A Hike to Hawley Bog
A hidden gem in the heart of Franklin County .

This column appeared in the Fall 2012 issue (Vol.1, No.3) of The Recorder's Outdoor Adventure Magazine

An ecological gem lies hidden in the northwest corner of Franklin County. It is not particularly difficult to get to, but it is a place that can really give you the feeling of being up and away from the bustle of everyday life down in the valley. Unlike my previous destinations there is no long hike awaiting the adventurer, but rather a lovely walk into another world that is quite unlike anything you may ever have experienced. I am speaking of a place called Hawley Bog.

I first encountered this magical spot in the mid 1990s when I lived on Forget Road in Hawley. The bog was within walking distance of my house, but even then it was somewhat under the radar. Access to the bog was via a narrow path of wooden planks that had been fastened together and laid out on the ground. It wasn’t easy going and there were times when you simply couldn’t keep your feet dry.

In 1997 the Nature Conservancy and the Five Colleges teamed up to improve access by creating a raised boardwalk. Long posts of recycled plastic lumber were driven down into the depths of the bog and wooden planks were used for the boardwalk’s deck. I actually volunteered on one of the work parties that carried wood out to the construction site.

Fast forward to 2012 and the boardwalk has just undergone a complete makeover. Visitors will find a fully refurbished boardwalk awaiting them. An additional update from the 90s is a picnic table that allows visitors to enjoy a packed lunch or simply sit and enjoy the surroundings. It is a nice way to either get into the mood of the place prior to visiting the bog, or to sit and reflect upon the experience after leaving.

With all of this to tantalize the potential visitor I suppose now I should conjure up a sense of place. The word “bog” probably evokes some sort of image in your imagination the moment you hear it. Some people will think unpleasant thoughts of murky, stinking mires that hide all sorts of nasty surprises. Others will think of raw, beautiful nature. I hope to convince you of the latter.

Technically speaking, a bog is a form of peatland. Okay, I guess that isn’t quite enough of an explanation. A peatland is an ecological system in which organic matter accumulates faster than it can decay. Such systems can be found from the tropics to the arctic, but there is one basic element to all such systems that must be in place in order for the magic to happen – water. There must be an ample supply of slow-moving water that will provide the slow decomposition rate of any vegetation.

In the case of a bog, the quickest and most familiar image that I can plant in your head is an in-ground swimming pool that has been abandoned by its owner. Water can get in from the sky in the form of rain, but the water cannot get out by any other route than to return to the sky by way of evaporation. The water becomes stagnant, but is quickly colonized by algae. If, however, you were to introduce a plant called sphagnum moss, you might be able to start the process of forming a bog.

Sphagnum moss is beautifully adapted to living in water with little or no flow. Air spaces between the cells in the stems of the moss allow it to float on the surface and it has also adapted the habit of continuous growth at the tip of the plant. As an individual moss progresses through its life the newest green growth remains at the surface of the water and the older portions of the plant sink below the surface and die. In the process the plants release tannins and acids that can give the water a brownish color and slow down the decay of the dead material.

Given enough time, the mosses can spread out into a large mat over the surface of the water and give the illusion of solid ground. As mosses continue to grow and reproduce then bolster each other and can actually lift their growing tips up out of the water altogether. As the years go by, and the mosses continue growing and sinking, the layer of dead plant material can become quite thick because of the acidity of the water. In the case of Hawley Bog, the “peat mat” is over thirty feet thick.

The mat is typically thickest at the margins of the bog, where the mosses have first colonized a lake or pond. As time goes by the vegetation starts to intrude toward the center of the pond while continuing growth at the edges. The visitor to a bog may not initially understand what is underfoot, but as you walk out toward the inner edge of the mat you will eventually start to feel the ground moving under your feet.

Imagine you are walking on a waterbed and you will have the basic idea. Every step toward the youngest growth puts less moss under you. There will come a time when there is actually clear water below the peat mat and you will be standing on floating vegetation. Walk too far and you will eventually reach a point where the mat cannot support you and you will start to sink.

The weathering of rock normally provides elements like calcium, potassium and phosphorus, but water falling directly from the sky has no contact with rock, so these elements are rare in bogs. Nitrogen is another element that is difficult to find, so how do bogs accumulate these substances? Well, the first three can be introduced in the form of dust particles that rain down from the sky at a fairly consistent, if slow rate. Nitrogen is introduced in the form of ammonia, which is a major component of the urine and fecal mater of birds, mammals, and insects. The common factor here is that all of these sources of nutrients are slow and limited.

All is not as simple as it may seem, however. The same acids that prevent decomposition also make growing extremely difficult. Most plants cannot tolerate immersion in water of any king, never mind acidic water. Further adding to the constraints on growth is the obvious lack of minerals and nutrients that plants need. Mosses define Hawley Bog, but there are others that can colonize this exotic environment and live among the mosses.

These plants are often desperate for nutrients, some of them so desperate that they will resort to killing and eating animals to get it. The famous Venus flytrap is an example of one such carnivorous plant that lives in southern bogs. Local examples of meat-eating plants are the northern pitcher plant and the sundew. Pitcher plants have leaves that have shaped themselves into vases or “pitchers” filled with water. Insects bumble into the leaves, cannot get out, drown, and are then digested.

Sundews, on the other hand, are very small plants that have extensions on their leaves that are tipped with blobs of “glue,” for lack of a better term. Insects that wander into a sundew leaf will become trapped in the glue and then the leaf will curl around the victim. Once immobilized, the leaf will secrete digestive enzymes that will dissolve the insect into its component molecules which will then be absorbed by the plant.

To reach Hawley Bog you need only get yourself to Rt. 2 and head to the town of Charlemont. Once you enter the center of town you want to look for the road that would take you to the Berkshire East Ski area. For people driving from Greenfield this will mean you must take a left-hand turn and cross over the Deerfield River. Once over the bridge take a left, and then an immediate right onto East Hawley Road. Drive on up the hill and you will find the small parking area on the right where the road starts to level off.

Make sure you adhere to all rules regarding the mat as the structure is quite fragile and easily injured by excessive abuse. If you come away from this magically quiet place with the same sense of contentment that I always do I would also encourage you to make a donation to The Nature Conservancy so you can take a part in protecting such special places throughout our beautiful country.