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Rare Plant Preserve Teeming With Life

July 16, 2008 - The canoe bottoms out along the shore, with grains of sandy beach screeching across the fiberglass hull in water only a few inches deep.

Don Cameron is undaunted and he continues using his paddle as a pick ax, trying to pull the heavy boat ever closer to shore, like a mountain climber maneuvering across an icy wall.

Cameron lunges over the edge of the canoe, reaching out in a manner that -- were this rough open water -- would otherwise make me quite nervous.

But he's found something he wants to get a closer look at. Traveling with this man in a rare plant preserve -- well, let's just say this happens a lot.

Cattail sedges. New Jersey tea. Stiff arrowhead. All of them listed as either endangered or threatened in Maine.

Whitewater rapids or frantic fishing pace have nothing on these plants when it comes to getting Cameron in a boat. Cameron is the state botanist for the Maine Natural Areas Program, and it can take hours to paddle only a mile or two with him as he inspects virtually every plant he comes across.

"This shows you how I live my whole life," Cameron says, laughing.

For the umpteenth time, he's ordered the boat brought to a halt and turned completely around to the far shore -- having seen a shade of purple or pink, or a copper-colored stem that caught his interest. He'll hop into the water, socks and sneakers still on, until he's satisfied he knows what he's seen and why he's seen it where it is.

Then it's back in the canoe and off again down river.

"We'll be driving down the highway, and it's the same thing," Cameron says. "The car will screech to a halt, and we'll start backing up. I'll tell my wife, 'This is going to take a few minutes.'"

Paddling down the Dead River, and then up the western shore of Androscoggin Lake, seeing bald eagles perched only a few dozen feet over our heads on picturesque summer day, I've got all the time in the world.

The Riparian zone

While vernal pools are home to two-thirds of Maine's amphibian population at some point in their life cycles, riparian zones serve a similar function for plant life.

The Brackett-Longley Rare Plant Preserve in Wayne is accessible by watercraft, a 40-acre stretch of land maintained by the Kennebec Land Trust. It runs between the Dead River and Androscoggin Lake, a narrow strip that floods regularly in the spring.

And because it floods regularly -- parts of the preserve actually sit in a basin, lower than the shores of either the Dead or the Androscoggin -- it creates a habitat not found in many places in central Maine.

"Flood plains are not common in Maine," said Cameron of the Maine Natural Areas Program. "And, as we're learning over and over again, development on flood plains is not really a good idea. Some of them don't flood regularly but some of them flood every year."

Because this is a rare habitat, the flood plain is home to its own special world in many ways. Non-native and invasive plant species are uncommon because the area changes so much with the climate.

This delta hosts the only population of cattail sedge anywhere in Maine. Indian grass occurs at Androscoggin Lake, at the most northern reach of its range, likely because of the unique geology of the wetland.

"It's a dynamic ecosystem," Cameron said. "Because it stays wet for so long, it keeps some of the hardwoods down, so some of the rare plants can succeed a little better through a lack of competition."

Spike rushes are not restricted to the Brackett-Longley Preserve the way the cattail sedges are, but it is in this type of environment they flourish. They peek up out of the water, the pointed tops showing alone, until later in the summer when the water line recedes and more of the plant becomes visible.

It's a pointed example -- pun intended -- of wetland habitat. It's a better example of the mystery of ecology, the unanswered question about why certain plants and animals choose certain places and why they thrive there.

"Eighty-five percent of vertebrates in Maine use riparian areas during some part of their life cycle," Cameron said. "It's important to have protected areas like this to provide opportunities for nesting, roosting, feeding and cover."

Eagle-eye view

Roosting over the preserve are a pair of bald eagles. One heads out across Androscoggin Lake almost as soon as we're sighted, while the other is far more tolerant of our presence. It watches with a keen eye, but it allows us to pass only yards away without leaving its perch.

Thunderstorms may be in the forecast but the paddling is truly pristine. The crawling Dead River feels more like a Louisiana bayou under these humid skies.

The silver maples drape themselves over the riverbanks, as if their limbs ache for the touch of cool water for relief in the heat of the day.

The water is so calm, so undisturbed, that even powerful fishing boats cruise by the canoe and create hardly a stir.

We portage across a centuries-old Native American carry, their footsteps imprinted in the land, to the lake. It's open -- and large clouds billow up miles away -- and everything remains vibrantly green. Scattered flower petals of white or violet are there, but the variety of colors won't come until the crisp fall air moves in a few months from now.

Still, the water held by the large Androscoggin Lake is quiet and calm. Its waves bob and weave as if it's in the middle of its own summer siesta.

Given a place like this, I start to think about the cattail sedge.

So unencumbered, so brilliantly still here even on a summer Saturday afternoon, it's no wonder this rare plant has called this place home.

July 12, 2008 Kennebec Journal
BY TRAVIS BARRETT


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