On a recent visit to the New Hampshire Lakes Region, I knew I wanted to spend some time outside in the great outdoors. This sounds easy enough, but since the two main winter activities in the region (ice fishing and skiing) aren’t things I am qualified (or equipped) to participate in solo on a moment’s notice, I had to look elsewhere. Thankfully, the Wild Winter Walk at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness came to my nature-loving rescue!
The mission of the SLNSC is “to advance understanding of ecology by exploring New Hampshire’s natural world.” They do this through live animal exhibits and educational programs that both kids and adults will enjoy. During their regular season of May 1 through November 1, the center also offers guided cruises on Squam Lake focusing on your choice of eagles, loons, the nature around the lake, or Squam in general — all from the comfort of a canopied pontoon boat. In addition to the tours and cruises, visitors can stroll through the flowers at Kirkwood Gardens and enjoy a snack or lunch at the Kirkwood Cafe.
In the winter, the center and its trails are closed except for special programs like the Wild Winter Walk and others with names like Super Snowflakes and Life Under the Ice.
The center itself is tucked right into the forest. I wasn’t alone in my interest to explore some winter nature that day — I’d estimate around thirty people (both kids and adults) turned up for the fun.
After checking in and heading to one of the center’s classrooms for a brief presentation on winter adaptations for animals in the wild, our guides Jeremy and Amy broke us into groups, and we headed out to the Gephart Exhibit Trail. Snowshoes were available from the center, and would have been fun to strap on, but since they weren’t necessary I decided to stick to my warm winter boots.
My group’s guide, Jeremy, was a great leader and advocate for the mission of the SLNSC. Like anyone that is clearly passionate about something, part of his mind was constantly tuned into the nature around us. Stopping in mid-sentence, he would point out birds (both in flight or hiding amongst the tree branches) by the sights or sounds they were making, eager for us to know how much was happening around us — and above us!
Before we get to the animals it’s important to note that all of the animals at the SLNSC are orphaned, injured, or unable to survive in the wild, and are appropriate as educational ambassadors in accordance with their philosophy on captive animals. As Jeremy explained to us, the animals are considered “representatives of their species.” While they are expertly cared for and appreciated, they are not given names. This helps the staff and visitors remember that they are first and foremost wild animals.
First up were the raptors – otherwise known as “birds of prey.” Not all of the center’s raptors stay outside for the winter, but I got to check out a Great Horned Owl, a pair of American Bald Eagles, and a pair of Broad Winged Hawks.
The Great Horned Owl looked like every owl I had ever seen illustrated in a children’s book (namely Winnie-the-Pooh), and I heard more than one person humming “the wise old owl” line in the song Rockin’ Robin. I bet the owl gets that a lot. I also didn’t realize at first that I was looking at two Bald Eagles, because only one of them had the iconic white head and black body. It turns out Bald Eagles don’t develop those signature markings until they are 4-5 years old, so one of the center’s Bald Eagles is on the young side.
After the raptors I had the supreme pleasure of getting up close to a River Otter, and I can’t help but say it appeared to be the happiest wild animal I had ever seen. River Otters have such personality in their eyes, noses, and whiskers. This one kept running up to where she could see us checking her out (at least I think it was a she), then rise up on her feet to peer at us as if to say, “Hey guys, don’t you want to play with me?”
I know I did. We were all pretty smitten with her.
After the River Otter I saw my second favorite species of the day – the White Tailed Deer. There were three at the SLNSC. I think there is something so gentle and elegant about deer. Their slender limbs and large pointy ears (plus a few viewings of “Bambi” as a child and a recent encounter with a wild fawn with my mom) make me a little wobbly at the knees. It was a real treat to see them up close.
After the River Otter and White Tailed Deer things got decidedly more feline. The Bobcat moved with the grace of your average household cat, but with a bit more heft, muscle, and a fur pattern that perfectly blends into its forest environment. Its bobbed tail helped show how it got its name.
Next up was an even larger cat – the Mountain Lion. One of the wonderful things about the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center is how seamlessly the animal habitats are built into the trail, so you can get much closer to see the animal than you can at most other places we go to see wildlife, such as zoos. This photo is not zoomed in at all! Also, I was astounded to learn that Mountain Lions can jump 15 to 18 feet vertically and 30 to 45 feet horizontally.
After the cats, we followed our noses to the Red Foxes. It being mating season, the foxes were giving off a rather pungent musky odor, but when it comes to nature, you expect some smells. The animals themselves were beautiful, with reddish-orange coats and large (enormous, really) bushy tails that the Red Fox can use like a scarf in the winter. When spring comes, their tails will thin out since they won’t need the extra heat.
The hardest animal to photograph was the Fisher, commonly called a Fisher Cat. In truth Fishers look more like their relative the weasel than a cat. To further complicate things, Fishers are often blamed for eating domestic cats, which they will, but cats are more likely to be killed by Great Horned Owls, coyotes, and cars.
Fishers are also unique in their ability to successfully hunt porcupines, which is more of a tribute to their endurance than anything else. Fishers will chase a porcupine — even up a tree — until they can get to its unprotected head. The “scream” people often attribute to Fishers in the woods at night is more likely the sound of a poor porcupine losing the battle.
After the Fisher, we headed back to the center for some warming hot chocolate and a memorable goodbye visit with a few of the center’s indoor winter residents — a hissing cockroach and opossum!
The Wild Winter Walk I participated in was the last one of the season (come on, spring!), but the trails will be open again starting May 1st. I highly recommend including a visit to the SLNSC this year for a unique and memorable nature experience. I know I can’t wait to go back this summer so I can go on one of their Squam Lake cruises with lunch at the Kirkwood Cafe!
For more information about the many wonderful programs, exhibits, and animals at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center check out their website and plan a trip! You’ll be glad you did.