A Walk In the Natural Area

Ossipee — October 14, 2005 — To get a perspective on a place like Ossipee Lake Natural Area, there’s nothing like exploring it with a biologist – especially if it’s Barre Hellquist, the long-time lake resident and co-author of “Aquatic and Wetland Plants of North America,” the definitive textbook on the subject.

Hellquist’s interest in the lake began when he was a graduate student at UNH. While his long career has taken him on research studies around the world, he has always found time to continue studying the lake.

On an early August morning he joined us as we made our way past the homes on Long Sands Road to enter a wild, untamed environment unlike any other on the lake. Well ahead of the boaters who gather there during the day, we had the place to ourselves.

“There used to be Mermaid Weed and Virginia Meadow Beauty here,” Hellquist says, scouring the shrubbery as we passed clumps of native cranberries and sampled the abundant high bush blueberries. “I’d love to find some.”

Sandpipers scattered as we stopped to admire the cold springs that run out of the marshes into the lake, leaving a meandering trail of deep purple colorations in the sand.

“I’m told that’s amethyst,” Hellquist says, “but I’m not certain. Whatever it is, it’s pretty.”

A Unique Wetland
Hellquist knows that a decade ago state researchers wrote that the Natural Area has the highest plant species richness of any site sampled in New Hampshire. Over the years, Hellquist himself has seen and documented many rarities at the site. Yet, he feels the questions of whether the property is as species-rich as it once was or whether it contains the remains of ancient settlements are interesting but not the main consideration.

“An open space wetland like this is rare to find on a well-developed lake. It’s a buffer to development and a unique and historic part of the lake. In most states that would be enough to ensure its long-term protection and preservation. The unusual species found here are a bonus to the property’s intrinsic value.”

Just around a bend we pass a fiberglass Old Town canoe, in great shape, chained to a tree. Close by is a sturdy-looking five-foot square padlocked wooden storage locker, partially hidden in the bushes and surrounded by litter. Two years ago, state biologists found this locker and cited it as evidence of how the state’s lack of management has allowed people to take over the property.

Surprised to see that the state hasn’t yet removed it, we were also curious to know what’s inside. We gave it a good pummeling, but to no avail. It’s secret contents remain secret.

Then, a find. Next to a stretch of a reed-like water grass known as Schoenoplectus torreyi we uncover a narrow-leaf goldenrod called Euthamia.

“Not rare but certainly uncommon,” Hellquist pronounces, snapping his camera to document the specimen.

While much remains in this place, much has already been lost, Hellquist says. That includes the peat mats that used to extend well into the lake.

“The water level used to decrease gradually in the summer because property owners wanted a bit of beach along their shorefront. Now it’s kept high to accommodate boaters, and the high water has washed away most of the mats.”

As the sun moves higher in the sky, boaters begin to approach and we turn around to make our way back.

“You know, if the state didn’t own this property, private organizations would be eager to buy it and give it the long-term protection it deserves,” Hellquist offers as a parting thought.

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