By Ann Beebe
Conserving wild wet habitats in Chautauqua County is the mission of the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy. Some folks think that the mission of this organization is only to preserve Chautauqua Lake. To the contrary, this is how the CWC has described their work in their revised website: ''The CWC has been dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams and watersheds of the Chautauqua region since 1990.''
The Chautauqua Creek East Branch Preserve is a delightful property that was bought and donated by Jay Stratton, in honor of his mother, Muriel Jean Beckman Stratton. Jay's mission was to save old growth forests in the Chautauqua County gorge watershed. That fits with the CWC's mission perfectly. This property holds the headwaters of Chautauqua Creek and the most southern cliffs of the gorge.
Giant maple trees, 11 to 17 feet in diameter each, stand along the Sheldon Trail. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy property is just off Route 430 near Summerdale.
Photo by Ann Beebe
A gas well road makes the first jaunt easy. Immediately, evidence of beavers abounds. Surrounding an old apple tree is a big patch of stumps with tooth marks.
Continuing towards the gas well are hawthorn trees with their long spikes. (I wonder if a shrike ever stored prey on one of those?) Besides red osier, several winterberry shrubs brighten the way with their bright red fruit. Deer enjoy munching on these.
Walking past the well, you will arrive at a path with a smooth mud slide, used by the beavers. The trees dragged down that slide are put to good use. There is a fairly large pond with three lodges in it. Jon Jablonski, director of the CWC, calls this property ''The Beaver Swamp.'' Don't you think that that's an appropriate name?
After you return to the gas well, head west into a fairly wet area. Wading through goldenrod and Queen Anne's Lace makes walking a little harder. Red osier, a native shrub, dots this landscape. Trees include birches and ash. Red maples, which hold their leaves longer than other trees in the autumn, are easily identified.
A stream connects a second large pond to the south of the first pond. Behind those ponds is a young forest. From the second pond, the stream then flows west to enter a culvert that cuts under an old railroad bridge. I bet you might have crossed that bridge. It connects two parts of the Rails-to-Trails section, named the Sheldon Trail.
Finally, to the south of the stream is my favorite part of the Chautauqua Creek Preserve. That's the location of very old maple trees that have been around for hundreds of years. They remind me of the Ents, the fictional trees which J.R.R. Tolkien portrayed as being wise in his popular trilogy ''The Lord of the Rings.''
A related hike that gives a different perspective of the old maples is from the Sheldon Trail. The culvert can be found most easily by beginning this hike in Summerdale.
Recently, I learned how to measure the size of a tree. The circumference should be determined by measuring 4 feet above the tree's base. Don't try to include the nooks and crannies caused by split trunks, burls, or other conditions. These giants are anywhere from 11 to 17 feet in circumference. To put it in some perspective, a big sugar maple in Fredonia was measured at 14 feet 9 inches.
How does one identify a tree species, without leaves, in the winter? Let's use one of these old maples for an example. First, you have to consider if the specimen is young or old. Ours is old. Old bark appears very different from young. It is usually darker and not as smooth. If there were leaves, they would be opposite each other. In winter, opposite twigs and branches will give the same information. Don't forget to allow for some branches that have been broken off by animals or the weather.
The entrance to this CWC property is south of Summerdale on Route 430. Parking with turn-around space is provided. The creek passes through the Chautauqua Gorge State Forest before it joins the Little Chautauqua Creek in Westfield. The ultimate destination is Lake Erie just south of Barcelona. What a treasure. Folks, especially in my neck of the county, truly should take advantage of this beautiful wild area. Thank you, CWC.
Ann Beebe will be giving a slideshow of all the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy properties at the Jamestown Audubon Society on March 2. This program is part of the First Friday lectures at 11 a.m. Visitors are welcome to bring a bag lunch to join others afterwards. Coffee and tea will be provided.