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Inside Great Falls Discovery Center, natural life abounds even in winter

  • A realistic display inside The Great Falls Discovery Center shows a Striped Bass in its natural habitat on the Connecticut River on February 2, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    A realistic display inside The Great Falls Discovery Center shows a Striped Bass in its natural habitat on the Connecticut River on February 2, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Great Falls Discovery Center provides interpretation and education about the Connecticut River. The realistic displays featured inside highlight different habitats that would be found along the river.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    The Great Falls Discovery Center provides interpretation and education about the Connecticut River. The realistic displays featured inside highlight different habitats that would be found along the river.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • A realistic display inside The Great Falls Discovery Center shows a natural habitat that would be found along the Connecticut River on February 2, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    A realistic display inside The Great Falls Discovery Center shows a natural habitat that would be found along the Connecticut River on February 2, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • A Bobcat is shown in a realistic display of its natural habitat along the Connecticut River inside The Great Falls Discovery Center on February 2, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    A Bobcat is shown in a realistic display of its natural habitat along the Connecticut River inside The Great Falls Discovery Center on February 2, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • A model Kingfisher is shown in a realistic display of its natural habitat on the Connecticut River at The Great Falls Discovery Center on February 2, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    A model Kingfisher is shown in a realistic display of its natural habitat on the Connecticut River at The Great Falls Discovery Center on February 2, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Great Falls Discovery Center displays a realistic overall view of a Sandplain that would be found along the Connecticut River on February 2, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    The Great Falls Discovery Center displays a realistic overall view of a Sandplain that would be found along the Connecticut River on February 2, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Great Falls Discovery Center provides interpretation and education about the Connecticut River. The realistic displays highlight different habitats that would be found along the river.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    The Great Falls Discovery Center provides interpretation and education about the Connecticut River. The realistic displays highlight different habitats that would be found along the river.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • A realistic display inside The Great Falls Discovery Center shows a Striped Bass in its natural habitat on the Connecticut River on February 2, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • The Great Falls Discovery Center provides interpretation and education about the Connecticut River. The realistic displays featured inside highlight different habitats that would be found along the river.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • A realistic display inside The Great Falls Discovery Center shows a natural habitat that would be found along the Connecticut River on February 2, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • A Bobcat is shown in a realistic display of its natural habitat along the Connecticut River inside The Great Falls Discovery Center on February 2, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • A model Kingfisher is shown in a realistic display of its natural habitat on the Connecticut River at The Great Falls Discovery Center on February 2, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • The Great Falls Discovery Center displays a realistic overall view of a Sandplain that would be found along the Connecticut River on February 2, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • The Great Falls Discovery Center provides interpretation and education about the Connecticut River. The realistic displays highlight different habitats that would be found along the river.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

Weaving through the building, visitors follow the watershed from its start at the Long Island Sound all the way up to the Great North Woods at the border of Canada. Each display represents a different habitat on or along the watershed.

“We get a lot of school groups, and we tell the kids to pretend they are salmon swimming upstream.” Laurel Carpenter, a park ranger at the Discovery Center. “It’s a 400-mile journey through the building.”

Each station has a different arrangement of plants, rocks, sand, model birds and taxidermied beasts. Realistic backgrounds have been painted for each habitat by Frank Gregory, a local artist.

One station has dimmer lighting, and shows a gathering of nocturnal creatures. Another has swiveling rocks that reveal the hidden homes of small rodents. Rounding a corner, an enormous moose appears, tall enough so that visitors can execute limbo moves underneath without much trouble.

The moose is so big that it takes a moment to notice the porcupine on the ground next to him.

“We have some kids who come in all the time, because they have one favorite animal that they want to see over and over,” Carpenter said. “We call them ‘frequent flyers.’”

A timeline on the wall tells the story of our section of the watershed. In 1676, Captain Turner attacked Native Americans at “the Great Falls,” which was renamed after him. Fish migration was cut off in 1798 by the construction of the Montague Dam. The Industrial Revolution of the 1800s brought over 1,000 dams to the watershed, impounding the river and degrading important habitat around it.

During this time, the salmon population in the watershed was wiped out. Through the 1970s, things started to improve for the environment.

The pesticide DDT was banned, the Endangered Species Act went through Congress, and a fish ladder was constructed at the Falls. After a few failed attempts at reintroduction, salmon finally spawned again in the watershed in 1991, though their return remains an elusive goal.

Refuge resource

The Great Falls Discovery Center is part of the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge, which has its headquarters in Sunderland.

Andrew French has been project leader there for a little over a decade, but as he grew up near a wildlife refuge, and his father also worked for it, he has had an association with these places all of his life.

French works on a lot of different projects designed to better the habitat in the Connecticut River watershed, whether its removing old, unused fences left by old inhabitants or getting the community involved in the water chestnut removal project. Water chestnuts are an invasive species, this means they were introduced to the area from outside and are imposing on local wildlife by draining their resources.

Some of the local species can become threatened, or even endangered due to competition from invasive species.

The refuge works to increase the number of threatened species as well. Now, French is planning the construction of a 1.2-mile interpretive nature walk at a property in Hadley. The trail will be a handicap accessible loop, going through grasslands, scrublands and wetlands along the river.

Much of the work French does relies on volunteers in the community. The number of groups and individual volunteers French can get to help will determine how quickly the trail will be built.

“The best part of my job is working with so many different partners,” French said in a recent phone interview.

River view

Advancing to the back of the Great Falls Discovery Center, the last sight to see is the best of all.

A room with large glass windows overlooks the river itself.

Here, the Center reminds its guests that we all live in this watershed, and it is our responsibility to take care of it.

Related

Great Falls  Discovery Center hours, programs

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

During the winter, the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls is open Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., or by special arrangement with school and community groups. Starting May 18, the center will be open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., extending its hours to 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Admission is free. However, the …

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