WAYNE — In an instant we are all five years old again, tromping our way through ankle-deep muck and sloshing along in the water in rubber boots.
Mosquitos are relentless in their pursuit of our flesh, so the only sound to interrupt that of the splashing is that of our hands smacking the backs our necks.
Phillip deMaynadier, a wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, has never grown out of the 5-year-old fascination stage. Stooping over standing water and seemingly immune to the swarm of mosquitos that breed there, his eyes light up as he scoops in his hand something that looks like a Jell-O mold gone horribly awry.
The gelatinous mass is the keeper of thousands of salamander eggs, a sac nursing the tiny organisms through their larval stage until they are old enough to break free and head out of this vernal pool.
Much in the same way the olive oil-colored masses harbor the collective life of thousands of salamanders and frogs, so, too, does a vernal pool shield in safety much of Maine’s amphibian life.
Vernal pools exist for only a few short weeks each year, but they provide habitat for some two-thirds of Maine’s amphibians, including spotted salamanders, wood frogs and the more uncommon blue-spotted salamander.
Without the work of localized conservation agencies like the Kennebec Land Trust, these vernal pools could dry up — literally — leaving bare one of the shelves in the forest food chain’s most significant cupboard. According to deMaynadier, the two vernal pools protected by the land trust are “great pools with high wildlife value.”
As beautifully rich and scenic as the pools are, they will, oddly, dissipate into nothing more than bare patches in the dense Maine woods in a matter of weeks. The vernal pool is equal parts sanctuary, breeding ground and phenomenon.
Maine Gov. John Baldacci signed vernal-pool protection into law more than two years ago and guidelines were enacted recently to further protect more of the pools across the state. Two of central Maine’s most scenic pools will remain free of development for the forseeable future, part of the Kennebec Land Trust’s holdings in the region.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary as a conservation group in Kennebec county this year, the trust protects the pools as part of much larger properties in Wayne. The Besse Historic Conservation Area and the Gott Pasture Preserve are different entities serving similar functions.
The Besse area is 55 acres of what was once a working farm owned by the Jabez Besse family for more than a century, into the early 1900s. Near the nearly half-acre vernal pool is a wooded pasture and farming woodlot. Donated to the land trust in 1998, there are no hiking trails in the Besse area — leaving visitors to feel as though they are making their way through a primeval forest, just as the land donors intended.
The Gott Preserve is much different in its size, presentation and appeal. A loop trail takes hikers past a granite basement that served as the center for the Stevens family farm in the 19th century, through dense growth and bumpy terrain and along the more than 300 yards of undeveloped shoreline on Wilson Pond.
“You can see why they call it ‘Hardscrabble Road,’ ” said Charlie Jacobs, a local land-trust steward who volunteers his time toward upkeep of the Gott Preserve. “One can only imagine how difficult it would have been to farm here.”
At the heart of both properties are vernal pools teeming with the beginnings of life, which can be as tenuous as it was farming the rocky hills. There are the tell-tale egg sacs that won’t spring life — ones that were laid on the outskirts of a pool, a place that had already dried up.
From tall trees overlooking the pool at Besse, great tree frogs sing loudly. Wood frogs hide among the sticks and leaves on the ground. Salamanders are nowhere to be found. All of them are heading off, hundreds of feet away from where they were born in the vernal pool.
Two months of the year are spent breeding and bringing new life into the world. The rest is spent far away from the dried-out pool.
Preserving the forest
“We’re trying to get the word out that while vernal pools are important (to conserve) so, too, are the hundreds of acres of functional forest around them,” said deMaynadier, the DIF&W wildlife biologist who specializes in amphibian, reptile and invertebrate species.
With an average of nearly 100 vernal pools per town across the state, according to deMaynadier, the pools are the most plentiful wetland areas in Maine. In other parts of the country, even as close as southern New England, the vernal pool takes on an almost mythical presence.
“In some places, people stop and stand in awe when they come across one,” deMaynadier said. “It’s as if they’ve never seen one before. Here, we still have a chance to do something about it.”
It’s why deMaynadier, one of the champions of non-game wildlife in Maine, believes strongly in what conservation organizations like the Kennebec Land Trust are doing. In the case of the vernal pool, they are preserving one of the vital organs of the Maine forest. Vernal pools join headwater streams as the only two kinds of fish-less wetlands in Maine.
“They are like little forest nutrient pumps,” he said, “feeding the ecosystem through their spot in the food chain. Given their (small) size, they have a disproportionate effect on the forest’s ecology. They provide habitat for more than you can imagine.”