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Strolling through the Treetops at Sarrett Nature Center April 10 09

Normally, the only way you can get a squirrel’s-eye view of the landscape is to climb a tree. But east of Benton Harbor, just a mile or so from I-196, the Sarrett Nature Center lets you stroll through the treetops. Weaving fifty feet above the ground through the branches of a bottomland forest, Sarrett’s brand-new Treetop Trail is the most recent addition to director Chuck Nelson’s far-reaching vision for the 1,000-acre preserve.

With the Paw Paw River threading through its heart, Sarrett possesses a remarkably rich ecology, with habitats ranging from upland hardwoods, to floodplain forest, to open fields, to a variety of wetlands, including a unique, alkaline fen. Barred owls prowl the treetops, orchids and carnivorous pitcher plants bloom in the wetlands, and an endless procession of wild birds flit among the feeders outside the observation window at the park headquarters.

I’ve long been a fan of this beautiful sanctuary, with its trails that wind through quiet woodlands and riverine swamps. Amid the frantic pace of our millennial world, Sarrett is an oasis inviting one to slow down, way down, breathe easier, and reconnect with the simplicity that makes life worth living. The preserve is infused with a sense of changelessness. And Chuck Nelson is there to ensure that whatever changes do occur at Sarret enhance its quality and its ability to inspire a greater public appreciation for nature.

Evidently I picked exactly the right day to visit Sarrett. Not only was Chuck there, but so was the retired president of Pearson Construction Companies, Burton Pearson, along with family members visiting from Sweden. Pearson Construction is the firm that built the Treetop Trail, surmounting the challenges of penetrating sixty feet of soupy muck in order to firmly anchor the metal support towers. In the photo, Burton is the gentleman in the blue hat second from right, and that’s Chuck in the green bush hat.

The aerial boardwalk is a truly remarkable accomplishment—an opportunity for hikers to experience what goes on among the topmost branches of a forest, where photosynthesis occurs. But Chuck’s plans for the preserve don’t stop there. Currently, he and his crew are hard at work constructing a couple of small ponds on either side of the sidewalk that leads to the center’s headquarters. When finished, one of the ponds will be rimmed with a marsh. The other will be surrounded by northern forest vegetation, with a miniature sphagnum bog at one end featuring leatherleaf, native orchids, pitcher plants, and other peatland flora. Having model wetlands right outside the door is more than just an incredibly cool idea—it’s also a very practical one, broadening Sarrett’s educational opportunities for school groups and nature clubs.

Of course, you don’t have to join a group to enjoy Sarrett Nature Center. All you need is a nice day, two serviceable legs, and an eagerness to explore. Sarrett is vast, and the trails traverse only a small part of it. But what they do cover reflects the striking diversity of the place. After walking down a steep grade from the uplands into the Paw Paw River valley, you’ll find a well-maintained system of trails and boardwalks to take you safely through floodplain forest, cedar swamp, and other wetlands. Watch out for poison sumac, which grows close by the trailside in the fen area.

During my own hike at Sarrett, I emerged from a grove of white cedars to encounter a rapid transition in the landscape from fen to floodplain. I stopped at a platform along the bank of the Paw Paw to take pictures. To my side, in the placid backwaters outside of the current, a sprinkling of red maple flowers nestled among the tiny green dots of emerging duckweed. Sprigs of spring-fresh grass poked out of the shallows, a down-payment on the fecundity of the coming season. Today was still chilly, in the upper forties, but the sun was bright, the redwing blackbirds were trilling, the odd, speckled cowls of skunk cabbages dappled the wet woods, and in every respect, the spring was progressing. Tomorrow would be warmer. And at Sarrett, the ongoing, subtle pageantry of the woods and wetlands would continue, proceeding softly and serenely toward abundance.





Written by Dave.