words by Steve Van Auken, photos by Marty Rogers
Parents struggling with kids in advanced stages of cabin fever can now get federal aid.
We’re not talking about financial help. We’re talking about access to the treasures of nature in our Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
The Towpath Trail remains open. Hikers and bikers are instructed to keep a six-foot distance between family groups. Restrooms at trailheads are closed, but porta-potties have been installed.
Exhausted parents cooped-up with bored kids find welcome relief on the trail. The Beaver Marsh section in Akron’s Valley district may be the most lovely and interesting, and most visited, section of the entire trail. If you drive north from Akron on Riverview Road toward Peninsula, you cross Bath Road (where the Great Blue Heron nesting site is located) and then cross Ira Road. Just north of Ira, turn right into the parking lot of the Ira Road trailhead.
Check out the sign that explains how the Beaver Marsh was made by volunteer humans and volunteer beavers. The people cleaned-up the junkyard that afflicted the site. The beavers moved in and used their engineering skills to build the dikes that created a pond and marsh. These have become a haven for animals and birds.
Park staff have placed models at the trailhead that introduce visitors to the aquatic animals that call the marsh home. Children can touch a beaver, a muskrat, and the star of the marsh, an otter. They are life-sized and in characteristic poses.
As you turn (left) onto the Towpath, the old canal bed is on your left. You can point out to your child that this big ditch, now full of plant life, was dug using only hand tools like shovels. It used to be full of water and people would travel on it in boats, pulled with ropes by mules who walked right where you are walking.
The Towpath is great for people who want to exercise. They pass on your left, running or biking. But it is even better if you go slow enough to feel the breeze, hear the birds, and study the wildflowers.
You do not need a degree in biology to take a child on a nature walk. All you need is curiosity and a little information. Whether you are new to observing nature or have been doing it all your life, the main theme is the same: All the parts are connected. Animals, birds, bugs, squirrels, frogs, flowers, trees, worms all work together. You can help your child think about this by pointing out what the creatures that live here like to eat.
If you came at night, you might see a whole different cast of characters. Animals that are primarily nocturnal include deer, raccoons, coyotes, owls, beaver, bats, and mink. You probably won’t see them, but here and there you can spot their calling-cards. Look closely on your right as you begin the trail. You can see faint paths through the brush made by deer on the move, looking for tasty grass. And if you walk a couple of yards past the marsh beyond the boardwalk up ahead and look to your right you will see trees that beaver have chewed down.
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Beside you, in the canal, ducks poke their heads under water to feast on tasty plants. The ducks you see here are most likely mallards. The male has a shiny blue-green head, the female is all brown. At this point you will have a couple of interesting nature facts to pass to your child. The first is that not all ducks are the same. You may see a different species, the wood duck, in a little while. Both mallards and wood ducks build nests and have ducklings in the marsh. Distinguishing them helps children start to look for details in nature. The ability to compare and contrast is an important part of learning to think creatively.
Your child might ask why boy and girl ducks of the same kind look different. In nature, all things happen for a reason. In this case there are two reasons. One is that the boys need to look sharp to attract the girls. The other reason is that when the female bird sits on her nest, she needs to blend in with her surroundings so that animals like the coyote and fox don’t know she’s there.
When we talk with children about how nature works we walk a line. We want to bring them into the important connections of our world. One of these is that some animals eat others. You probably have a sense of how much information your child is ready for. She or he can likely handle the fact that otters and eagles eat fish and hawks eat mice and birds. You might not want to share with younger children certain other facts, such as that snapping-turtles in the marsh pull down and eat ducklings when they can.
Squirrels hang out in the pines that shadow the trail here. Pick up a pinecone to show your child. It contains seeds that are on the menu for squirrels and chipmunks.
The squirrels are of three types. The largest ones are fox squirrels, and gray squirrels are somewhat smaller. Fox and gray Squirrels come in shades of brown, gray and black. You might also spot a small rusty-colored squirrel that moves extremely fast. This is the red squirrel, famous among campers for stealing granola right from under their feet.
Depending on the time of day, you are likely to be treated here to a brilliant aerial display. Rough-winged swallows, with their brown backs and cream-colored breasts, flit back and forth above the canal catching insects. They are one of two swallow species found here. Above the marsh itself you can see tree swallows with their glossy blue-green backs. Sometimes they get so absorbed in their hunting that they seem to narrowly miss hikers who have stopped to admire them.
A point to make to a child is that going into nature is not like going to Disney World. It is not a curated experience. You might get rained on. You might not see animals or birds because they have minds of their own and have made other plans. They aren’t robots.
We don’t make nature. Nature makes us.
Less than a quarter of a mile from the trailhead, you arrive at the marsh. A boardwalk passes over it. It offers observation decks with child-friendly posters introducing citizens of the marsh such as Canada geese, tree swallows, painted turtles and water snakes.
As you enter the boardwalk, your eye is drawn to the natural complexity. Here are multiple habits: pond, woodland, meadow, marsh. Each shelters different forms of life. Some are easier to spot than others.
Notice the beaver lodge across the water. The beaver have moved elsewhere, but the shelter they built of carefully chewed, mounded-up branches sometimes shelters otters or mink.
Somewhere nearby you are likely to spot the stately form of the Great Blue Heron, motionless, hoping an unwary frog, fish, or snake will come close.
At this writing, a Canada goose sits patiently on her nest on a small island. Her mate paddles around nearby, trying to look intimidating to any intruders. Pairs of wood ducks come and go in the pond and in the channel among the reeds. He sports a multi-colored head and crest, while she goes with basic brown and the white eye-ring that distinguishes her from the female mallard.
If you see a brown furry head tracing a wake in the water, it is probably a muskrat. Beavers are bigger and rarely seen by day. Otters, rockstars of the marsh, are willfully unreliable in showing themselves. Your best bet is early in the morning or toward evening. On warm days, painted turtles line every available log, soaking up rays. Snapping turtles lurk just below the surface, doing impressions of alligators on the prowl.
The red-winged blackbird makes its nest among the reeds. Bald eagles sometimes appear high overhead, but if you see a large, dark bird soaring above it is much more likely to be a buzzard. Other birds — warblers, rails, coots, mergansers, grebes, swans — visit the marsh at unpredictable times.
If you want to build your knowledge of nature in and around the marsh, consider visiting the Trail Mix shop when it reopens. It is operated by the National Park Service in Peninsula (behind Winking Lizard). They sell laminated fold-out guides to the birds, bugs, trees, wildflowers and animals we are most likely to see around here.
Beaver Marsh offers valuable learning for kids and respite for harried parents at this difficult time. It’s there when you need it.
Steve Van Auken has now lived in Akron long enough to give directions according to where things used to be. He met Marty Rogers at Beaver Marsh.
Photos: Marty Rogers