Revised Ice House Pond plan adds long walk to swimming hole

A winter view of Ice House Pond from the swimming entry. — Photo by Sam Moore

The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank is seeking public comment on a draft management plan for its newly expanded Manaquayak Preserve in West Tisbury, more commonly known as Ice House Pond, that would add two new trails, restrict parking near the pond in favor of a lot approximately one half mile from the swimming perch, and create a bird watching spot.

The $2.35 million purchase of 23 acres in September 2015 tripled the

West Tisbury preserve that provides access to the one of the few glacial freshwater ponds on Martha’s Vineyard open to public swimming. The Land Bank will hold a public hearing on the plan at 4 pm on Monday, February 1, at the West Tisbury School.

Ice House Pond derives its name from the ice it once provided prior to refrigeration. It is one of the Land Bank’s most secluded and restricted properties.

The Land Bank proposals build on the existing preserve management plan by adding a new four-car parking lot along Lambert’s Cove Road, as well as two new trails covering approximately .81 miles — one connecting the new parking area through an easement to the swimming perch at Ice House Pond, and a longer scenic loop leading to the newly acquired Rainwater Pond. A small new platform would be built for viewing Rainwater Pond, intended for birders or other sightseers who prefer hiking to swimming.    

The new access point on Lambert’s Cove Road would relieve a perennial parking problem on Wintergreen Lane by moving traffic closer to the main road. The existing lot on Wintergreen Lane will be used for staff parking. Four parking spaces would be reserved for individuals over 70 years of age who would have trouble walking the longer distance from Lambert’s Cove Road.

“Everyone now is going to have to walk in about a half a mile to get here,” Matthew Dix, Land Bank property foreman, told The Times during a recent tour of the property. 

“Or ride a bicycle,” added Land Bank ecologist Julie Russell. Bicycle access will be allowed at both trailheads.

“The main thrust of the new parking is that it’s directly visible from the main road,” Mr. Dix said. “You can literally drive by and see if there’s a space for you to park. You won’t have to drive a rural subdivision, parking illegally at the end, or irritating everyone who lives around that road.”

“This is more of an adventure,” Ms. Russell said. “Before it was too easily accessible. It got people all jittery, you know, about getting parking. I think it just takes away from the enjoyment of the property when your whole day is revolving around parking.”

Mr. Dix emphasized that the management plan is still subject to change, pending public input and review by the elected members of the Land Bank commission and the West Tisbury Land Bank advisory board prior to its submission to state environmental officials for final approval.

Balancing recreation with ecology

The management plan is required to balance environmental imperatives with public use. Ms. Russell said the new trails and parking will have minimal impact on preserve ecosystems, and will streamline public enjoyment of the pond while reducing stress on neighboring property owners.

Parts of the proposed new trail already exist informally. There is an ATV track from the Lambert’s Cove Road parking easement to the property. New trails will follow natural topography. “When we put a trail in we avoid most tree cutting, and we weave it in and out,” Ms. Russell said. Trails and access points are designed to prevent trampling and erosion. 

Other than new trails and parking, much will remain unchanged. Current measures include a swimming perch that protects the plants that flourish on the pond’s shoreline by putting swimmers straight into deep water, and a limit to the number of swimmers that may use the pond at one time.

The Land Bank purchased the property in November 2004, through the use of a straw buyer in order to mask its interest from multiple sellers who, the Land Bank said, would likely not have sold to the public agency.

But once the Ice House Pond purchaser was revealed to be the Land Bank, several sellers and property abutters mounted a vociferous campaign against the Land Bank and public use they deemed would be harmful, including swimming. Land Bank officials pointed to a record of responsible property management.

The public is not allowed to canoe or kayak on the pond. There is no beach. Swimmers may only enter the pond from a perch directly into five feet of water to avoid stirring up silt. An attendant is on hand to enforce the rules. 

Many of the restrictions were put in place to meet conditions imposed by state environmental officials after the Land Bank’s plans for the property were vigorously opposed by a determined group of pond abutters who objected to the proposed public use.

The existing swimming limit of 20 people at a time will remain in place. Land Bank staff expect that pond usage will decrease due to the added walking time from the trailhead. The swimming limit serves two purposes: to keep down excess chemicals and bacteria in the pond, and to preserve some of the pond’s tranquility.

“We restrict it for obvious reasons,” Mr. Dix said. “For water quality reasons, for enjoyment, for the fact that it is a nature conservation piece of property and not designed to funnel hundreds of people at once.”

Swimming has not significantly affected the pond’s water quality. “Our nitrogen levels aren’t changing at the rate our swimming numbers have changed,” Ms. Russell said. “You would expect that if swimming was putting in a ton of nitrogen, then the nitrogen climb would be much more drastic.”

Too much nitrogen can lead to eutrophication, an ecosystem’s response to excess nutrients which can include the loss of oxygen for aquatic organisms.

“The bottom line is that the state approved the plan, and… the bomb didn’t go off, and we haven’t harmed the pond,” said Ms. Russell. 

Unique characteristics

“It’s a lucky pond, in that it has a lot going for it,” Ms. Russell said. “It’s a very nutrient-devoid pond, because it’s so deep. It doesn’t have an inlet or an outlet. Part of the beauty of that is nothing’s coming into it from stream runoff.”

Whereas other ponds receive their water after it has passed through any number of other areas, Ice House Pond is spring-fed by groundwater. A relic of a glacier’s retreat, it’s a kettle pond created when a gigantic block of buried glacial ice melted, leaving an indent in the land.

Many species flourish in the preserve because of the complexity of its habitat, including protected dwarf bulrushes, upland sandpipers, and peregrine falcons.

“Last year the Rexia, meadow beauty, was amazing,” Ms. Russell said. “There’s a bunch of sundews. If you really look closely, they’re all over the place. So as long as no one steps on the pond shore, they thrive.”

The new acreage on the property adds to this diversity and ecological value. “The old road, Pepperbush Way, is a sunken road, and whenever you have a sunken road you get a lot of diversity on the edges,” Ms. Russell said. “A little bit of sunlight, you add that in and you get all sorts of asters and goldenrods and tall rattlesnake weed — a little more than just your plain woodland.

Ms. Russell said that Rainwater Pond “has a very similar vegetation base as the pond shore at Icehouse, so it’s kind of like a big coastal plain pond shore that fills up with rainwater. It can do that for a couple years and then it will have a couple dry spells and it dries out, and it gets vegetation.”

The vegetation establishes a seed base before the pond fills up again. “These plants just can tolerate this no water-water situation,” she said. “In the summer this was solid yellow goldenrod.”

The proposed viewing platform would allow visitors to appreciate these cycles, and the bird species that go with them. If the plan is approved, the Land Bank staff predict that the preserve, now used primarily for swimming, will become more attractive to a diversity of visitors.