For those who need an excuse to get out and enjoy the fresh air, why not take some time this week to celebrate National Wildlife Refuge Week by exploring Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge – right here in Carlisle. Great Meadows is one of eight national wildlife refuges in eastern Massachusetts. Its 3,800 acres, most of it fresh-water wetlands, stretch along a 12-mile section of the Concord and Sudbury Rivers from Wayland to Billerica and provides a protected nesting and feeding habitat for wildlife, particularly for migratory birds. But in addition to its natural beauty, Great Meadows is home to some interesting local history. Here hikers can walk along the very hunting trails and trade routes once used by local Native Americans and enjoy views of the same sections of the Concord River that were once paddled by transcendentalist philosophers Emerson and Thoreau.
Since the Concord River extends into marshland along much of its banks, in most years the River Trail is passable only during the winter when most areas are frozen. However, the extended dry period before the last week’s rain left the trail dry for its full length. This has provided a rare opportunity to enjoy the early fall foliage and river views.
The Carlisle portion of Great Meadows consists of approximately 126 acres of grasslands, marshes, open fields and forest. Much of the land is part of the Concord River flood plain, but the parcel also includes upland forest and several large fields. Trails connect this federally owned land with the town-owned Foss Farm and Greenough Conservation parcels, allowing hikers to enjoy 632 acres of contiguous conservation land.
The trail system in Great Meadows is extensive. In 1999 at the opening celebration of the refuge, a six-mile public trail network was unveiled, featuring over 200 feet of boardwalks. Over the following years the Trails Committee, with the help of many volunteers, has added many additional boardwalks and bridges including a 200-foot boardwalk and a 130-foot bridge on the River Trail.
The Concord River and the area around Great Meadows are steeped in history. According to the Foss Farm baseline assessment prepared by the Carlisle Land Stewards, the area around Great Meadows and Foss Farm provided an ideal environment for Native American settlements. The river, rich with salmon and alewife, was a bountiful source of food, while the grasslands on either side provided excellent hunting of waterfowl and mammals. Stone artifacts found in the area, some of which date to 5500 B.C., support this theory.
It is also likely that the area around the Concord River in Carlisle was at the crossroads of several Native American trails. A significant east-west trail, running from Lexington to Littleton is believed to have crossed the river about where Bedford Road now lies. The river itself, together with trails that run parallel to it, provided a major north-south route for travel and trade. The Massachusetts Historic Commission has registered three sites in the area.
In addition to the Native American history, the area around Great Meadows would become well-known years later, when Henry David Thoreau introduced his readers to life along the Concord River as he described his canoe journey from Concord to New Hampshire in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Emerson also canoed along the river which became the subject of several of his poems.
In more recent years the Carlisle section of Great Meadows had been an active farm owned by the O’Rourke family. In 1998 the town purchased the O’Rourke land and resold the property to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to become part of Great Meadows. The town retained rights to develop a possible future municipal water supply on the land and entered into a trail agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service, opening the reservation to public hiking on designated trails.
Environmental protection and wildlife
According the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Great Meadows was established to protect and manage freshwater wetlands for migratory birds. The refuge is frequented by birdwatchers and is considered to be one of the best inland birding areas in the state. Great Meadows is also home to white-tailed deer, beaver, fisher, otter, fox, coyote and many other small mammals. The Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program has designated the area around Great Meadows as a Supporting Natural Landscape, which buffers and connects areas likely to be viable habitat for rare species.
Trails and features
The trails at Great Meadows can be accessed from either Foss Farm or the Greenough Land. From Foss Farm, the refuge is reached from the northwest corner of the property, near the community garden plots. A kiosk just past a break in the stonewall offers information about programs at the refuge. Visitors must stay on the trails which are flagged with yellow markers.
Heading into the woods hikers will soon come to a well-marked fork in the trail. From this point the Red Tail Trail and the River Trail both lead north across Great Meadows into the Greenough Land where they re-connect. Taking the River Trail at the fork leads the hiker across a long boardwalk which spans a wetland. This is the first of several boardwalks that were built to allow hikers to pass over marshy lowlands. This trail, which is about 1.3 miles long, runs parallel to the river; however there are few river views in this section since the wide flood plain keeps the trail some distance from the river edge and trees and undergrowth obscure the view. There are several spots, particularly at the Greenough end of the trail, where full river views are possible.
A particularly nice viewing spot is actually on the Greenough Land at the point where the River Trail makes a sharp turn inland. A small spur to the east allows hikers to step very close to the water to enjoy a panoramic view of the river.
The trail then turns inland where it meets the 1.2 mile Red Tail Trail. This trail passes through spectacular open fields that were part of the O’Rourke Farm. Just before the trail crosses a bridge, the half-mile-long Beaver Trail loops off to the right. Continuing straight on the Red Tail Trail brings the hiker over a raised bridge from which hikers can often see signs of beaver activity. From this point, the trail leads into a particularly beautiful pine forest and back to Foss Farm.
The three- to four-mile hike from Foss Farm through Great Meadows to Greenough and back takes approximately two hours. For those who prefer a shorter hike, two cross trails, the Mist Trail and Piggery Road connect the Red Tail and River Trails allowing hikers to adjust the length of the walk to an hour or less.
Great Meadows is federally protected land. The rules that govern use of its trails are different from those on town-owned land. The refuge boundaries are marked with blue signs bearing a flying goose insignia. Public use of designated trails for nature study, hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and photography is allowed during daylight hours. To limit disturbance to nesting wildlife, hikers must stay on marked trails. Although dogs and horses are permitted on most trails in Carlisle, they are not permitted on the trails in Great Meadows. Visitors are not allowed to remove wildlife, vegetation or artifacts from the refuge. Hikers who wander off the marked trails or fail to observe the trail use regulations may be fined.
No hunting on Sundays
Hikers must also be aware that deer and waterfowl hunting are permitted in the wildlife refuge. Waterfowl hunting began on October 14 and archery hunting for white-tail deer will open on October 18. Hunting is not permitted on Sundays.
Access and Parking
Public access to the hiking trails at Great Meadows is through the trails from Foss Farm or from the Greenough Land. Parking for Foss Farm is on the north side of Bedford Road near the Concord River. Parking for the Greenough Land is on the side of Maple Street near the bridge and at the Greenough Pond parking lot on Maple Street near the Billerica town line. ∆