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Folger's Marsh

Winter Walks: The Field Station.

I love winter and not just for the cold air, but the peace that a less populated island provides.

For these reasons, I think the off season is the best time to explore Nantucket. It's when I can really stretch out and find new hikes, link the ones I know to each other and, well, follow deer trails and bushwhack when I need a challenge. Naturally, any of this makes my dog happy, so we have a great time roaming around together. As a growing number of you know, I run a year-round guided hikes business called Nantucket Walkabout with which I lead hikes on various protected properties around the island. As business is slow mid-December through early April, I have a lot of time to wander, but I'm always looking for hiking company, so if you're on island this winter or visiting at some point, I encourage you to check out my Hike Calendar to see which hikes I'm guiding on what days should you want to join me.

For those who want to learn the island on their own, I'm starting a hiking series for the winter of 2016/2017 that will run every week on Nantucket Chronicle called Winter Walks and I'm kicking it off this week with an anti-deer hunt walk at the UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station where hunting is prohibited. During the winter, through these weekly walks, I aim to inflict some island geography on you so when you hear island names such as Folger's Marsh, you'll know where it is, what the habitat is and have the knowing of at least one wicked cool walk in this area. I'll likely write hikes for December that are free of hunters and then dive back into the interior thicket when it's just the rabbit hunters, scarce as they are, that you'll have to worry about. If you have a favorite walk that you think I should know about and want me to explore it, email me at [email protected] 

If you want more for your hiking knowledge of Nantucket, My first two books, Nantucket: A Natural History and Walking Nantucket: A Walker's Guide to Exploring Nantucket on Foot, are both at the Nantucket Atheneum in the Nantucket Section.

The field station hike is a rough draft of a hike I hope to include in my second of volume of island walks, which I'm working on finishing this winter.


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

Children: absolutely

Food: N/A

The Area

It’s an oasis.

There. I could leave this lead with only those three other words to describe the UMass Boston Nantucket 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 shrubs, 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 building the field station in 1963. Here, situated in close proximity to each other is a diverse assemblage of ecosystems and wildlife rivaling that of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s Sanford Farm property off Madaket Road. 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 during spring, summer and fall.

The field station itself functions as island research headquarters for UMass Boston biology and natural sciences undergrad and graduate students whose curriculum requires a dose of field study, and other colleges and universities. Starting with 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 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 trails running maze-like around the field station property, 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 loads of birdlife all year long.

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.

In front of you at the second parking area is Folger’s Marsh, trite as it may sound, is 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 during the warmer months of the year 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 freshwater pond.

When to Go

What’s cool about this property is that UMass and the Foundation allow public access sunrise to sunset and as a wildlife sanctuary, hunting is prohibited. 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 of what happens outdoors spring, summer, fall and winter.

The Walk

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. There are usually maps of the property in the field 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 first parking lot you’ll come to on the right side of the access road immediately after a large information kiosk. From this lot, walk about 50 feet further down the road and then go right onto a path leading to the main loop trail. You can follow this trail all the way to the coastal bank where the field station dormitory sits just 20 feet from edge overlooking the harbor. When in sight of the field station’s osprey pole and at a fork in the trail, go left and follow this trail as it leads out onto the bluff.

From there, you can trace the edge of the bluff and check out the harbor while walking in front of the dormitory and finding the path that eventually descends to the beach below.

You can also continue in your vehicle on to the parking area in front of the lab overlooking the salt marsh. From here, 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 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 round-trip walking taking roughly 15 minutes, or head up the bluff.

For both of this routes, if extending your hike by walking on the beach, when walking to the right, turn around when you reach the osprey pole to avoid private property. If you go left, when you get to the mouth of Folger’s Marsh, you can walk back following a trail behind the low dunes.

Getting There

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 Shipwreck & Lifesaving 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.