The boardwalk and vegetation at Kent Bog

Bogs | Living relics of the Ice Age

words and photos by Jennifer Howell

I didn’t know how precious and peculiar bogs were until a few years ago when I had an opportunity to have a personal tour of the Kent Bog State Nature Preserve. My guide was Scott Vernon, a botany graduate from Kent State University and a friend of my husband. The three of us set out to explore the bog at night. I was expecting to find a smelly, swampy decaying death trap in our path. I was surprised by the absolute lushness of the surrounding highbush blueberry. They were taller than any blueberry bush I’ve ever seen, taller than even me. At our feet, the boardwalk was lined with carnivorous pitcher plants. There was something magical about seeing them in the wild, at night, by flashlight for the first time. They seemed exotic and special, and they are. It turns out, purple pitcher plants are a federally threatened species, among many other boreal plants in the bog. 

As we went further, there was a distinct smell in the air that I hadn’t experienced since I was a kid. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It was the kind of smell that turns you into a hound, searching for any other clues. Since we were surrounded by water, there was little I could do to determine any fragrant sources. In a later conversation with Vernon, he suggested I was smelling the peat in the bog itself, an earthy warming floral scent. Peat mostly consists of sphagnum moss as well as a combination of many other decaying vegetation. Peat forms in acidic and oxygen-deprived environments when plant vegetation doesn’t fully decay. It resembles soil and when it’s dried and harvested, it can be burnt as firewood. 

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Sphagnum moss is the foundation and one of the most important plants that help create a boggy environment. Sphagnum moss is partially composed of dead plant material. This is because it grows on top of its own decaying parts. 

The Kent Bog offers many signs as you walk along the boardwalk to learn about the isolated and special habitat. 

“Specialized sponge-like cell structures enable some species of sphagnum to hold up to 27 times their own dry weight in water. Dried sphagnum possesses antiseptic properties and is more than twice as absorbent as cotton. Native Americans used it to diaper their babies, and doctors relied on sphagnum for emergency field surgical dressing during the Civil War and World War 1,” one sign read. 

There are several different types and ways bogs can form. The kettle bogs in Ohio were formed from the Wisconsinan Glacier, a huge glacial deposit that fell off and created these ecosystems. These are remnants of the glacial deposits from the Ice Age, which retreated from Ohio around 12,000 to 14,000 years ago. Vernon explains “kettle bogs are more rare than bogs as a whole, but the species they contain are fragile and unique, and those tend to be rare.” Bogs are nutrient-poor, so the plants that live there have become highly specialized. 

One of these specialized trees is called the tamarack tree. It’s a “deciduous conifer.” Most trees are categorized as coniferous or deciduous, but the tamarack is both. The tamarack tree has needles like a conifer, and although they look like pine needles, they are much softer. When the seasons change, they drop their needles, like deciduous trees. Vernon informed me that tamaracks can be found not only in the Kent Bog, but in Triangle Lake Bog and Jackson Bog. The Kent Bog holds the largest number of tamarack trees in Ohio.

Akron also has its very own bog, the Springfield Bog Metro Park. Springfield Bog is unique because it holds two bogs. It was farmland converted into a prairie, and the Continental Divide runs through it. The Continental Divide is a natural boundary that separates the river systems on a continent. The elevation of the divide separates the flow of the water into two different directions. In the north part of the park, water flows north, towards Lake Erie and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean. Water in the southern area of the park flows all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. 

You can view the two bogs from their own observation decks. Young’s Bog is located northwest of the trail and is a naturally made bog. The second is called “baby bog” which is a man-made bog sitting southwest, closer to the center of the park. 

“It’s frozen in time a little bit and we’re lucky to see it, and there aren’t a lot left,” Vernon says. “…you also want to make sure that people don’t go and be irresponsible in these places because sometimes you go and see trash there… people need to know that they are entering a one-of-a-kind place.” 

I am enchanted by the specialized biodiversity each bog holds. I feel thankful to live in an area and ecosystem that can support such a special glimpse into the ecology of the past. 

It’s been speculated that bogs were the reason for the last Ice Age because of the sheer amount of carbon they can absorb from the atmosphere, cooling the planet over time. Bogs and the peat that grows in them are an important resource for the future of climate control. Ohio has lost many of its bogs in the past decades due to agriculture, development, fire, mining, recreation, or natural succession. I hope with our efforts we are able to preserve and protect these precious relics we are living beside. 

Resources

Local Bogs: Tom S Cooperrider-Kent Bog State Nature Preserve, Triangle Lake Bog State Nature Preserve, Jackson Bog State Nature Preserve, and Brown’s Lake Bog.

Bog Preservation: Friends of the Kent Bog help protect and preserve the wetlands. If you are interested in becoming a member, volunteer, or want to learn more about their activities: Email them at fotkb@sbcglobal.net

Book Recommendations:

  • Description of the Ecoregions of the United States by Robert G. Bailey 
  • Plants and Vegetation: Origins, Processes, Consequences 1st Edition, Kindle Edition by Paul Keddy
  • Botanical Essays from Kent: Some Botanical Features of a University Town in Ohio by Tom S. Cooperrider

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