Protecting Mud Lake

Riddell_Skunk_cabbage_ParisHarper
Skunk cabbages grow in the damp peat at the shady, forested edge of the bog.

NYS Parks often has to perform a balancing act between meeting the needs of the wildlife and environments, and providing the opportunities for recreation that sometimes negatively impact ecosystems, but also allow people to experience nature and buoy the public interest in maintaining and protecting our parks.

Mud Lake, at Robert V. Riddell (RVR) State Park in Delaware County, is a good example of such a place. The NY Natural Heritage program (NYNHP) completed a vegetation map based on field surveys at Robert V. Riddell State Park, and has documented one rare insect species and a high quality dwarf shrub bog, both at Mud Lake. Mud Lake is a very scenic feature in the park, but as park use increases, this fragile ecosystem faces greater risks. For this reason, the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) is looking to provide better visitor access to Mud Lake while protecting the fragile bog and pond habitat.

Given that RVR has only recently been designated a state park, there has been relatively little development beyond trail surveys and invasive species removal. Because the park is so close to Hartwick College, one of the most important uses of the park is for education and research, which only adds to the importance of protecting a rare and high-quality ecosystem like Mud Lake. Hartwick College has been a long time partner of State Parks and continues to utilize Robert V. Riddell State Park for educational opportunities.

Mud Lake is located on the parcel of land recently acquired from Hartwick College. It’s a small, spring-fed pond surrounded by forest and circled by a narrow band of spruce and tamarack trees, transitioning to low shrubs, and finally to a floating mat of sphagnum peat at the edge of the open water. This type of ecosystem is called a dwarf shrub bog, and it is a particularly fragile environment. Wild cranberries only grow in dwarf shrub bogs, as do carnivorous pitcher plants and sundews. These plants can be found growing out of the peat moss.

Pitcher plants grow out of peat moss, which is lower in nutrients than regular soil. Pitcher plants capture and digest insects to make up for this!
Pitcher plants grow out of peat moss, which is lower in nutrients than regular soil. Pitcher plants capture and digest insects to make up for this!

The peat is strong enough to walk on, but the water flowing through the thick vegetative mat gives you the feeling of standing on a waterbed – I was afraid of falling through!

The peat will hold up up, but not without getting your shoes wet!
The peat will hold you up, but not without getting your shoes wet!

Visitor access to Mud Lake is challenging. Currently, there is no defined pathway that can take you from the edge of the forest out to the open pond and bog area. This means any park visitors that want to get a closer look are making their own paths through the edge of the bog, and putting fragile plants at risk of being crushed.

To protect Mud Lake and also to enhance visitor experiences, OPRHP is in the process of designing a boardwalk from the upland edge of the bog to the water’s edge, including a gathering space where groups of students and other visitors can be brought to view the bog. However, building a solid structure on a bog presents unique challenges. Last winter, core samples taken from the peat went as far as 27 feet deep and still did not hit hard earth. At the tree line, solid ground was 20 feet below the surface of the soft, damp peat layer. OPRHP is still working on resolving all the construction challenges in this project, but we are hard at work to protect Mud Lake.

Surveyors at work on Mud Lake
Surveyors at work on Mud Lake

featured image is of Mud Lake in early May. Post and photos by Paris Harper 

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