Sunday, August 30, 2015

Back Trails Among the Dunes

Crane Beach, MA (June 13, 2004)

When the main road becomes too crowded, it is time to hit the back trails. The secret ones hidden behind the last turn, narrow, uneven, full of mosquitos. The one that you don't need the map, because they are not in the map, anyway. The one where you cannot get lost, because you didn't know where you were going in the first place. Where each step is a new adventure.

Among the Dunes
Crane beach has its own back trails. They are not hidden, however, and in fact you can see them well marked on the brochure you can get at the entrance of the reservation. If you look closely at the map of the area, Crane beach is on the ocean side of a very long peninsula, with the opposite side facing the Essex Bay and the Castle Neck River. In the middle, it is an expanse of sand dunes, shrub forest and marshes. All criss-crossed by a network of trails where, while is difficult to get lost, you can easily be devoured by hordes of ferocious green flies and mosquitos. If you can survive that, however, the back trails offer a welcomed change of scenery from the crowded summer beach. It also offers the chance of seeing in action a successful project of sand dune restoration, one of the many across the world aimed to protect a unique ecosystem that is our first line of defense against the destroying force of the ocean.

Animal Footprints
Dune restoration projects are common all over the world, and consist in a number of measures aimed to recreate the coastal ecosystem that too often has been degraded by human activity. The cornerstone of these projects is the reintroduction of native grass in the remaining dunes. This is not your common lawn grass: the tall grasses that live in the dunes are hardy species capable of dealing with the salty environment, and surviving being buried under the sand, of submerged under the waves during the occasional storms. Each location has its own kind of grass, evolved to adapt to the local environment. When New Zealand started its own coastal restoration project, it planted a fast growing variety of beach grass called Marram grass. As the grass spread it trapped new sand forming steep and tall dunes that were ill suited to resist to the strong southern ocean storms. The project backfired, and the grass had to be removed, and replaced with native species (Pingao and Spinifex) that are better suited to the New Zealand coastal climate; the Marram grass is now considered a pest. On the side of Crane beach, and along the back trails carefully traced among the dunes, you can still see recently planted areas, as well as more established grasses, like the beautiful green expanse in the panoramic photo below.

Crane Beach, MA (August 25, 2007)

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