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A Sanctuary in Swanton, Exploring the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge

Updated: Mar 22, 2022

With our canoe atop the car, we exited Interstate 89 at Swanton, just eight miles south of the Canadian border. After driving through town, we followed Route 78 west along the winding Missisquoi River. Soon we entered Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, one of only two national wildlife refuges in Vermont. The refuge encompasses a vast wetlands complex, including the bird’s-foot delta of the Missisquoi River where it flows into Lake Champlain and Missisquoi Bay. The refuge covers 7,458 acres and due to its rich biological diversity, this area has been designated a Ramsar wetland of international importance, along with well-known wetlands such as the Everglades.

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We drove past golden hayfields, which are managed for grassland-nesting birds such as Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark. We arrived at a contemporary building which hosts exhibitions about the many different habitats found here, including silver maple floodplain forest, sedge meaows, wild rice marshes, Charcoal and Dead Creeks, and Maquam Bog, the state’s largest bog and only pitch pine woodland bog. More than 200 species of birds use the refuge in addition to numerous other wildlife ranging from deer, beaver, and muskrat to Blue- Spotted Salamanders and Spiny Softshell Turtles.

Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1943 under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. According to its manager, Ken Sturm, its main focus is migratory birds, espe- cially waterfowl. The refuge also provides habitat for more than 35 species of plants and animals considered rare in the state, such as the Lake Sturgeon, Rusty Blackbird, Northern Long-Eared Bat, and Black Gum Tree. Because the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System puts wildlife first, some areas of the refuge are closed to other uses, to protect wildlife such as nesting sites for the state-endangered Black Tern. Missisquoi is the only place in Vermont this tern breeds.

After getting some advice from refuge staff about canoeing, we drove down a gravel road that par- allels the river to a launch site at Mac’s Bend. While we readied the canoe for launching, a few Canada Geese flew in, honking loudly, and landed in the river. After putting our boat in the water, we paddled upstream to test the current. It wasn’t difficult to paddle against the broad, slow-moving river, so we turned and headed downstream toward the lake. Silver Maples (tolerant of seasonal flooding) over- hung the banks of the river, their leaves just beginning to turn color. As we cruised along, we saw Great Blue Herons at regular intervals, standing motionless in the shallow water along the shore stalking prey. Kingfishers flew out from the trees, making a rattling call. A breeze blew upstream, sparking small waves and chilling my hands; my husband had wisely worn neoprene gloves. Sunlight danced and glinted off the water.

After about two miles, the river split into two channels. We stopped on a point between the channels (part of Metcalfe Island) for a break. As we snacked, we noticed large freshwater mussels underwater. One was turned on its side and was moving, almost imperceptibly, leaving a trail in the silt on the bottom. This was a revelation to me, as I never knew mussels could move. It was probably an Eastern Elliptio, the most common species here. Missisquoi has other species of rare mussels with colorful names like Giant Floater, Pink Heelsplitter, and Pocketbook. Mussel shells were scattered along the shoreline, evidence that other residents of the refuge such as raccoon and otter were enjoying this bonanza.

We continued downstream, following the main channel. As we approached the lake, wildlife became even more abundant. A Green Heron, its long neck folded back onto its shoulders, shot across the river in front of our bow. Great Blues were everywhere. The channel narrowed and divided again. Ahead of us was Shad Island, where in spring Great Blue Herons build bulky stick nests high in the trees. (The island is closed to the public to protect the birds from disturbance).

We navigated past fallen trees, their branches sticking out of the water, into an open marsh. A couple of large, long- legged white birds—Great Egrets— were visible among the tall grasses and arrowhead. From here we could see a motorboat whizzing by on the lake. It was only about a half mile to the Canadian border where it crosses Lake Champlain.

Because it was late afternoon, we decided to turn around. It would take longer to paddle the three miles upstream. Just as we entered the tree-lined channel, there was a loud commotion overhead. We looked up and saw two adult Bald Eagles fly into a tall tree on shore. What a thrill! We got a good look at their classic markings even without binoculars. Bald Eagles had disappeared from Vermont, but began nesting here again about 10 years ago due to a ban on the DDT insecticide, a reintroduction program, and habitat protection.

On the trip back, a young man and his dog cruised past us in a small fishing boat and two men fished from another boat anchored near shore. Fishing is very popular on the Missisquoi, with An- glers catching Walleye, Northern Pike, Large Mouth Bass, Bullhead, White and Yellow Perch, and other fish.

The wetland complex provides habitat for up to 20,000 migrating ducks in fall and is the most important waterfowl habitat in the Champlain Valley. Large flocks of Ring-Necked Ducks, Green- Winged Teal, Black Ducks, and Mallards feed here. In the summer, Wood Ducks, Common Goldeneye, and Hooded Merganser breed in the nest boxes provided to supplement natural cavities. There are several hiking trails at the refuge. I walked a portion of the Old Railroad Passage Trail with a group from the Vermont Botanical and Bird Club. Passing through open fields, shrubby areas, and along the edge of Maquam Bog, we saw numerous birds including Turkey Vultures soaring overhead, a Kingbird perched on a branch, and Yellow Warblers flitting between bushes. We also saw the rare Virginia Chain Fern along the trail through the bog.

In addition to its wealth of natural resources, the Missisquoi Refuge is significant for its rich cultural history. People have lived here for at least 7,000 years. Evidence of encampments and villages such as the remains of a longhouse, cooking pits, fire-cracked rocks, pottery, arrowheads, and chert flakes have been found all over the refuge. It makes sense that Indinenous Peoples would be attracted to such a biologically rich area.

In fact, the word Missisquoi comes from the Abenaki word “Masipskiik,” which means “where there is flint.” There was an Abenaki chert quarry near Missisquoi Bay and there is still an Abenaki community in the region. In addition to the management of a large acreage and a variety of activi- ties, refuge staff have been involved in biological research, and the land serves as an outdoor classroom for local schools and summer camps. Educational videos and learning packages are available to teachers and a new educator’s guide will be available soon.

Tired from paddling, we returned to the boat landing just as it was getting dark, thinking about all the wildlife we’d seen and grateful to have had the opportunity to experience this special place.

Story by Susan Shea

Photo by Susan Shea

(802) 868-4781


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