The Umass Field Station is coming alive!
Explore it nearly empty while you can.
The UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station is bustling with life waking from the long snowy island winter and returning from warmer climes.
So now is the perfect time to get over there and walk around, reaquaint yourself with an old friend.
UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station
Length: 1.0 mile – beach .8/mile
Time: 20-45 minutes – beach 16-20 minutes
Difficulty Rating: Easy
Dogs: on a leash
It’s an oasis.
There. I could leave this lead with only those three other words to describe the UMass Boston Field Station and that would easily cover all the bases. Besides, the definition of an oasis according to my dictionary — a place or period that gives relief from a troubling or chaotic situation — is the literal feeling this 110-acre island of refuge among private summer residences provides not only for its human visitors but the wildlife that inhabit its salt marsh, coastal bluff, freshwater pond, upland meadows and thickets, tidal waterway and 2,200 lineal feel of inner harbor shoreline.
Alternately dubbed the Grace Grossman Environmental Center in 2004 in reverence for Grace and her extensive contributions to the island’s natural world, and the protection of the field station forever, the field station property is a miracle of the island’s geological formation. Donated to the University of Massachusetts in 1963 by the Estate of Stephen Peabody and in 1965 by the Estate of Katherine Coe Folger, UMass Boston with the help of its first managing director, Dr. Wes Tiffney, founded and began the building the field station in 1963. Here, situated in close proximity to each other is by far a diverse assemblage of ecosystems and wildlife rivaling that of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s Sanford Farm property off Madaket Road, (page 111 in Walking Nantucket). At 180 Polpis Road are at least a half a dozen bionetworks packed with winged, slithering, swimming, crawling, walking creatures residing in an island arboretum of plant life.
That it continues to exist in sanctuary form today is a miracle of conservation foresight and funding in and of itself. In 2004, during the state’s budget crisis when UMass was seriously considering selling the property to private developers, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation stepped in and agreed to buy the property for $22.1 million, paying it off a year early in 2009. The Foundation now owns the land, but through an agreement with UMass can continue to use 63 acres of the property for an interpretive nature and biological research center.
The field station itself functions as island research headquarters for UMass biology and natural sciences undergrad and graduate students whose curriculum requires a dose of field study. And, starting in the spring semester of 2013, the field station became an integral part of the UMass Boston’s recent addition of an environmental science degree program when university created its LivingLab Nantucket Semester. Students majoring in environmental disciplines at UMass Boston spend the spring semester living on Nantucket taking courses including eco-poetics, hydrology, marine and coastal ecological research and capstone in environmental sciences and, throughout the semester, participate in independent study and field experiences in environmental science.
Professors and private sector researchers also use the field station as a base for their projects. The Foundation manages the remaining 45 acres of heathlands surrounding Folger’s Marsh and running along Polpis Road.
What You’ll See
On the roughly two miles of serpentine trails running maze-like around the field station property, UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station Managing Director Dr. Sarah Oktay estimated that someone out for the exercise could do the whole property in 30 minutes or less. But if you did, you’d miss out on jaw-dropping views of Nantucket Harbor, Folger’s Marsh and an active osprey nest. Not to mention snapping turtles laying their eggs along the paths, the aggressive tiger beetle crawling on the beach and the chance to learn about most of the plants, creatures and habitat you see along the way.
The main trail is a loop around the property giving one access to lots of little detours and spurs delving deeper into this magnificent property.
On the first segment of the loop — in front of you at the parking area — is Folger’s Marsh, trite as it may sound, one of the crown jewels of the property. Fed and cleansed twice daily by flood and ebb tides, this muddy wet field of salt marsh cord grass is jammed with shorebirds including great and little egrets, great blue herons, whimbrels, lesser and greater yellowlegs, ruddy turnstones, American oyster catchers, a handful of plovers, gulls and ducks of several varieties, and baitfish including Atlantic silversides. A small winding creek running all the way back to Polpis Road and then under it to the rest of the marsh surrounded by maritime heathlands, opens out into the harbor west end of field station’s beach.
The eroding bluff provides a great yet stark portrait of coastal erosion in the harbor, there is eelgrass growing just off shore, quahogs to dig in the shallow water and views of Coatue, Pocomo Point and Great Point beyond. Back inland along the trail, there is a pond that Sarah says is manmade and wild growing everywhere.
When to Go
What’s cool about this property is that UMass and the Foundation allow public access sunrise to sunset. This should mean, if you want it to, that you get a whole 12 months — four seasons — of adventures. While there are some walks in this book and the original “Walking Nantucket” in which I recommend under the When to Go heading that you avoid the walk during certain times of the year for weather- trail- or user-related reasons, the field station is not one of them. Off limits to hunters, protected from the wind in its thickets, sprinkled with rest benches, never too crowded and a delight to behold in every season and time of day, the field station is perfect for circadian observers, naturalists young and old, and everyone else keeping track what happen outdoors spring, summer, fall and winter.
Not nearly as heavily trafficked as Sanford Farm, Oktay said that the field station experiences as many as 50 people a day but usually way less than that.
Imbued with the ever-colorful shades of exploration and discovery, even for those who visit it on a regular basis, the field station’s walking trails can be as simple as a stroll around its main loop or pleasantly complicated by adding incursions down its alternative routes. Around the main loop and at certain vista points, there are information kiosks with photographs and text explaining what you’re seeing at that particular part of the property. There are also maps of the property in the field the station information case next to the visitor sign-in clipboard, which you should sign, attached to the front of the laboratory opposite the parking area.
I usually begin my visits at the parking lot in front of the lab overlooking the salt marsh. From this area, with the marsh on your left, walk north toward the harbor. After you pass the managing director’s residence and encounter a fork, go left and the salt marsh comes back into view. Take your time, especially during the spring and fall to check out the birds in the marsh with the binoculars that you most certainly didn’t leave at home.
From there, you can either walk right onto the beach, which is about eight tenths of a mile in roundtrip walking taking roughly 15 minutes, or head up the bluff. If the beach is your choice, when walking to the right, turn around when you reach the osprey pole to avoid private property and when you get to the other end at the mouth of Folger’s Marsh, forget about trying to swim or wade here, as the tidal current is treacherously strong, except during the astronomical dead low tide.
For the grand tour, go left up the bluff and walk along its edge, taking time to read the information kiosks along the way, check out the harbor and the osprey-nesting pole. With the pole and harbor at your back, walking south brings you into paths circling islands of brush. Continue past these and look for the loop trail heading up to the left.
This trail will eventually bring you down to the field station driveway and from there, either go right and walk back to the parking area or cross the road to explore the trails on the other side along the salt marsh.
Located at 180 Polpis Road, 2.6 miles from Milestone Road and 6.0 miles from the ‘Sconset Market, coming from town, you will find the driveway at the top of the hill after passing the Nantucket Lifesaving Station Museum overlooking Folger’s Marsh and Nantucket Harbor beyond and shortly after Bassett Road on your right coming from ’Sconset. A blue sign with white lettering just off Polpis Road marks the entrance.
If coming by car, the field station speed limit is 5 mph so, among other reasons, you can stop in time to let painted, spotted and snapping turtles cross the road. Park in one of two visitors’ lots, the first managed by the Foundation, is on the right with split-rail fencing at the road end of the driveway and the second is clearly marked overlooking Folger’s Marsh opposite the first building you come to.
Expand your outdoor experience by pedaling there on the Polpis Road bike path or hop on the NRTA bus that runs the Sconset via Polpis Road Route and get off at the UMass Field Station stop.