By Kate Frazer
From Route 138 in Easton, Hockomock Swamp looks like a wall of snarled vegetation. Thick and impassible, there are no trails here, no clear way in or out. Quickly I see why this place has inspired ghost stories featuring pterodactyl-like creatures, canoeing ghosts and even Bigfoot himself.
But what really lives in this vast wetland?
Five of us from The Nature Conservancy — two scientists, a writer, a board member/ecologist and his 13-year-old granddaughter — got to the heart of this question. Using maps and remote sensing, we set out to survey a path from the side of the road to the most remote location in Hockomock.
Is the swamp a scary, icky place? Or a treasure trove of biodiversity? What is the use of this wet green wilderness? And why should we protect it? Journey along with us and find out.
Swallowed by a Swamp
The air is heavy with the threat of rain and the constant roar of traffic. Route 138 cuts north to south through the middle of Hockomock, but as yet, few other human developments have encroached upon it. This is as close to wilderness as remains in this heavily-settled part of the United States.
Alison Bowden, director of the freshwater program in Massachusetts, and Richard Forman, a board member and ecologist, are already identifying plants. Nearly everything by the road is invasive. They name reed canary grass, glossy buckthorn, Japanese knotweed and purple loosestrife.
But one plant, a native species, overtakes all others. "Clethra," says Alison. "We’re about to get very familiar with it."
As we plow our way through the first 200 feet of the plant, it tugs at our arms and legs. We disappear from the road, and the vegetation springs back into place. One by one we are swallowed by the swamp.
A Living Sponge
When the undergrowth opens up a little, we notice that the maple swamp’s floor is now bumpy with hummocks and hollows. There are new plants, too: sphagnum and other mosses, cinnamon fern and Canada mayflower. Land protection specialist David McGowan snaps a twig of yellow birch and offers it to us. It smells faintly of wintergreen.
"Where is all the water?" asks 13-year-old Brianna, shaking a few drops from a leaf.
"There’s probably lots of standing water here in spring and winter," Richard explains. "The ground is very spongy." We all test it, bouncing lightly. "Peat and sphagnum have great capacity to absorb water, and the water table is low now." As further evidence, Alison points to the base of a tree, which is circled by stained leaves and water rings.
In an average year, 7.5 billion gallons of water fall on Hockomock. The swamp acts as a giant sponge, capturing rain and melting snow and slowly releasing it to tributaries that eventually flow into the Taunton River, which harbors many rare species. If the swamp were filled or paved over, many surrounding towns in Southeast Massachusetts would be in danger of flooding, and many species would lose their homes.
"This is an immense water storage area that doesn’t cost a cent to maintain," says Alison. "Oftentimes the best strategy for a wetland is to simply leave it alone."
Place Where Spirits Dwell
Around the 1,000-foot mark, curious chickadees and titmice fly in, scolding us for our presence. David hears wood thrush and northern waterthrush farther ahead. The traffic noise is slowly replaced by the squelch of our boots and the snapping of branches.
Hockomock swamp’s Wampanoag name means "place where spirits dwell," from a belief that good spirits led visitors to abundant deer and fish. Remarkably, the swamp remains relatively unchanged more than 300 years later. Bald eagles, river otter and osprey still enjoy rich habitat here, and rare amphibians and reptiles — like the blue-spotted salamander and Blanding’s turtle — thrive in the moist conditions.
But there have been major impacts — the foremost of which was the installation of a railroad berm in the 1840s.
"The railroad is unused now, but it still alters the swamp’s hydrology," says Alison. "So do nearby roads and culverts, which are often sources of pollution and barriers to migrating animals." Hockomock still functions well because of its size, but further fragmentation could quickly change all of that.
We reach the rail line at the 2,600-foot mark. The dry, gravel path marks a hard line between two swamp types: red maple and Atlantic cedar. Deer flies form buzzing halos around our heads, and we dash toward the cedar swamp.
Will they make it to the most remote spot in the swamp? And find their way back out? Keep reading!...