The Swamps, Bogs, and Marshes in Our Backyard

Rhode Island Wetlands All Around Us

By Florence Chartier Frandsen

Rhode Island may be a small state but it is a land of diversity. We have colorful hills of foliage, waves crashing on rocky seacoasts, and lots of low-lying areas in between. I mean lots. Water is one thing we’ve got, and along with water comes mud. Sometimes the mud gets quite powerful. Powerful enough to suck your shoe off your foot when you sink in really good. Then you stand there trying to figure out what to do with the foot that only has a sock left on it. Do you try to put it back in your shoe which now has mud in it, or do you put your poor foot down in the cold damp mud so you can pull your shoe out with your hands. Either way, you’re stuck in the mud.

So what does all this wet stuff mean? Well, Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary offers up that a swamp is “a wetland often partially or intermittently covered with water; especially: one dominated by woody vegetation”. They could easily have been talking about an area like The Great Swamp Management Area in South Kingstown. The area contains over 2000 acres of wetlands, including swamps of red maple and cedar. Freshwater wetlands like these are not only beautiful to hike, but they also offer activities like fishing, bird watching and wildlife.

Our friends at Merriam-Webster go on to say a bog is ”wet spongy ground; especially : a poorly drained usually acid area rich in accumulated plant material, frequently surrounding a body of open water, and having a characteristic flora (as of sedges, heaths, and sphagnum)”. In other words, a wet area that might be covered in soggy mats of dead plant material that squish and move when you walk on them leaving you with wet feet. You could find blueberry bushes or cranberries in a bog. Historic cranberry bog farms dot the Rhode Island landscape. You can find them in areas like Tiverton, Coventry/West Greenwich, and the south county areas as well. Some are open for tours. Some are private.

Areas like the Norman Bird Sanctuary in Middletown, offer hiking trails, nature walks, conservation, and environmental education programs. This area offers both marsh areas and views of the ocean.

The area surrounding and protected by the sanctuary offers a beautiful walk through marsh area. Merriam-Webster defines a marsh as a “tract of soft wet land usually characterized by monocotyledons (as grasses or cattails)”. Wow, that’s a big word for flowering plants, like grasses! Here in Rhode Island, one thing I’ve noticed over a few years time is the sudden lack of cattails. Where usually you would have seen both reeds and cattails together, the reeds had taken over. Last year, I noticed the cattails started making a comeback, popping up among the reeds. It is surprising how nature makes things right again.

Swamp, bog, marsh – they all fall under the category of wetlands. ‘Land or areas (as marshes or swamps) that are covered often intermittently with shallow water or have soil saturated with moisture — usually used in plural’. At least, that is what the dictionary has to say. A good indication that you may have wetlands is that there is standing or flowing water, ponds, or your feet get wet walking across an area. Soft, wet, muddy ground, or if when you dig a hole it fills with water, are other indications of possible wetlands. Vegetation could also be a telltale sign. Trees or shrubs like red maple, cedar, blueberry, and certain ferns or mosses are commonly found in Rhode Island wetland areas.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management takes it even further, including lakes, ponds, rivers, streams and floodplains as wetlands. They include areas you wouldn’t expect. The RI DEM considers ‘perimeter wetlands’ as “land within 50 feet of swamps, marshes, bogs, and ponds”. RI ‘riverbank wetlands’ include “land within 100 or 200 feet of rivers and streams”. They go on to explain that perimeter and riverbank wetlands may be dry land, but they are needed to provide protection to our wetland areas.

What’s so important about wetlands? The benefits are many. In July of 1971 Rhode Island passed a Freshwater Wetlands Act giving the government authority to preserve, protect, and restore our freshwater wetlands. Wetlands are a unique form of landscape. They supply us with drinking water, help control flooding, provide unique wildlife habitats, and offer natural areas for activities like water sports, hiking, and bird watching. Wetlands play such an important role, that other states and even the Federal government have enacted similar laws to protect wetlands across the country.

Preservation of our Rhode Island wetlands is key to maintaining our water supplies, wildlife, and the value of the recreational activities we enjoy. One way to help do this is to maintain an area surrounding a wetland area by leaving the vegetation so it provides a buffer between the wetland and recreational or other activities. So go out and play in the wetlands. Remember to wear your boots.

About the author, Florence Chartier Frandsen:

Florence Chartier Frandsen is a native Rhode Islander who loves the fact that we have distinct seasons. A creative person by nature, she likes trying new things. She has worked in computers for over 30 years, she also owns a home-based business as an Independent Creative Memories consultant. Her writing topics vary broadly as do her nterests. Florence has been a resident of Newport for over 20 years. Originally from West Warwick, she moved to Newport after she was married and enjoys living here.

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