Now for Something Different: Take Flight on Your Bike on Plum Island, Massachusetts
Updated: Feb 7, 2022
Strangling vines, poisonous plants, and soaring birds inhabit the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. And the best way to see it all—by bicycle. Just off the coast of Massachusetts is Plum Island, an eight-mile-long barrier island where the wildlife refuge occupies about two-thirds. This tiny stretch of sand and marsh, part of the Atlantic Flyway, is known for its waterfowl, shorebirds, and migratory bird species.
First, stop at the gatehouse, where both bicycles and cars check-in. From there, you can ride over three miles of paved roadway, perfect for a scenic tour. And if you have sturdy bicycle tires, continue on the gravel road once you pass the Hellcat Observation Tower to the end of the island. I’ve spent many hours and miles biking this beautiful refuge over the years, and for at least three seasons, the road is passable and bike-worthy.
Good weather brings out a variety of riders. Some pedal at top speeds hunched over the handlebars in full bicycle gear, racing along the flat terrain to clock their personal best for a sweat-drenching workout. Others, dressed in summer shorts, sit upright on less sleek bikes fitted with a Nantucket basket. And there’s everything in between. I mix my exercise with nature watching.
The refuge road sits between the zigzagging Parker River and sand dunes that sequester the Atlantic Ocean. The parking areas have bike racks where you can leave your two-wheeler and take the boardwalk to the ocean for a view of sparkling sands and crashing waves. Inhale the fresh salt air. While the beach could be an endpoint in itself, the draw of the ocean juxtaposed to woods and marsh with the vast open sky above pushes me back to the road.
This is a sanctuary for over 350 bird species and where plants abound. A stop at the Salt Pannes Wildlife Observation Area provides a safe place to pull off the road. Get out your binoculars and watch Snowy and Great egrets fish using their spear-like beaks. Great Blue Herons wait patiently for a meal while standing on one leg. Continue your ride to the North Pool Overlook, and you might see beavers building their dam, meadowlarks in the field, or Bald Eagles. And at certain times of the year, thousands of migrating tree swallows sail above you—a canopy of birds as you pedal down the road.
Many berry-bearing plants provide food for birds. Some are edible (cranberry and blueberry), but others, such as the infamous poison ivy (yes, they have berries), are best left to the birds. Poison ivy, Rhus radicans grows as a climbing vine or as a groundcover. Clusters of pumpkin-shaped berries arise near the stem of the notorious three leaflets. Ingestion of these berries by birds contributes to the spread of the plant as undigested seeds pass through the digestive tract without difficulty. Poison ivy (leaves, runners, and fruits) contains an oil, urushiol, that produces inflammation—rashes, blisters, itching—not only on the skin (contact dermatitis) but also in the lungs if the plant is burned in the fall with fallen leaves and the smoke is inhaled.
Unless you plan to continue down the gravel road to explore the tip of the island, end this leg of your journey at the Hellcat Observation Tower. You can loop around and head back, or park your bike and walk the boardwalk through marsh and dunes, or climb the tower for distant Plum Island vistas—a bird’s eye view.
Biking allows you to experience your environment up close and connect with nature. Savor the ocean breeze, fly with the birds, and take time to smell the flowers, but take care with what you touch. Leaflets three, let it be, is good advice.
The Bicycle Collective is a group of nonprofit bike shops that refurbish donated bicycles and put them into the hands of those in need— focusing on children, newly resettled refugees and immigrants, individuals experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity, individuals recovering from substance abuse, and low-to-moderate income households.