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    Tuesday, December 06, 2022

    Hiking among salt marshes, without getting your feet wet

    A rocky outcrop at Lyme’s Selden Creek Preserve provides a view of a salt marsh near the Connecticut River. (Steve Fagin)
    Eleanor Roosevelt was a frequent guest at this mansion, now part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge’s Salt Meadow Unit in Westbrook. (Steve Fagin)
    A salt marsh along the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife in Westbrook drains into the Menunketesuck River and eventually, Long Island Sound. (Steve Fagin)

    Once reviled as mucky, mosquito-infested blights, salt marshes often were drained or filled in to curb the spread of disease and to make room for more people.

    Today, coastal wetlands are preserved as natural filtration systems that not only help protect coastlines from rising sea levels and storm damage, but also serve as habitat for a rich variety of plants and animals.

    One chilly day last week, friends and I hiked through two preserves that showcase these thriving resources – the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge’s Salt Meadow Unit in Westbrook, and the Selden Creek Preserve in Lyme.

    Although the properties both contain well-marked trails that lead to rewarding views without getting your feet wet, they are quite different.

    The low-lying McKinney preserve once was the elegant estate of two prominent women’s suffragists, whose guests frequently included Eleanor Roosevelt.

    The rocky and hilly Selden Creek parcel, which borders a narrow creek along the Connecticut River, overlooks an island that once bustled with hundreds of workers who quarried red granite schist used as paving stones for New York City streets.

    Betsy and Bob Graham and I set out at the 950-acre McKinney preserve. Originally called the Salt Meadow National Wildlife Refuge, it was renamed in 1987 after the late U.S. Rep. Stewart B. McKinney of Connecticut. One of 10 national wildlife refuges in the state, it has been designated by the National Audubon Society as an “Important Bird Area,” where more than 280 species pass through during spring and fall migrations.

    We immediately came upon the mansion that had been the home of feminist leaders Elizabeth Fisher Read and Esther Lape, who moved here from New York in 1927. Among its features are wrought iron balcony railings salvaged from New York’s Waldorf Astoria.

    A plaque outside the building includes a quote from a “My Day” newspaper column written by Roosevelt in 1945, a few months after the death of her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “… in the evening we stood on an upstairs porch and saw the moon shine on the fields, with the background of Long Island Sound in the distance.”

    Read died in 1943; Lape, one of the founders of the League of Women Voters, who passed away in 1981, donated the property to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1972. Over the years, additional purchases and land donations from surrounding property owners expanded the size of the refuge, which now serves as headquarters for the state’s 10 national wildlife units.

    Betsy, Bob and I hiked on 2½ miles of well-maintained trails that meander through forests and grassland, ascending Murdock Hill for a view of the serpentine salt marsh.

    Next, we drove to Lyme, where nearly five miles of trails wind through the 394-acre Selden Creek Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy and Lyme Land Trust.

    We stuck to the preserve’s eastern section, reaching a pair of rocky outcrops that overlook the Lower Connecticut River Valley. The Nature Conservancy rightfully calls this area one of “America's Last Great Places.”

    From this vantage point, Selden Island State Park spreads out across Selden Creek. The 607-acre island had been connected to the mainland before a spring flood cut the neck off in 1854.

    Named for John Selden, who bought the property in 1695, it is Connecticut’s only island state park. I’ve camped there several times on kayak trips and explored the old quarries, but until last week had never set foot across the creek on the preserve property.

    It’s a worthy destination, with a healthy mix of hardwoods and evergreens abutting the salt marshes. Few places offer such vivid contrasts.

    The McKinney refuge is located at 733 Old Clinton Road in Westbrook. Information: www.fws.gov/refuge/stewart-b-mckinney

    The Selden preserve is located on Joshuatown Road; trails we followed toward Selden Creek are on the west side of the road; a ravine trail across the street leads to the preserve’s eastern section. Information: lymelandtrust.org and nature.org.

    Both McKinney and Selden are perfect for short, post-Thanksgiving excursions that keep us connected to nature and history.

    Here in southeastern Connecticut, we’re lucky to have access to many other hiking trails that highlight salt marshes, including those at Barn Island State Wildlife Management Area in Pawcatuck, Bluff Point Coastal Reserve in Groton and Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme.

    I’m thankful to live in a time when most people recognized the importance of protecting these natural areas, rather than destroying them.

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