When spring blows in, I start itching for the outdoors. Let’s face it, winter is a bit trying on its own. But throw kids into the mix and it’s downright frightening. There are only so many times you can lose to your four-year-old at Candy Land, make brownies, or color a Team Umi Zoomi picture.
Thankfully there are tons of places to go within a short drive of Cape May, so I was super excited to see where my next Day Tripper column would take me. That is until I realized my assignment was to go to the Wetlands Institute.
Hmm, now this is interesting. Or not.
The Wetlands Institute stands like a beacon of nature and relaxing calm in the truly gorgeous and expansive back bay marshes of Stone Harbor. My children stand as beacons of crazy energy, ready to scream, run, and jump as long as possible, and believe me, that’s a long time. How will I merge these two opposite worlds?
I did what any mom would do, I called in backup. Her name is Mom-Mom.
So with Mom-Mom, her husband Michael, Sam and Finn in tow, we hit the road for the short drive north and quickly realized that sometimes all it takes is a few miles to feel like you’ve gone someplace really different. We left Crazyhecticville and in 15 minutes arrived
in the land of house finches, snowy egrets and great blue herons.
The Wetlands Institute sits about a 100 feet back off the causeway leading to Stone Harbor in the salt marshes of the Cape May Peninsula. It’s hard to miss, in part because there aren’t too many buildings on the long, narrow causeway, but mostly because it’s a large, cedar-sided building with colorful grounds and a look-out cupola atop.
As we strolled towards the front entrance, we were impressed by the lush landscape marking the paved path. Marion’s Gardens are award winning and attract birds and butterflies with native plants. Right through the door we were greeted with a smile and given a quick rundown of the place. Our first stop? Marshview Hall for a movie and a talk about birds.
Oh boy, er, boys. Lecture halls generally mean sitting quietly while someone else talks. Mom-Mom, don’t fail me now.
The Wetlands Institute gets this. Clearly, I’m not the first mom with two kinetic boys to walk through the doors. Set up on the opposite side of the room is a television screen, a large sculpture of an osprey holding a fish in its claws (cool), and two telescopes pointing at the osprey nest nearby in the marsh. Sam and Finn ran to the wall of windows and started peeking through the kid-size telescope. That day we saw a baby osprey alone in the nest. Each year the osprey family leaves the nest in late fall and returns in the spring.
When it was time to watch the movie, it was a Mom-Mom sandwich as Sam and Finn each sat beside her on folding chairs. There was a bit of grumbling, but nothing a well-packed zip of Cheerios couldn’t resolve. After the movie we headed through the gift shop and out onto the large two-story deck overlooking the marshes and the salt marsh trail, our next destination.
Now it’s one thing to view the expansive marshes from the Institute’s deck, where you are completely safe from, say, accidentally falling into the muddy waters. It’s quite another to hit the trail smack in the marsh, even with the help of our very capable docent, Tom.
Very Capable Docent Tom, meet Sam and Finn Godfrey.
As you walk (or run as it were) along the crushed shell path that begins right off the parking lot (where you’ll find picnic tables) and extends past the Institute quite far into the bay, you are no longer on your turf. You are in shore bird and marsh wildlife territory. Our first inhabitant sighting? A lone white egret walking in the distant marsh.
On any given day you can spot mockingbirds, warblers, sparrows, gulls, hawks, robins, and of course, the resident osprey.
We walked along the shrub-lined path, careful not to touch poison ivy, until we came to a perpendicular bridge that took us, literally, out over the bay.
Two little boys with crazy, unstoppable energy and a four-foot-wide (if that!) path several feet above water? Luckily the tide was low during our visit.
The trip out over the bay was awesome. We spotted tons of Fiddler crabs walking along the bottom sand. Fiddler crabs have one giant claw and one normal size claw – it’s a scene, man. They look like cartoons, sort of like a one arm crab version of Popeye. Blow me down indeed. We didn’t spot any terrapins that time, but they are out there too, along with many other species of wildlife.
At the end of the clam shell path there are kayaks for taking tours through the marshes, one of the best ways to mingle with the birds, crabs, fish and terrapins.
When we returned to the main building, and said our goodbyes to Tom, we headed up stairs onto the cupola to see the marsh from a real birds eye view.
The steps up are plenty, but there is a detailed mural of sea life painted all over the stairwell walls to distract you. At the top, the wind wasn’t too gusty and we were able to see a panoramic of the green marshes. There is a well-placed white birdhouse up there too for some good bird watching.
The Wetlands Institute along with Stockton College conducts a Diamondback terrapin conservation project. Each summer college students from across the US come to assist the animals who fall victim to the commercial crabbing industry and coastal development. From the Institute’s first level deck, you can head into Terrapin Station, where you’ll find a big tank with loads of active Diamondback terrapins you can check out up close, something that’s not so easy when you see terrapins in the wild – they usually hide from onlookers. Sam and Finn had a blast watching the terrapins swim in the tank and step on each other. Mom-Mom gave them a few dollars to “feed” the terrapin sculpture – a donation that goes directly to the Institute.
One of the best things about the Wetlands Institute? They have a room set back off the main path that’s set up with kid-friendly tables and chairs. On the tables are rub ons of various fish and sea life, crayons, scissors and paper.
Mom-Mom, Mike, Sam, Finn, and I all sat down at the end of our visit and made souvenirs to take home. It was a fun, calm end to a very cool day.
Like George Washington, I cannot tell a lie. Anyhoo, I’m big on truth, so I’ll admit that after hearing we were going to The Wetlands Institute, I immediately thought B.O.R.I.N.G. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Wetlands Institute is filled with super-fun activities for all ages and in three hours, my family took advantage of almost everything offered the day of our visit and we’re ready to come back for more.