At New Paltz’s Millbrook Preserve, beavers thrive close to civilization

The Millbrook Preserve (photo by Erin Quinn)

I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than trees.
— Henry David Thoreau

Beavers have orange teeth. Their enamel is filled with iron to give their teeth more strength. They also have paddle-shaped tails that they slap against the water to scare off would-be predators. In each lodge there are approximately six to eight beavers, and their babies are called kits. Why do I know seemingly random facts about beavers? Because of my daily foray into the Mill Brook Preserve: a 134-acre tract of land located partially in the Town and the Village of New Paltz that stretches from behind the Duzine Elementary School east to Woodland Pond and south to Manheim Boulevard.

This land, to be kept forever wild by the volunteer not-for-profit group Mill Brook Preserve, Inc. (MBPI), is like a magical world within the heart of town. There are pine groves and streams, multiple ponds and beaver dams and lodges as well as wild mushrooms and old-growth trees split in half by lightning that somehow came back to life. It’s an enchanted parcel of land that was once a battleground between developers and open space preservationists: One group wanted to trap and kill beavers and drain the wetlands, while grassroots activists wanted to protect and preserve its various habitats for both existing wildlife and human recreation. In the end, a compromise was reached and the beavers stayed in their lodges, the blue herons continue to take flight with their prehistoric wings, snapping turtles grow ever larger and the cattails spike into the air like newly painted gold fingertips reaching upwards to scratch the sky.

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But let’s get back to beavers. True, they are rodents, which kind of makes them sound dirty; but they’re big rodents, growing up to 60 pounds, and the Mill Brook Preserve is like a beaver workshop! They’ve created a dam that would rival some of the world’s leading engineers, felling trees, of all different sizes, at the same exact angle. Not only are their chompers of industrial caliber, but they also keep growing as they continually gnaw through the night. Beavers, you see, are predominantly nocturnal. I’ve read that, but have also tried to walk through the Preserve at all times of the day (and evening) in an attempt to catch a beaver at work. It’s like trying to catch one of Santa’s elves — it’s nearly impossible! But one day at dusk, I did see two little beaver faces cruising in the lower pond, and my puppy caught their attention, because soon those tails were slapping so hard it sounded like Def Leppard’s one-armed drummer.

Though I was walking with someone who grew up in that area, it had changed so much that we got all twisted around. What used to be an apple orchard was now part swamp, and what used to be dirt bike trails were now civilized walking paths. But an abandoned car that was crashed and left for dead in the 1970s is still there, an industrial relic of the past. I thought I was walking towards the center of the Earth, when all of a sudden there was an announcement about a book fair coming over the loudspeaker from Duzine. We were in the belly of the woods and the Hudson River School of Painting-like splendor of nature’s autumnal palette, and suddenly we were one step away from the elementary school and another step as close to the senior care facility — straddling so many decades in a space that seemed to expand time.

This feeling — of being lost, or at least alone and quiet, and watching a flock of soon-to-be-migrating Canada geese glide en masse onto the glasslike surface of the water — is what the Preserve was conceived to do. According to its mission statement, it was “created to preserve open space; conserve biodiversity and wildlife habitats; to allow the existing natural systems to provide flood protection, erosion control, drainage and other natural functions; and to provide recreational and educational opportunities for residents and visitors.”

Years of envisioning, mapping, negotiating, researching and lobbying have led to a community treasure. It had always existed and was used by neighbors and locals to walk, ski and snowshoe; but now that ability has been both protected and expanded to the wider public.

There are various well-marked loops, knitted together from existing trails to “lessen the impact,” according to MBPI executive director and town councilwoman Julie Seyfert-Lillis. She and a group of volunteers marked the majority of the trees, “and a Woodland Pond resident made the trail signs,” she said, referring to the hand-carved wooden trail signs that delineate the blue and yellow and green trails. The log bridges were built by community volunteers including her husband, Mike Lillis, who once worked on the Adirondack Trail crew.

The Preserve provides a great outdoor classroom for Duzine students, who can learn about existing habitats for owls, foxes, opossums, muskrats and of course beavers. “It’s an escape into nature in people’s backyards. It truly feels wild in there,” said Seyfert-Lillis.

And it does. There are days when there are a half-dozen people meandering through the trails, and other times when there is no one around and civilization can seem pushed back just far enough out of your periphery to exhale. Without having to commit to hours or steep elevations or even having to get into a car or proper hiking shoes, the Mill Brook Preserve offers paths of gentle beauty — whether walking through the woods, deep into the shade, or along the curved log dam of the pond, or even sitting and listening to the rush of the stream as it cascades over an old spillway and pools around rocks and roots and rainbows of fallen leaves.

To learn more, go to www.millbrookpreserve.org.

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