Tip-toeing through the Tamaracks

If you sit very quietly in the middle of a tamarack fen and close your eyes, you can hear a goose honking in the distance, a red-winged blackbird trilling from the cattails, and 24 little kids, desperately trying to be still.

Woodbury’s Tamarack Nature Preserve is the southern-most tamarack swamp in Minnesota and a jewel within the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District. The preserve includes two miles of trails as well as a floating boardwalk that crosses a special kind of wetland known as a fen. During a recent field trip, 4th Graders from Royal Oaks Elementary in Woodbury explored the winding trails of Tamarack Nature Preserve, studied some of the plants and animals that live in the preserve, and learned about threats to the fen, including invasive species and water pollution.

boardwalk biology 1
During a recent field trip, 4th grade students from Royal Oaks Elementary visited Tamarack Nature Preserve in Woodbury.

Tamaracks are a unique type of conifer, common in northern Minnesota, with needles that turn color and drop in the fall like a deciduous tree. They thrive in acidic, nutrient-poor wetlands, peaty lakeshores, and along boggy edges of streams; can live to be more than 300 years old; and were documented to be the most common type of tree in Minnesota at the time of European settlement. The Tamarack Nature Preserve in is classified as a fen instead of a bog because groundwater flows into and through the wetland. Unlike other wetlands in Woodbury, the fen also has layers of peat at least one foot thick floating on top of wet areas, which creates a quaking forest impossible to walk across (hence the need for a floating boardwalk).

tamarack fall
Unlike other conifers, tamarack needles change color and drop in the fall.

The Royal Oaks field trip last month was part of a groundwater education initiative funded by Washington County. Prior to visiting the Tamarack Nature Preserve, students learned about the water cycle and groundwater through games and an interactive groundwater model developed by the University of Iowa. Using the model, Washington Conservation District staff demonstrated how people get water from underground using wells, how groundwater flows into lakes and streams, and how contamination on the land’s surface can infiltrate down into aquifers. Then, they headed down the road to the preserve to see a real example of a groundwater-dependent natural area.

At the preserve, students met “Adopt-A-Park” volunteer stewards – Dana Boyle, Stephanie Wang, John Woodworth, and Anna Barker. They tip-toed across the wiggling boardwalk, learned about invasive buckthorn and hybrid cattail, and played a “who-dunnit” game designed to teach them about everyday sources of water pollution, such as dog poop, litter, and lawn fertilizer. The fen is home to dozens of special plants including swamp milkweed, marsh marigold, arrowhead, blue-joint grass, boneset, bottlebrush sedge, woolgrass, and sensitive fern. Despite living near the preserve, most kids said they had never been there before, and many were excited to go back later and explore it with their families.

Boyle and Woodworth became stewards of the Tamarack Nature Preserve after joining the Minnesota Master Naturalists program, run by Minnesota Extension and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Wang and Barker became Master Water Stewards through a similar program run by Freshwater Society. The volunteer stewards have created a website to help connect more people with this special place, produced two fly-over videos of the preserve, and have led many groups on tours and service projects there. Boyle has also catalogued hundreds of stunning photos of the preserve at all times of the year, some of which are featured on the website.

Along with volunteer-led efforts to bring more people to the Tamarack Nature Preserve, Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District has also worked to protect the fen from runoff water pollution. In 1999, the district installed two pond-like treatment systems that capture sediment and other pollutants from road run-off (students were able to see one during their field trip). More recently, the watershed district has also worked with local homeowners and condo associations to install raingardens and vegetated swales that filter and reduce runoff from neighborhoods surrounding the preserve.

Two years ago, Evergreen Country Homes, a condo association just north of the Tamarack Nature Preserve, worked with Washington Conservation District and Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District to create raingardens and swales that keep stormwater out of the tamarack preserve.

If you tip-toe through the Tamarack Nature Preserve this winter, you might find deer sheltering from the winter’s wind, black-capped chickadees dancing across the tips of the tamaracks, or nodding cattail fronds, dusted with frost. Or, you can grab a pair of skis, glide through the nearby woods and relish a quiet moment with nature. You might find a group of kids on a field trip, but chances are you’ll have the preserve to yourself.

Visit www.tamaracknaturepreserve.org to find maps of the Tamarack Nature Preserve, download field guides and birding apps, and see photos and videos of the preserve.