. Who knew there were inland sandpipers? But there are and in the warmer weather, when the water is low, you’ll see them running along sandbars looking for food in the shallows.
Most of us are familiar with the flocks of geese that assemble on the Meadows throughout the summer and long into the fall. On our last paddling expedition, we were treated to a huge flotilla of hundreds of geese, all spread out across the Retreat side of the Meadows. As we approached, their honking increased and soon they all began paddling themselves, high-tailing it, as it were, to a “safe” place away from us. By the end of the day, many of them would be gone, having flown off at dusk in smaller flocks of 15 or 20 to their next migrational destination. At the same time, geese from further north would fly in to replace them, munching on the rich vegetation of our little pond.
The biggest treat of all in the bird department was the pair of Bald Eagles we saw sharing a meal of dead buzzard out on an island inlet not long ago. Mr. Eagle ate first, standing on his prey and tearing away morsels as they do. This continued for a few minutes or more, after which Mr. Eagle dragged the carcass over to Mrs. Eagle who was lurking among the reeds. As she tucked into it hungrily, Mr. Eagle flapped across the channel to a rock on the other side where he sat and kept an eye on things while she ate. This is not something you see every day, and we were close enough to see how truly gigantic these birds are.
Since then, we have been lucky enough to see Mr. Eagle once more, sitting serenely up in a big island maple, watching over the Meadows unobserved by any but us. We had acquired binoculars by then, so we were able to see him in great detail. Needless to say, having binoculars has proved to be a great asset when trying to identify birds from hundreds of feet away.
Even if birds are not your bag, there are plenty of other things to see. The many meandering shorelines along the islands are full of wildflowers in all seasons. You’ll see varieties that like wet feet such as pickerel weed and closed gentian (a shockingly blue flower that does not open but “blooms” as a bud). There are dragonflies galore in summer. We’ve also seen several turtles including a snapping turtle who looked to be at least 18 inches long, a giant of a turtle for such a small waterway.
On the shoreline, you’ll see muskrats and chipmunks but not much more. Beavers, as we know, are not well tolerated by townfolk but if you venture under the railroad bridge and out to the Connecticut River and north, you may spy a beaver as you paddle by late in the day. We did.
Without question, the Retreat Meadows has the most wildlife diversity of the places we’ve paddled, a rather limited list at this point consisting of Sunset Lake (where we saw a loon) and Grout Pond (lovely but less varied). The best part for Brattleboro is that it’s right here, in town, easily accessible from two locations (in front of the Retreat Farm and over at the Marina). Even if you don’t own a canoe or kayak, you can rent one from the canoe rental across from the Marina. That’s what we used to do and it gave us an opportunity to experience our local waters as we wouldn’t have otherwise.
It’s getting a bit late in the year for paddling but if you do go, you’ll be treated to a panoramic view of autumn color, with Wantastiquet rising up on one side and the hills behind the Retreat Farm on the other. Indeed, there’s no more peaceful way to experience the beauties of nature than to be surrounded by it while floating in a boat. With bridge construction underway, it may be a while before the Meadows are peaceful again but we know they will be. Meanwhile, we’ve been especially enjoying these last outings in what has to be Brattleboro’s most scenic spot.