Nov. 24 – Once reviled as dirty and mosquito-infested, salt marshes were often drained or filled in to curb the spread of disease and to make room for more people.
Today, coastal wetlands are preserved as natural filtration systems that not only help protect coastlines from sea level rise and storm damage, but also serve as habitat for a rich variety of plants and animals.
One chilly day last week, friends and I hiked through two preserves that showcase these thriving assets: the Salt Meadow Unit at the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in Westbrook and the Selden Creek Preserve in Lyme.
While the properties both contain well-marked trails that lead to rewarding vistas without getting your feet wet, they’re quite different.
McKinney’s low-lying reservation was once the elegant estate of two prominent female suffragettes, whose guests often included Eleanor Roosevelt.
The rocky, hilly Selden Creek lot, bordering a narrow creek along the Connecticut River, overlooks an island that was once teeming with hundreds of workers quarrying red granite shale used as pavement for the streets of New York City .
Betsy, Bob Graham and I set off for the 950 acre McKinney Reservation. Originally called Salt Meadow National Wildlife Refuge, it was renamed in 1987 after the late United States Representative Stewart B. McKinney of Connecticut. One of 10 national wildlife refuges in the state, it has been designated by the National Audubon Society as an “Important Bird Area,” where more than 280 species pass during their spring and fall migrations.
We immediately stumbled upon the mansion that had been the home of feminist leaders Elizabeth Fisher Read and Esther Lape, who moved here from New York in 1927. Among its features are the wrought iron balcony railings salvaged from the Waldorf Astoria in New York.
A plaque outside the building includes a quote from a “My Day” newspaper column Roosevelt wrote in 1945, a few months after the death of her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “…in the evening we stood on an upstairs porch and saw the moon shine on the fields, with Long Island Sound in the distance in the background.”
Read died in 1943; Lape, a founder of the League of Women Voters who passed away in 1981, donated the property to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1972. refuge, which now serves as headquarters for the state’s 10 National Wildlife Units.
Betsy, Bob, and I hiked 2 1/2 miles of well-maintained trails that wind through forest and prairie, climbing Murdock Hill for views of the serpentine salt marsh.
Next, we drove to Lyme, where nearly five miles of trails wind through the 394-acre Selden Creek Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy and Lyme Land Trust.
We stayed on the eastern side of the reservation, reaching a pair of rocky outcrops overlooking the Lower Connecticut River Valley. The Nature Conservancy rightly calls this area one of “America’s Last Great Places.”
From this vantage point, Selden Island State Park extends across Selden Creek. The 607-acre island had been connected to the mainland before a spring flood cut its neck in 1854.
Named after John Selden, who purchased the property in 1695, it is Connecticut’s only island state park. I’ve camped there several times for kayak trips and explored the old quarries, but had never set foot across the creek on the preserve property until last week.
It’s a worthy destination, with a healthy mix of hardwoods and evergreens backing onto the salt flats. Few places offer such vivid contrasts.
The McKinney Shelter is located at 733 Old Clinton Road in Westbrook. Information: www.fws.gov/refuge/stewart-b-mckinney
Selden Reservation is located on Joshuatown Road; the trails we followed to Selden Creek are on the west side of the road; a ravine path across the road leads to the eastern section of the preserve. Information: lymelandtrust.org and nature.org.
Both McKinney and Selden are perfect for short post-Thanksgiving hikes that keep us in touch with nature and history.
Here in southeastern Connecticut, we are fortunate to have access to many other hiking trails that highlight salt marshes, including those at Barn Island State Wildlife Management Area in Pawcatuck, Bluff Point Coastal Reserve in Groton, and Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme.
I am grateful to live in a time when most people have recognized the importance of protecting these natural areas, rather than destroying them.