The path less traveled: Guided winter walks

Learn about nature in autumn during Polly Hill Arboretum's fall walks, to be led this Saturday. — File Photo by Susan Safford

Four Vineyard conservation groups conspire all winter long to get us out of the house and onto some of the Island’s most scenic paths. Led by ecologists and naturalists, the walks range from leisurely to vigorous. Join other hardy folk to explore trails, beaches, and preserves that reflect the quiet beauty of the Island in winter.

The sponsoring organizations – Polly Hill Arboretum, Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, the Vineyard Conservation Society, and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank – coordinate locations to ensure that the walks include a representative selection of properties Island-wide on non-competing dates.

Polly Hill Arboretum, West Tisbury

On the second Saturday morning each month, Polly Hill Arboretum, a 70-acre horticultural and botanical landmark, offers a guided tour. According to Tom Clark, Collections and Grounds Manager, Polly Hill’s walks are led by staff members and focus on plants and natural history.

“There are gems in the winter landscape that many of us miss,” Mr. Clark points out. “Our winter walks help people see the highlights of the season – the colorful plants and wonderful bark of the birches and stewartia. We can help gardeners select trees and shrubs that can add a lot of interest to the nine months of the year so often forgotten.”

Upcoming walks at Polly Hill are scheduled for the following Saturdays: January 9, February 13, and March 13. The walks begin at 10 am and last up to 90 minutes. “The pace is comfortable,” Mr. Clark says, “but the outings are not geared to children.” There are no paved surfaces; the terrain is flat with grass or mulch paths. Plan on rain or shine, but leave pets in the comfort of your home. Walks are free to all.

Polly Hill Arboretum is located at 809 State Rd., West Tisbury. 508-693-9426;

Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, Edgartown

If an easy stroll on a Wednesday morning sounds like the perfect remedy for the winter wearies, head for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary on February 10 and March 10 for a 10:30 am departure. Led by Mass Audubon Society Teacher/Naturalist Susie Bowman, Felix Neck’s Senior Strolls offer a gentle 45-minute walk on wide, flat trails followed by a chance to gather in the Sanctuary’s newly refurbished Discovery Room for a warm beverage and conversation.

“We get to see the true lay of the land in the winter time,” Ms. Bowman explains. “With the leaves down, you can observe the undulations – the rolls and rises – of the terrain, as well as vistas that are blocked during other times of the year.”

Tailored to the interests of the group, Senior Strolls offer outdoor enthusiasts an opportunity to observe nature and wildlife with an experienced educator. Ms. Bowman encourages nature lovers to attend, rain or shine. “We’ll meet in the Discovery Room if it’s too inclement outdoors and spend an hour in our wonderful new space,” she says.

Felix Neck offers four miles of trails with varied scenery: woodlands, ponds, salt marsh, and barrier beach. Free to members, there is a $3 fee for non-members. Because it is a wildlife sanctuary, pets are not allowed.

Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary is located on Felix Neck Drive off Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Rd., Edgartown. 508-627-4850; (look for Felix Neck under “Find A Wildlife Sanctuary” on top left column of the home page).

Vineyard Conservation Society

Now in its third decade hosting guided tours, the Vineyard Conservation Society offers Islanders a chance to explore thoughtfully. Its 2010 winter walking season is dedicated to calling attention to the local effects of global climate change.

“We try to find special properties – those that are privately held or those with conservation restrictions – to share with participants,” says Brendan O’Neill, executive director. “This year we’ll focus on how the Vineyard is affected by global climate change and how we can adapt.”

Walks are scheduled for the second Sunday of each month and begin at 1 pm. On January 10, John Varkonda, State Forest Superintendent, will lead a walk with a public safety theme: exploring the impacts of sea level rise. On February 14, Mr. O’Neill will guide participants on a private Chilmark property abutting Menemsha Hills Reservation to examine shrinking wetlands. And on March 14, Mr. Varkonda will provide a rare opportunity to visit the Christiantown Fire Tower for a discussion about wildfire threats and preparedness.

“Global climate change is for real,” Mr. O’Neill cautions. “We live on an island at sea level, so we’re particularly vulnerable.”

With their 30-year history, Vineyard Conservation Society walks are increasingly popular, averaging about 50 participants, according to Mr. O’Neill. Vigorous in nature, they are family-friendly, free, and open to the public. Pets are welcome on leash at most properties. Held rain or shine (unless extreme conditions prevail), the walks are two hours in duration.

Check the MV Times the week prior for details on where to meet for each walk, or contact Vineyard Conservation Society at 508-693-9588 for more information.

Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank

Created in 1986 to counter the Island’s building boom, decline in farming, and privatization of once-public property, the M.V. Land Bank has now conserved over 3,000 acres. Off-season guided walks are held on the first Sunday of each month and are offered free of charge to the public. They are family-friendly and pets are welcome on leashes unless prohibited by individual properties. Departure time is 1 pm and duration is from one to two hours.

Led by Land Bank Ecologist Julie Schaeffer, winter walks were originally created to introduce Islanders to new Land Bank properties. “Today we focus on the unique natural history of each property and my goal is to ensure that each participant takes away at least one new piece of information,” Ms. Schaeffer says.

On February 7, Ms. Schaeffer will explore Tisbury Meadow Preserve. Plan on some steep areas and hills as the outing crosses fields and ancient ways.

On March 7, walkers will discover the unusual and challenging terrain of North Neck Highlands Preserve on Chappaquiddick. While she characterizes this walk as “a fun, distinctive one,” Ms. Schaeffer cautions that the excursion features stairs to climb and cobbled beach. Moshup Beach in Aquinnah offers a scenic beach setting for the April 4 walk. And, on May 2, Ms. Schaeffer will guide participants across Quansoo Preserve, utilizing the Sheriff’s Meadow trail region of Quansoo Farm to create a vigorous two-hour walk.

Check the newspaper the week prior to each walk for details on where to meet. Contact the Land Bank at 508-627-7141;

Karla Araujo is a frequent contributor to The Times.