From cinnamon ferns to wild rosemary to otter scat filled with crunched-up crayfish shells — yes, we can see what those otters like to eat — naturalist Brian Hardiman pointed out many fascinating aspects of the Tannersville Cranberry Bog on Wednesday morning. • But the approximately 20 nature-lovers who followed him into the unique ecosystem — sometimes described as a “thick soup of peat moss” — made a few discoveries on their own.
“Oh, my gosh, a tadpole!” 12-year-old hiker Jonah Samuels said, cupping the tiny creature in his hands for a moment before releasing it in the shallow water on top of the bog’s floating boardwalk so others could get a good look.
“He’s really breathing! Look at him! Look at his mouth!” said the youth, who had traveled from the Bryn Mawr area with his parents, Len and Leah Samuels, to do some fishing in the Poconos and to see the bog, which is part of 900 acres of preserved land.
“I’ve been here eight to 10 times in three years. Whenever we have friends visiting, we bring them. We always learn something new,” said Rosemary Bratton, a retired school superintendent who divides her time between Sarasota, Fla., and Bushkill.
On this recent Wednesday, Bratton and her husband, Charles, brought two friends from Indiana to the bog, where they admired blue iris, pinkish-white cranberry blossoms and the soft green needles that will turn golden and fall from the American larch tree in the autumn.
“Just feel how soft they are,” Rosemary Bratton urged her friends.
Wondering what sorts of insects might be in evidence, Bratton asked Hardiman if “any of those 17-year cicadas” were likely to appear.
Not here in the bog, the naturalist told her.
But the walk revealed other wonders, including pitcher plants, which have leaves that form a cuplike shape and collect water. When insects enter to reach the water, the plant traps them and uses them for nourishment.
“Stick your finger in!” walkers dared each other. When one did … nothing happened.
“The plant probably senses you’re bigger than an insect,” young Jonah suggested.
Surely the pitcher plant’s leaves would close in on a bug.
Other plants, called sundews, operate in similar fashion, with tentacles that respond to the movement of an ant or gnat. Those sundews are too delicate for human fingers, Hardiman cautioned.
Also hands-off is a section near the trail where poison ivy and poison sumac have been allowed to grow so passersby can see what they look like.
While the largest animal the hikers spotted on Wednesday may have been a red-tail hawk soaring over Cranberry Creek, the bog environment also is home to such creatures as snowshoe hares, bears, bobcats and otters.
At one point, otters almost disappeared from most of Pennsylvania, Hardiman said, but they always had a healthy population in the pristine habitat of the cranberry bog, which is the southernmost low-elevation boreal bog along the Eastern seaboard.
That means its environment is similar to something you might find much farther north. “When fourth-graders come here on field trips, I tell them it’s like a trip to Canada and back to Pennsylvania in one day,” Hardiman said.
He also tells the young students that the bog is not only ideal habitat for many plants and animals, it helps humans by storing and filtering water, “like a giant sponge.”
“I ask them, who here has to deal with water? We all do, every day.”
The bog’s ecosystem was formed when a glacier “acted like a bulldozer” and then retreated, Hardiman said. The resulting depression filled with water, which mostly arrives as rainfall and departs by evaporation.
Over the years, many feet of peat have formed in the bog, Hardiman said, scooping a handful of what looked like moist, used tea leaves out of the acidic water and passing it around to anyone interested in feeling or smelling it.
If someone were to step into the bog without benefit of the boardwalk, the naturalist said, that person might find himself in water up to his waist or chest — and it could be difficult to climb out.
Fortunately, there is a boardwalk, which is available to group tours on Wednesday mornings through Septembers, and for private group tours that can be arranged at other times. Those are the only ways the public can enter the boardwalk trail, but the nearby North Wood and Fern Ridge trails can be accessed without a guide.