Situated on Lake Champlain in northwestern Vermont, the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge is recognized internationally for its biological diversity and high-quality wetlands.
On a day in mid-July, refuge manager Ken Sturm prepares to take us to a special part of the refuge — by canoe.
"We're standing along the bank of the Missisquoi River at a spot called Mac’s Bend," Sturm explained. "We’re going to paddle downstream just a short ways, and then we're going to poke in on the righthand bank there, on the east side, and we're going to get a view into a really unique part of the refuge, which is our sanctuary part of the refuge."
Sturm said that this area is closed to the public. Today's trip is a chance to share what Sturm described as "something that’s the heart and soul of this refuge and is the establishing purpose of this refuge – to protect migratory birds from disturbance and allow them to nest and bring off young successfully without humans messing around with them."
Sturm notes that much of the refuge is open to the public, and that there are more than birds to see and hear in this "biologically diverse" wetland complex, including damselflies and native mussels.
"It’s always hard to find a place to land where you’re not bothering a mussel in the river," he said.
To get to the sanctuary, we take a short walk west, away from the riverbank, into a wide open area that’s referred to here as "Cranberry Pool." With a map and his binoculars in hand, Sturm describes the sanctuary itself as more than 1,400 acres in all of "unparalleled" nesting and breeding habitat.
"We're looking out on this, you know, 500-acre wetland. … Even though from our view right here it almost looks like a 100 percent green expanse of vegetation, if you're looking at this from above, you'd notice lots of little potholes all over the place that are open water pockets which are – it's just like a puzzle of open water pieces," Sturm said.
"And that's really great habitat for waterfowl and other birds to find edgy habitat. Places where they can feel protected, places where they can scoot into the vegetation to get cover from eagles and other birds – peregrine falcons. So, you know, even though this looks like a solid expanse of green in front of us, it really is a diverse array of open water, shrub and herbaceous wetland habitat."
Back out on the water, Sturm said you can’t paddle this river without talking about phosphorous, and the fact that – on Lake Champlain – Missisquoi Bay is renowned as being “the worst place” for blue-green algae.
"We have something like an 800-square-mile watershed of the Missisquoi River, both in Canada and in Vermont. And it all ends right here into Lake Champlain — but through this refuge," Sturm said. "And yeah, it does filter and it does protect and improve water quality by filtering sediment and contaminants. But at a certain point, you have to realize that where all that stuff is going is going through one of the most biologically significant wetlands on Lake Champlain."
As we paddle along, it becomes clear that the issue of maintaining wetlands is one that is close to Sturm.
"They're incredibly ecologically important," Sturm said. "You know, they're in some ways the foundation of the food chain. ... There's a variety of things that you can point to in wetlands that, you know, from the aquatic invertebrates to amphibians and the fish that provide food up the food chain.
"You know, they're also really important indicators of environmental health which of course should be important to all humans. ... As wetlands go, so does probably the rest of our environment and human health. And when you start losing species and losing, you know, losing the quality of the habitat, it's only going to have a ripple effect into our lives as humans."
It's not every day that he gets out on the water, but it's times like this that remind Sturm what he values most about this wetland ecosystem. For him, it's a time to look and listen.
"Being a biologist at heart, I like to think more about the fact that wetlands are important just because of themselves," Sturm said. "They have an intrinsic importance that we can't touch and it only takes going out on a day like this or getting up early in the morning and walking through a nice area and seeing the life that occurs there to make you realize how special these areas are.
"And although they have great human ... benefits, you know I personally think the most important benefit is just that they're here for themselves and for the wildlife they support. You know, I don't need to justify why they're important to myself because I know that intrinsically they are."
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