Just five miles from downtown Gloversville, near the end of Willie Road, is a tranquil marsh teeming with wildlife. And while the dragonflies, wood ducks and great blue herons don't seem to mind, flooding has damaged the state-operated trail system around the Willie Wildlife Marsh, making it much less inviting to humans.
Barbara Conner recently visited the marsh with a Niskayuna-based group called the Thursday Naturalists. She said they were disappointed to find the system of boardwalks around the marsh was impassable, and litter and missing trail markers added to the sense that the nature trail has seen better days.
"The whole thing looks so abandoned," said. "It seems such a shame, because it could be an attraction if it were in good shape. But the way it is now, it seems as if it's basically just a hazard."
A nesting box for birds is seen just above the water level this week at the Willie Wildlife Marsh in the town of Johnstown. DEC officials say beaver activity has caused the marsh to flood, damaging the system of hiking trails and boardwalks around the marsh. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
Conner, a retired teacher who lives in Malta, wrote about and shared photos from the group's Willie Marsh visit in a Sept. 5 post on her blog, at beebalmgal.blogspot.com.
"Oh, this was indeed a lovely area with lots of potential, but ... the trail system has fallen into disrepair," she wrote. "... The Willie Wildlife Marsh seems like too nice a place to just let go to pot."
The state Department of Environmental Conservation, which built the trails and boardwalks around the 24-acre marsh in the late 1980s, says it is aware of the problems at the site, and it plans to address them soon.
The culprit for the flooding is another species known for its building prowess.
"The problem comes from beavers plugging up a standpipe behind the dam that creates Willie Marsh," DEC spokeswoman Lisa King told The Leader-Herald this week.
In early October, a crew from the Student Conservation Association Adirondack Program, under the supervision of DEC, will spend a week working on the trail system, King said.
The crew will clean out the clogged pipe and install a "beaver deceiver" - a device developed by Clemson University in the early 1990s that's used to dissuade beavers from blocking currents. It makes the flow of water harder for the animals to detect, counteracting their instinct to dam up any moving water near their lodges.
"The work crew also will dismantle and remove the dilapidated observation tower, remove accumulated rubbish, stain identification sign posts and remove trees and limbs that have blown down along the existing trail," King said. "Work on the boardwalk and flooded trails will occur at a later date after the water level drops to normal depths."
A manmade habitat
The late Barbara McMartin of Canada Lake, author of several Adirondack hiking guides and books of local history, described her first visit to the then-new Willie Marsh trail system in a 1991 article in DEC's Conservationist magazine:
"Best of all was the walk across the open water, which made it so easy to observe the wooded edges of the marsh," she wrote. "... I thrilled to the soaring antics of a red-shouldered hawk."
What is now the Willie Marsh hasn't always been such a wild place - the stone foundation of a long-gone farmhouse can still be seen near the trailhead, and much of the land now under water was once cultivated.
The Willie Wildlife Marsh was created in the 1960s as a haven for wood ducks, which at the time were in danger of extinction. Over the course of several years in the late 1980s, three local DEC employees were the driving force behind the construction of the Willie Marsh trails and boardwalks, along with an observation tower and a duck blind for photographers. The site was opened to the public in 1990, and at one point it offered a system of informational stations, signs, maps and a teacher's guide, all of which are gone now.
Dick Spinks, who retired from DEC in 1992 and now lives in Piseco, said he and Jack and Jim Harnish of Gloversville did most of the work on the marsh site, with some help from other DEC employees based in Northville. The Harnish brothers, now both deceased, also are known for the local nursery and pool business that still bears their name.
Jack Harnish was the foreman on the Willie Marsh project, Spinks said.
"He got the idea that spot would be a great place for a nature trail," Spinks told The Leader-Herald this week. "There was nothing like that around Gloversville at the time."
When the trail system opened, it was an immediate hit with nature lovers, Spinks said.
"They came from all over - Albany, Schenectady, even out of state," he said.
Though the mountains are more popular with hikers, Spinks said wetland habitats are more important than the High Peaks, ecologically speaking.
"There's more wildlife around the swamps than there is in the big woods," he said. "There's more food and safe habitat for the animals."
Spinks said he personally built and installed the nesting boxes that have served so many birds over the years at Willie Marsh. Until he retired, he live-trapped beavers at the marsh and released them farther north, but that work hasn't been done in years.
Spinks said he has fond memories of his 31 years with the DEC, and working on the Willie Marsh project was particularly enjoyable.
"We grew up in the woods, the Harnish brothers and I, and we just slid right into this job," he said. "This was the best job I ever could have had."
Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a slideshow of sights and sounds from the marsh, see Bill's Broadsides.