Exploring New Paltz’s Nyquist-Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary

(Photos by Erin Quinn)

Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts…. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.
– Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Just a stone’s throw from the heart of the bustling Village of New Paltz lies an oxbow, a river, meadows, labyrinthlike paths, contemplative benches and a breathtaking view of the Shawangunk Ridge. The Nyquist-Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary, purchased by Thomas and Corinne Nyquist in 2011 from what was formerly known as the Huguenot Historical Society, is a 56-acre wildlife preserve with more than 120 species of birds, a family of swans, sweeping fields of wildflowers and 1,300 feet of frontage along the Wallkill River.

Tom Nyquist, who served as the mayor of the Village for 16 years, said that he can remember the moment when the idea to purchase and protect this ecosystem just west of Historic Huguenot Street struck him. “It had been up for sale by the Huguenot Historical Society for a while,” he recalled. “And Corinne” – his wife, longtime librarian at Sojourner Truth Library at SUNY New Paltz – “and I had just come into a windfall of money, and I woke up one morning and thought, ‘Why don’t we buy it?’” The couple live on Huguenot Street, only hundreds of feet from the northern trail entrance to the Sanctuary. He posed the idea to Corinne: “There was a long silence,” and then she said, “I think it’s a great idea.” In partnership with the Open Space Institute, a land preservation organization based in New York City, the Nyquists were able to purchase the property on July 6, 2011 and safeguard it from any future development.

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The not-for-profit Nyquist Foundation, run by the couple, set to work to improve the experience of the park for neighbors, visitors, birders and nature-lovers alike. “When we bought it there were no benches, so we began to put benches in throughout the property,” he said. From there they installed beautiful blue-and-yellow signage that described the various bird species and the centuries-old rich farming history within the oxbow, as well as tree tags that identify the various arbor species: black walnuts, silver maples and pin oaks, to name a few.

“I think the greatest attraction of the Wildlife Sanctuary is its adjacency to the community,” mused Nyquist. “You can be right in the middle of the foot and car traffic in the Village, and within five minutes you are immersed in the sounds and sights of nature and oftentimes alone, or maybe passing one or two people who are out walking their dogs,” he said. While there are thousands of acres, from the foothills of the Shawangunks to the Mohonk Preserve and Minnewaska State Park, where nature-lovers can explore every type of trail, carriage road, rock scramble or alpine ascent, it takes a certain amount of commitment, physical ability and, on a busy tourist weekend, patience of a saint to sit through the lines of traffic west of the Wallkill River. “But right here [in the Nyquist-Harcourt Sanctuary] there are people of all ages using this preserve.”

At any given time, one can see enthusiastic birders with their binoculars identifying the various bird species, 36 of which are on the Audubon Species of Concern list for New York. There are people walking their dogs; there are elders sitting on the various benches placed poetically throughout the Sanctuary, near birdfeeders and raspberry bushes or wildflowers, where people can rest and just enjoy life unfolding around them.

There is one great blue heron that is known to most regulars, as he likes to perch near the wooden footbridge then traverses the oxbow near Huguenot Street and will slowly-but-dramatically swoop off into a heavy, low-flying trajectory towards another resting spot. “I’ve had two reports of a bald eagle sighting,” said Nyquist. “I haven’t seen it myself, but I have seen the swans. And the interesting thing about the swans is that one of them died, and a year later, the male came back with a new mate.” The pearl-white of the swans provides an elegant contrast to the thick algae-green of the oxbow.

The bridge, which has been replaced several times prior to the Nyquist Foundation’s purchase of the property, has stood solidly through several floods, ice dams and relentless winters. “We were worried about that bridge, but it was soundly constructed,” he said, noting that the hill leading from the bridge to Huguenot Street was known informally to locals as “Turtle Hill,” because of the inordinate number of turtles that can be found posing on rocks and logs near the bridge. Many of them cross Huguenot Street and lay eggs in their neighbors’ lawns, including the Nyquists’.

In the winter, many of the area children and their parents shovel off snow along the oxbow and use it for ice skating and informal hockey games, giving passersby a Norman Rockwellesque vision of a winter pastime that is thankfully still thriving at the Nyquist-Harcourt Sanctuary.

Not only did they add benches and signage, but they also hired a one-man landscaping operation: MNC Landscaping and Lawn Care, run by Sandor Gross. “He’s great, and he loves what he does so much that he’ll just create new paths and archways that lead to little secret spots. We just let him run with it, because he does such a wonderful job.” Indeed, there are new paths that lead to the river, or into an alcove where a bench will appear, or through the woods and near a swampy area and then out and around the meadows until you want to spin around feeling like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music!

“Civilization is minutes away, and yet you’re often in solitude as you walk along the paths and the river,” he said. “That’s truly the beauty of it. You get to see the wildflowers of summer, the changing leaves in autumn, the first blanket of snow in the winter and those early spring blossoms.”

From one Nyquist-Harcourt Sanctuary lover, I must say “Thank you” to the Nyquists for their generous purchase of this land, their stewardship and ongoing improvements and the gift that they have given back to the community that they love so much. This, folks, is right here, in our backyard.

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