Back on the Trail at the Science Center

Back on the Trail at the Science Center

Story and photos by Kathi Caldwell-Hopper

We’ve all heard the saying that you’re never too old to learn something new. I never thought much about that philosophy until a recent visit to the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness.

For years, the Science Center was the place I took my son and daughter in the summer and fall. Especially in the summer, the Science Center held great appeal because we could be outside and walk a nice trail and see lots of animals we could never hope to observe otherwise. 

Now that my kids are grown and living and working elsewhere I have not had as many opportunities to spend an afternoon at the Science Center. But when my daughter Megan called and said she was coming home for a visit a few weeks ago, she mentioned she really wanted to go to the Science Center. I think it holds a lot of great memories for her, as well offering a place for a nice, long walk on the trail. 

She chose well because the weather on the Thursday we made our way to Holderness was sunny and breezy. The June sky was bright blue and full of fluffy clouds, making it a perfect Lakes Region day for any outdoor activity.

We found ample parking in the large lot and made our way to the gift shop for tickets. The first thing I always noticed and something that impressed me is how clean and beautiful everything is at the Center. The buildings remind me of visiting an Adirondack style home, and they fit well in the wooded setting. There is no trash as on trails I have taken in other places, and I believe those who visit are respectful of the fact that this is a place animals reside. The animals deserve to live in a good, safe environment and the Science Center is truly a place where they come first, which is as it should be.

Charming sculpture at Kirkwood Garden

Charming sculpture at Kirkwood Garden

We started our walk on the Live Animal Exhibit Trail at the Wood Energy building/area where we learned some information about wood burning and energy. Next was the Life Underground building, where we saw displays on microscopic creatures that live under the soil. It seems these creatures grind, tear, and shred dead plants, which is very helpful. Their work decomposes plant and animal material and recycles nutrients, which all helps with air and moisture. (This was something of which I was completely unaware.)

There was also information on the burrows that chipmunks need to thrive. Although humans are unaware, chipmunks live under ground and create tunnels and passageways that are three or more feet deep. It is here they have shelter, and it is where they raise their young and are protected from predators.

We also got information in this area of the trail on bats and the dreaded White Nose Syndrome that can devastate the bat population. (There is information on what you can do to help the bats, such as building a bat house in your yard and planting a pollinator garden to attract food for bats.)

The Water Matters Pavilion is a beautiful space that fits into the wooded setting. Inside the building there are huge aquariums with all sorts of fish, and displays about the water cycle and ice on the lakes and ponds. Also included is information about loons and the industrious beaver population. 

Before we entered the next portion of the trail, with live animals in natural enclosures, there was a large sign with a headline asking, “Why Do We Exhibit Native Wildlife?” It is worth sharing some of that information, so the reader understands the Science Center philosophy. “We view these animals as ambassadors for their species and exhibit them in natural settings so visitors can appreciate their beauty, observe their behavior, and better understand their lives.”

If you have wondered where the animals come from, the sign also explains, “Most of the animals exhibited at the Science Center are here because they are unable to survive in the wild. Some are orphans and cannot take care of themselves. Others were injured and are unable to catch their food or escape from predators.”

The coyote display gives all sorts of fascinating facts about the animal. We are shown coyote tracks and given a device to listen to the call of the coyote. The natural enclosure offers the coyote a huge space with a large glass observation window. It gives us a chance to see the animals at a distance, but close enough to really observe these animals in a natural setting.

Next was information on moose (and a giant moose carving in the greenery that was pretty realistic!), and fox and fisher cats. 

Out of everything we saw on the trail, our favorite hands-down was the bobcat and mountain lion areas. I was interested to see how similar the bobcat is in its mannerisms to a house cat, although I am quite sure it would be a different story to confront one of the majestic creatures! 

The majestic Mountain Lion

The majestic Mountain Lion

The most fascinating animal we saw and the place we spent the most time was at the mountain lion area. We were visiting in the afternoon, and many of the animals were taking a post-lunchtime rest, as was the mountain lion. But the huge animal opted to take its rest at the front of its natural enclosure, leaning up against the window. We got to see the animal up close, although separated by the thick glass. Words can hardly describe what it was like to watch this animal as it dozed in the sun so close to us. We were amazed at how huge its paws are and how easy it would be for such an animal to fight off a predator with a swipe of a paw. When you get close enough to such an animal that you can see its eyelashes, you see nature without a filter. It was mesmerizing and we quietly watched the mountain lion. The animal was so relaxed that it sprawled on a rock and now and then opened its eyes to gaze at us.

We have always loved the deer enclosure and the chance to observe these gentle creatures and this day was no exception. Two deer were snoozing in one spot while another grazed on some grass. In the nearby building we learned a lot about deer and their life cycle. 

Not far away, we opted to get off the trail and headed to Kirkwood Gardens, also part of the Science Center. The gardens are open to the public and were looking beautiful on the sunny June day we stopped by. 

Turkey vulture

Turkey vulture

Back on the trail, visiting the otter area brought back many fond memories; my kids, when young, loved this area. Because of the clever way the otter area was built, visitors can watch the otters as they swim and then surface to rest on the rocks. The water tank can be viewed through the glass and visitors get to see the otters as they swim under water as well as on the water’s surface. There is a fun kiddie slide in this area as well, and it is always a favorite with youngsters.

We were very impressed with the fairly new Interactive Playscape and Megan commented that if she were still a kid, she would love to spend all day in the natural playground area. There was a slide, rope course, things to balance and climb on, and much more. (Any kid who visits the Science Center will get quite a workout here!)

The Gordon Children’s Center was in place when my kids were young and I was glad to see it still is on the trail. It also brought back fond memories with exhibits on two floors and lots to see and do.

Then it was on to the fascinating Black Bear area. We observed from the vantage point of the top floor of a building, two black bears in their huge natural enclosure below. One was dozing and across the huge enclosed outdoor area, the other was walking around and seemed to be more interested in exploring than taking a nap. Again, seeing these animals up close is quite a fascinating experience.

Last on the tour was the raptor area with lots of information about owls and other raptors. Viewing was through large glass enclosures and it was quite something to see the creatures, ranging from Turkey Vultures to an owl and others.

We walked over the pretty marsh boardwalk area and by a field and were soon back at the entrance. No visit is complete without a stop in the Howling Coyote Gift Shop, where we shopped for everything from books, stuffed animals, and so much more.

If you are visiting the Lakes Region for a vacation, no matter what your age, or if you are a year round resident like me who “just hasn’t been to the Science Center” in a while, I urge you to visit this summer or fall. Every time I return, I learn something new and see it all as if for the first time.

Megan commented that she has decided to make a trip to the Science Center an annual event. I suspect it is because it brings back so many fond childhood memories, as well a realization that although her little-kid days are past, she is never, ever too old to learn something new.

Another reason to visit this summer is a new exhibit called Dinosaurs Alive! It will feature five spectacular, gigantic, animatronic dinosaurs that look, move, and sound like the real thing – and one even spits! Visitors will be able to see the Dinosaurs Alive! exhibit for a limited time, from July 1 through September 30, in natural settings along the live animal exhibit trail. Dinosaurs Alive! is included in regular trail admission and free for members. 

The Squam Lakes Natural Science Center is located on 23 Science Center Road in Holderness. It is open daily from May 1 through November 1, 9:30 am to 5 pm (last admission is at 3:30 pm). For information, call 603-968-7194 or visit www.nhnature.org.

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