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Always a Pleasure To Visit Science Center

Christine Randall - July 2, 2013

River Otters

The river otters are among the crowd favorites at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness.

If I had to pick my favorite New Hampshire outdoor attraction in the Lakes Region, the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness would be one of the top two contenders. It is a place that has successfully combined outdoor fun and environmental education for more than 45 years, with live animal exhibits, hiking trails, numerous educational and informational displays, and loads of interactive, hands-on activities for children. In addition, the science center offers many opportunities to enjoy a variety of guided pontoon boat tours on nearby Squam Lake.
The Squam Lakes Natural Science Center is open daily from May 1 through Nov. 1, and it is a very popular destination for families and individuals, as well as school and summer camp groups. In fact, the science center attracts an average of 25,000 school children and teachers annually, in addition to about 1,500 summer camp visitors every year, so I think it is safe to say that it is usually a very busy place!
The Welcome Center, which also houses the Howling Coyote Gift Shop, is where you pick up your trail pass and map. The next stop is the Trailhead Gallery, the starting point for the Gephart Animal Exhibit Trail. At the Trailhead Gallery, there are two live animal exhibits — barred owls and white-footed mice — and an interactive display shows how predators, weather and other environmental factors, and the availability of food have an impact on animal populations in nature. A small room, the Mead Discovery Place, has revolving displays that change every so often; this year, the exhibit is of carved wooden songbirds. The building also houses restrooms as well as the Blue Heron School, a pre-school for children that runs from September to June.
From the Trailhead Gallery, you access the ¾-mile-long Gephart Exhibit Trail, one of the four trails at the science center (the other three are hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty). The Gephart Trail is an easy amble, featuring wide, gentle woods paths with strategically placed boardwalks which take you past more than 15 live animal exhibits and informational displays, and it is easily negotiable for people of all ages, as well as strollers and wheelchairs.
Most of the animals featured in exhibits along the Gephart Trail are native to New Hampshire, including black bears, skunks, hawks, bald eagles and vultures, blue jays, deer, bobcats, mountain lions, and otters. Many of the animals at the science center have been orphaned or injured to the point that they would have difficulty surviving on their own in the wild, and the exhibits have been designed to come as close to imitating their natural habitats as possible.
One of the first exhibits is “Life Underground” which is all about ants, earthworms, and other underground life forms. Children really enjoy this small exhibit which features a “chipmunk” tunnel system that they can crawl through.
Also at the start of the Gephardt Exhibit Trail, a small outdoor amphitheatre is the place where science center naturalists give live animal presentations five times per day (11 a.m., noon, 1 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m.) during the months of July and August. The presentations, called “Up Close to Animals,” include mammals, birds, and reptiles, and they are included in the price of the trail pass.
The Ecotone Mammal Exhibit, featuring skunks as well as red and gray foxes (the skunks and foxes are, naturally, separated), is followed by the bobcat exhibit, which is home to some pretty laid-back, mid-sized wildcats who seem to enjoy just lying about in the sunshine. Of course, with their watchful eyes, I am sure they don’t miss a thing, and I’m glad to not be encountering them in the wild.

Mountain Lion

A mountain lion at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness.

