Long and Ell Ponds Natural Area in Hopkinton – Bruce Fellman
WildforaRI, Fall 2021
The mantra among real estate professionals is, of course, “location, location, location,” and this phrase was certainly ringing loud and clear as my wife and I looked over the small ranch house in Hopkinton in 1978 that we’d soon decide to buy. To be sure, all the usual inducements — decent schools, good construction, and a nice neighborhood — played a role in our decision-making, but for me, the ultimate tipping point was this: the house was right down the rural road from a natural paradise known as the Long and Ell Pond preserves.
I’d first started to trek the area’s rugged trails, which many hikers regard as the most challenging in Rhode Island, in the late 1960s, when I discovered that rumors about Long Pond’s reputation as a clothing-optional swimming hole were delightfully true. (Yes, I often took the plunge in the altogether.) Several years later, on an excursion with the venerated University of Rhode Island plant scientist Elmer Palmatier as part of his legendary Field Botany course, I set an uneasy foot on Ell Pond’s quaking bog, that thick fringe of sphagnum moss and other acid-loving vegetation that could miraculously support the weight of a budding naturalist.
Since those halcyon days and occasional nights, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve explored the area, which continues to call to me, despite the fact that we outgrew the house and moved to Connecticut four decades ago; swimming, suited or not, has long been banned; and the quaking bog has, like its chief supporter, passed into history. (Elmer departed this earth in 1995.) But if you’re physically up to it — I’ve seen nimble youngsters and their folks and grandparents navigating the time- worn boulders and wooden stair steps, many of which are lovingly crafted and maintained by the RI chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club — you won’t find a more stunning or intriguing botanical venue in the state.
One of the chief attractions of the Long and Ell Ponds Natural Area (LEPNA), which is managed by The Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, and the RI Department of Environmental Management, is a highly unusual lowland forest dominated by native great rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum) and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). While both species are common enough along the state’s byways and in many gardens, there’s something about Long and Ell’s highly acidic rocky soil and moisture regime, to say nothing of its persistent isolation from development, that has enabled the Hopkinton venue to provide a refuge for a profusion of evergreens that call to mind the slopes of the Appalachian highlands rather than the typical woods of the Ocean State.
Probably the best time to visit LEPNA is when the target plants are in bloom: early-to-mid June for the laurels, late June to early July for R. maximum. They don’t put on a show every year, but even an off-display is worth the trek, and when the blossoms are abundant, as the laurels were in 2021 — I can’t vouch for the “rhodies” this past year, since I was, at the time, still too hobbled from surgery to make the trip — the sight and delicate scents of the bee-laden flowers is grist for the memory mill.
Nor are these evergreens the only plants worth noticing. As you search for good handholds among well-worn rocks and boot-polished exposed tree roots, the exercise makes you slow down and pay closer attention to the landscape. In short order, you begin noticing things you might have missed, among them an abundance of mushrooms, lichens, and mosses.
As the trail climbs towards higher and drier spots, the broad-leafed plants give way to mountain chestnut oak (Quercus montana) and scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia), as well as pitch pine (Pinus rigida), species that can fare well on the moisture-challenged rocky slopes. In other parched spots, I noticed patches of trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens), eastern spicy wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) and a wand-flowered goldenrod (Solidago spp.) that I wish I could have collected to determine its precise identity. (Bring field guides or have a plant photo ID app on your phone —collecting is definitely not encouraged.)
At approximately the height of land, the main trail presents the hiker with three choices. To the east is a short descent to a massive rock outcrop that offers stunning views of Long Pond and the surrounding forest. Stay on the main trail to pick your way down an impressive gorge and make a formidable trek around Long Pond that botanically offers a repeat of what the observer has already seen. (Unless you’ve brought a second car, this walk also demands either turning around at the DEM parking area and retracing your steps back to the North Road trailhead or hiking a series of dusty backwoods roads to return to your vehicle.)
For plant aficionados, however, the best option is to take the fork that leads west to Ell Pond. Officially, the trail ends on a large rocky hill, technically termed a monadnock, marked with a National Park Service plaque noting that in 1974 Ell Pond was designated a National Natural Landmark. Geologists have determined that Ell, which is increasingly obscured by trees, is a “kettle pond,” a body of water that formed when huge blocks of ice left behind more than 10,000 years ago by retreating glaciers melted and filled in deep, glacier-carved gouges in the landscape.
There’s no path to the pond, but I’ve been there and can report that the area is a spongy wonderland dominated by Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), an increasingly rare species that forms the core of a globally threatened wetlands ecosystem. The quaking bog that once fringed the shoreline is no longer intact but the acid soil on the edge of the pond still provides a welcoming environment for charismatic botanical carnivores such as purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) and round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), along with a host of intriguing wet-feet specialists, such as the Massachusetts fern (Parathelypteris simulata), swamp loosestrife (Decodon verticillatus), common arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia), and various cranberries (Vaccinium spp.)
But look quick. Ell, like many kettle ponds, is in the process of filling in and becoming a wet meadow. While climate change will no doubt exacerbate the inevitable stages of succession, there’s still at least a little bit of time to savor this well-preserved slice of botanical intrigue. Just don’t count on a swim.