There are walks we take that are best thought of as forays, or scouting expeditions. They are attempts to find one’s way into and within a vast and teeming ecosystem, an inexhaustible field of opportunities for discovery. Such a walk was the one my son and I took at Tivoli Bays, one of the DEC’s four Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve sites, themselves part of a national system of estuaries under the auspices of NOAA. What is an estuary? The simple definition, that it is that part of the mouth of a river where the river’s current meets the sea’s tide, and where salt and fresh waters mix, is just the beginning of any attempt to understand the nature of a place like Tivoli Bays. A fuller answer, amplifying a term whose scientific limits could be expressed, probably, in precise measures of salinity, would have to take into account a complexity that cannot easily be verbalized, or measured. But the first steps to take, in trying to understand any place, are the ones we take with our feet, our bodily encounter with the contours of a landscape, its steepness or roughness, its roots and rocks and muck.
I’ve paddled the maze of tidal channels at Tivoli Bays a number of times, getting a muskrat’s-eye view of the marsh’s abundant plant, reptile, insect and bird life, but it had been years since I’d walked there. My wetland scientist son, Frank, had explored the trails more recently, but the DEC sign at the entrance he had used was missing for some reason. So, using my long-out-of-print Audubon Society Field Guide to Natural Places of the Northeast (Inland) for directions, we took the unpaved Crugers Island Road west toward the river, parked in a small lot ahead of an open gate, and went on foot from there. We noted the usual roadside weeds, including garlic mustard, field horsetail, broad-leaved dock and burdock. These latter two are unrelated (one is a member of the buckwheat family, the other of the sunflower tribe) but share a common entry point to our continent with many other “invasives,” expressed in the name “dock.”
In the mixed assemblage of native and introduced plants we came across were a few I see less often, among them indigobush, and autumn olive with its tiny, but intensely fragrant trumpet-shaped flowers. There was also a stand of aniseroot in flower, a parsley relative whose leaves release a delicious scent of licorice when crushed.
In a few minutes we came to a fork, the way ahead barred to vehicles by a shut gate, and marked by a sign that read, “Restricted Area.” Coming closer, we read further that the area was closed due to the presence of endangered species there. We wanted to respect this somewhat enigmatic sign (which species were endangered?), so we didn’t venture far along the road past this point, only far enough for a look at the rich swamp forest that bordered it on both sides, and a stunning stand of yellow irises in bloom. Even at low tide, this road, built up on fill, and leading to Cruger’s Island, is wet and muddy, so it would have been difficult to go much further anyway. We looked up to get a look at a male rose-breasted grosbeak, whose song poured down like a musical rill from the crown of a maple, but couldn’t spot the bird. We were rewarded for our efforts, however, by the sight of an osprey sailing by on sickle-shaped wings. With that, we took our leave of this restricted zone, retreated past its barrier, and took the other fork to a gravel parking lot, and a footpath, marked with blue metal disks, that led along the steep bank of the bay.