The mountain lion exhibit is next along the trail and, since the two orphaned cubs were first brought to the science center in 2003 (hard to believe it’s been 10 years!), this exhibit has attracted a lot of awed visitors. The two cute cubs have grown to be very large and intimidating, and one is constantly prowling the perimeter while the other likes to watch from the shady shelter of a small cave. Informational signs show that, in the wild, mountain lions are impressively swift runners and jumpers, agile and strong, making them very successful predators. During the months of July and August, you can watch as science center staff members conduct mountain lion training and feeding at noon on Thursdays.
Following along the boardwalk, you quickly arrive at the next exhibit, the deer enclosure, which is a nice, tranquil setting (especially after viewing the bobcats and the mountain lions!). Inside the exhibit area, there are lots of hands-on activities for children, as well as a great viewing spot of the deer feeding station.
One of my favorite exhibits at the science center has always been the river otters. They are so much fun to watch, especially when they are feeling playful and energetic as they swim and dive in the water. A new male otter, which was rescued from the massive Gulf Oil Spill in 2010, has joined the female otter, who was born in captivity and who has been at the science center since 2011. Both are very personable. I’ve noticed time and time again that the otter exhibit is one of the most popular stops for children and adults, and youths seem to particularly enjoy sliding down the “otter slide.” You can watch staff members feeding the otters frozen fish balls at 11:30 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
If you want to take a break from the animal exhibit trail, just after the deer exhibit and before the otter exhibit, you can access Kirkwood Gardens, as well as the Squam Lakes Artisans Gallery and the Squam Lakes Café, both of which are housed in an historic building owned by the science center, adjacent to the gardens.
Kirkwood Gardens is a lovely landscaped garden full of seasonal and perennial flowers and shrubs native to New Hampshire. It is very peaceful place to stop and relax for a few minutes.
The Artisans Gallery specializes in hand-crafted artwork and crafts made by local artisans, and it is open daily, from late May through Labor Day weekend, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. After Labor Day weekend, the Gallery is open from Friday through Monday until Columbus Day Weekend. The Café is be open daily from June 22 to Sept. 2, from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and you can find gourmet snacks, beverages, sandwiches, and ice cream that you can enjoy on the porch or the terrace overlooking the gardens.
The Gardens, the Gallery, and the Café are also accessible directly from Route 3, but you cannot access the science center from the gardens without a paid trail pass.
Back on the Gebhart Animal Exhibit Trail, you come across the Gordon Children’s Activity Center, a two-story building featuring a climbable “spider web” and a “tree,” as well as tunnels, slides, and hands-on, interactive exhibits. It is a very popular place for children of all ages, and there are a couple of pavilions outside the building for people to rest and relax.
My other favorite exhibit is the bear enclave. The bears, which have their own little natural outdoor pool with a small waterfall, can get quite feisty, but you can safely view the bears from the adjacent bi-level building. For some reason, I never get tired of watching those impressive animals.
The exhibit building also has fun features for children, such as “bear crawl tunnels”, in addition to informational displays about the bears’ natural habitat and information about how to avoid them as unwanted guests in your backyard. There is also an exhibit about bees in the facility.
The songbird exhibit was changed last season into a blue jay study exhibit, as all the songbirds were rehabilitated and released into the wild. The exhibit also contains information about birds in general and about the common loon.
Another nearby exhibit down the trail features raptors, or “birds of prey,” including vultures (as my step-daughter used to say, “Mr. and Mrs. Ugly”), bald eagles, kestrels, owls, and hawks. I know that vultures perform a necessary service in the cycle of life, but I think that I have to agree with my step-daughter’s assessment!
Continuing along the trail, you reach Upper Pond, a nice place to stop and look for turtles and tadpoles. It also is the junction where you can access the three other trails at the science center: the Ecotone Trail, which is a short extension of the Gephart Trail looping through the woods above Marsh Pond; the Forest Trail, which is a 2/3-mile trail through the forest; and the Mount Fayal Loop Trail, a mile-long, relatively steep trail that leads to the 1067-foot summit of Mount Fayal and offers views of Squam Lake and the surrounding area.
The Gephart Trail then heads back to the Welcome Center on a section of boardwalk through the marsh, where you can watch marsh birds, look for turtles, and learn about the importance of wetlands in helping to maintain a balanced ecological system for the environment. If you are lucky, you might see some ospreys taking advantage of an osprey nest near the marsh.
A geology exhibit is located adjacent to the wetlands boardwalk, near the start/end of the Gephart Exhibit Trail. The exhibit features eight to 10 large rocks native to New Hampshire that visitors can touch, as well as a display illustrating the geologic timeline of events, an interpretive panel about the rock cycle, and an interactive panel about the connections of rocks to life.
Back at the Welcome Center, the Howling Coyote Gift Shop is a good place to find all kinds of educational and nature-related gifts, books, notecards, and souvenirs to commemorate your visit.
The Squam Lakes Natural Science Center also offers a variety of boat tours on nearby Squam Lake on comfortable all-weather pontoon boats. The tours include daily 90-minute scenic cruises exploring the natural and cultural aspects of Squam Lake, late afternoon educational cruises with a naturalist on board, loon cruises in conjunction with the Loon Center, and family-oriented cruises. In addition, on Thursdays from July 11 to Aug. 8, at 5 p.m., the science center joins forces with Walter’s Basin restaurant on Little Squam to offer special dinner and sunset cruises.
All cruises depart from the Walter’s Basin Dock on Route 3 in Holderness. Schedules and ticket prices for each cruise vary, and advance reservations are required. The science center also offers a special Trail and Cruise Combo Pass.
For more information about schedules and ticket prices, call 603-968-7194.
The Squam Lakes Natural Science Center is open daily from May 1 to Nov. 1, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It is located on Route 113 in Holderness, just outside the center of town. Admission to the trail system is free to science center members. There are discounts for senior citizens 65 and up, and children between the ages of three and 15, with free admission to those two and under. This season, active members of the military and their immediate families are admitted for free with an active military ID. Pets, except for certified service animals, are not permitted on the trails.
For more information, call 603-968-7194 or log onto 

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