Weekends in the autumn have a way of bringing people outdoors. For some it is to rake leaves, for others it is to gawk at them. And for us it was quite simply to enjoy whatever came along.
With kayaks and good walking shoes, camera and binoculars, we were ready for surprises. And while the focus of this venture was to explore the three-quarter mile long Fitzgerald Lake, it didn't happen as we planned.
Three-tenths of a level mile each way along a well-used path and boardwalk is a piece of cake -- unless you are carrying a kayak. This small lake in the northeast corner of Northampton could have been the highlight of our trek, but with one of us pregnant and another two months shy of three years old, the better part of valor suggested enjoying walking the paths gently and discovering the various habitats, including a beautiful stretch of cat-tailed shoreline with red maples ablaze with color along the far shore.
This 680-acre conservation area, minutes from downtown, was nearly converted into a housing development in the 1960s when Broad Brook was dammed to create Fitzgerald Lake. Fortunately for today's visitors, changing wetland laws and aggressive land acquisition by North ampton preserved the land to become the city's largest conservation area, open to all, not just a assortment of homeowners.
And not only people who have benefited -- this preserve is a remarkable magnet for wildlife, attracting the expected and the unexpected, like several pairs of nesting winter wrens, more common to the upland Berkshires than the Con necticut River Valley.
When we arrived, and although parking was overflowing onto the road, we encountered only one small group of fellow explorers as we followed the Lake Trail (blazed in blue), taking detours along the Fishing Place and narrows Trails. As so often is the case from early fall to nearly first snow, especially with ample rains, mushrooms and other fungi abound and delighted us. And the fruiting shrubs offered an end of season splash of colorful shapes.
Wild asters and other composites are always abundant along sun-lit paths and borders of wet meadows. At one point where the brook crossed the trail, our son-in-law, Patrick, pointed out several different wild animal tracks, possibly coyote and raccoon, to the younger Patrick.
An observation blind overlooking an extensive marsh is a 1.5 mile walk through rich woodland and along swamp edge on the blue blazed trail. The (red blazed) Hillside Trail cutting through upland areas will reconnect to the Lake Trail. Histor ically used as wood lot, the rocky land now contains healthy stands of mountain laurel, witch hazel (fall blossoming), maples and oaks, all new growth from a blaze of unknown origin in the late 1980s.
On the lake shore at the end of the Narrows Trail is a large beaver-built lodge with a view up, down and across the water. Look for wood duck nesting boxes, and healthy stands of cattails, a favorite of the muskrat often seen busy with early fall chores.
Sometimes known as the Moose Lodge entrance, this parking area, closer to Routes 5 and 10 (North King Street), also has a well maintained kiosk with maps and nature trail guides. We have followed the Boggy Meadow Road and Marian Street trails to the wildlife blind (one mile from the trail head parking lot.)
Almost immediately the trail enters lowland woods with ground cover plants including pipsissewa and spotted wintergreen. In spring, flowering plants dot the woodland floor; now many are bearing small fruits. Elsewhere along the trail club mosses of several kinds abound; ferns are also varied, and hay-scented clusters in sunny spots. It will soon yellow following first frost. Other ferns, growing in the cool shade, will remain green through fall and winter.