McKinney Wildlife Preserve: A Refuge From The Storm

I visited the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge's Salt Meadow Unit Wednesday. Otherwise known as the we-got-8-inches-of-snow-no-power-a-yard-full-of-limbs-I-gotta-get-outta-here preserve in Westbrook.

Don't get me wrong. I love the first snow of the season — in late November or December. When it doesn't take down half my pine tree limbs, my ancient lilac bush, my white birch trees and area power lines. So even though a long winter awaits, I already had to escape to the south where snow, broken branches and utility trucks vanished before me replaced by views of salt marshes, the dramatic foliage one is supposed to see in late autumn along the shoreline and the scent of the sea that transports visitors back to warmer times, like last week's "Indian Summer."

But enough venting. No matter when this 275-acre forest and tidal marsh along the banks of the Menunketesuck River and Gatchen Creek is explored, visitors are likely to see dozens of birds making their annual migration south along the Atlantic Flyway. The refuge is made up of 10 units comprising 950 acres of Connecticut's barrier beaches, tidal marshes and islands like Faulkner Island, Milford Point and some of the Thimble Islands.

Approximately 2.5 miles of trails wind through Salt Meadow. The trails are easy to follow and gently slope down to the tidal marsh through hardwood and evergreen forests filled with huge trees. Although it is close to I-95, the only unnatural sound you hear is from the occassional Acela train that sprints past on its way to Boston or New York City.

After parking, visitors walk past the refuge's headquarters — a stately 1750 farmhouse and a log cabin once used by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to pen some of her "My Day" columns. The column was published between 1935 and 1962 with some of the subjects coming from visits to Westbrook friends Esther Lape – who donated the original 140 acres to the U.S. Department of the Interior and Elizabeth Read. Both women were post-suffrage feminist activists.

Like the stories of George Washington sleeping at every inn and old home across the Northeast, some say the tree-lined trails to the marsh and paths lined with stone walls to the railroad tracks were once used by the popular first lady.

The loop trails run along the forest's outer edge adjacent to the salt marshes. More than 280 species of migrating neotropical birds and waterfowl can be seen during spring and fall migrations. A viewing platform with a telescope gives visitors a closer look at the avian life of the marsh and the channels that snake through the high grass.

My favorite place is a path that takes visitors to the banks of the river. The river flows underneath an old railroad bridge and the marinas of Westbrook and Clinton can be seen in the distance. The water is clear and fish can be seen swimming in the depths. The trail winds along the tracks to a high hill where Westbrook's "singing" bridge and waters of Long Island Sound can be seen off in the distance – a reminder that summer was not that long ago.

Sure, the official start of winter is still more than a month away. But places like Salt Meadow make the nor'easters and ice storms that are sure to come a little easier to deal with. After Irene and the October nor'easter, I'm looking forward to one of those mild winters we were always complaining about not so long ago.

I-95 to Exit 64. Turn on Route 145 South (Horse Hill Road) and take a left on Old Clinton Road at the stop sign. Follow approximately a mile to the refuge. Peter Marteka can be reached at 860-647-5365, at pmarteka@courant.com or at The Courant, 200 Adams St., Manchester, CT 06040.


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