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Local Wildlife Up Close at Squam Lakes Natural Science Center

The Laker - August 13, 2017

By Sarah Wright

(photo of otter getting ready for daily feeding at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center; Science Ctr photo)

One of my favorite places to take my kids is the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center. It’s a walking trail and animal sanctuary rolled into one! Have you ever wondered what animals lurk in the woods of New Hampshire? To find out, walk the Gephart Exhibit trail at the Science Center in Holderness, where you can see native animals of the state up close. The 3-quarter-mile trail is an easy trek through the woods, with intriguing exhibits along the way. All of the animals on display were either injured or orphaned, and have been rehabilitated. You’ll learn about habitats, adaptation, interrelationships, and population as you walk along.

The trail starts just beyond the welcome center. The first exhibit is the Trailhead Gallery, and it includes a feature about wood energy and explains how two wood boilers are able to provide heat for all five buildings on the 230-acre campus. The same building also houses white-footed mice and two barred owls. Next is one of the most popular areas for kids, the Life Underground exhibit, where visitors can learn about worms and ants, and watch the wild chipmunks feed. Kids can pretend to be chipmunks underground and go down the burrow slide.

The Water Exhibit is a recent addition to the center. Here, kids can learn about water through 18 water-related features, including live mink, turtles, fish, and frogs. My younger son loved the next exhibit with the coyote. The male coyote featured in the exhibit had been used in educational programs for years. When the center acquired an orphaned female pup a few years ago, it was decided that she would be trained for the program and that the male coyote could enjoy “retirement” in his own habitat.

The Ecotone Mammal area is next with red foxes, a striped skunk (who takes turns with a gray fox in the enclosure), bob cats, mountain lions, and a boardwalk that crosses over the white-tailed deer exhibit. This is my favorite part, because you have a great view looking down at all the deer as they cross under you. If you’d like to see more of the mountain lions, there’s a training session in their enclosure every Thursday at noon (included in the admission price). The naturalists at the center prefer not to tranquilize animals for veterinary care, so they train the mountain lions to roll on their backs and present their shoulders for inoculations. Then they’re given a treat. If you ask me, any veterinarian who will give a shot to a fully-awake mountain lion deserves an award for bravery!

At this point in the trail, visitors can choose to take a slight detour for Kirkwood Gardens. A beautiful garden which showcases natural landscaping, it’s a great place to relax and put your feet up for a while. There’s always something blooming and it’s a haven for bumblebees and butterflies alike. Feel free to enjoy a picnic lunch here or purchase a snack at the Kirkwood Café. When you’re done with your rest, continue back onto the main trail to the otter exhibit. The river otters are very playful, and this playfulness really comes out during feeding times, featured at 11:30 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for the public.

Families with young children will appreciate the Gordon Children’s Center, with its big rope spider web and groundhog tunnels under the floor. There are lots of learning opportunities for kids (as well as adults) here, too. The recent addition of an outdoor playground was a great idea! Children can learn about the predator/prey relationship, while traversing various obstacles. My kids spent a lot of time climbing and exploring in this area. When playtime is over, visit the black bears. I really enjoy this exhibit. Climb up the stairs in the educational cabin to see the bears from a higher vantage point. I find that they’re usually sleeping, but one of the great things about Squam Lakes Natural Science Center is that you can always get a good view of the animals in the exhibits.

Bird lovers will enjoy the next exhibits which feature delicate songbirds and then amazing raptors, like hawks and eagles. After the pleasant Wetlands Walk, you’ll reach the end of the trail and the final exhibit. Visitors can learn about the land under our feet in this New Hampshire geology exhibit. Children will enjoy climbing on the large boulders. At this point, you can either visit the gift shop or choose to explore one of three hiking trails: The Forest Trail, The Ecotone Trail (which skirts the woods and a large field), and the Mount Fayal Trail, a one-mile loop to the top of Mt. Fayal.

The center and animal exhibit trail are open from May 1st through November 1st from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (although there are snowshoe tours in the wintertime). For the summer season, in July and August, naturalists on staff give animal demonstrations at various times throughout each day. Visitors can learn fascinating facts about animals not on the trail, like beavers, minks, porcupines, or peregrine falcons. On Wednesdays at 1:00 p.m. is a coyote demonstration, and there are Turtle Talks on Tuesdays at 10:30 a.m.

If you’d like to venture out onto beautiful Squam Lake, the center separately runs 90-minute ecology cruises. Explore the history of Squam Lake on a covered, pontoon boat and learn about the animals that make Squam Lake home. In June, go on a Bald Eagle Adventure Cruise and view an active nest; or take a Loon Cruise from June through August. Both cruises will have a biologist on board to talk about the birds and answer questions. Romantics might enjoy the Dinner and Sunset Cruise, a joint venture with Walter’s Basin Restaurant. My kids loved the Lake Explorers Family Cruise, with a scavenger hunt and a naturalist on board who will show kids how to collect microscopic life. For the full cruise schedule and ticket prices, or for more information about the Science Center, call (603) 968-7194 or visit

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