Finger Lakes, FLX, hiking, Nature, Spring, Upstate New York

Walks Around the Finger Lakes. May. Bear Swamp State Forest

There’s a lot of places called “Bear Swamp.”

New York State has, I found out yesterday, two identically-named state forests.  I visited the one in the Finger Lakes region, just south of Skaneateles Lake.  It’s namesake is in Otsego County, about a hundred miles east, near Cooperstown (Baseball Hall of Fame).  And a quick web search came up with lots of Bear Swamps, all over the country.

Bears apparently just love a good swamp.  And yet quagmires, morasses, even a good foggy fen – – you really cannot interest them.   You show them a sun-dappled marsh, spacious, move-in-ready, priced-to-sell, and it’s “Yeah, it’s ok I guess, I don’t need anything fancy, but this is just.. a bit…reedy, I guess.  Yeah, that’s it.  A bear needs trees, you know?

Peat bogs, forget it.  That’s more of an amphibian scene, and too acidic.




Well, we saw no bears, beavers, or otters, which were reintroduced into the area.  We did see numerous red newts, which always make me happy, and one red fox.

Despite it’s name, Bear Swamp has plenty of hills and woods, and miles of trails.  Depending on the website, it’s acreage is 3280, 3300, 3316, or 3539.

Perhaps it’s growing, that would be nice.  It’s a pleasant mix of old pine plantations and hardwoods.


And it included kind of a surprise – what, according to my map, downloaded from the state DEC site, was a little creek, yesterday appeared to be a good-sized pond:



I’ve never been to this spot before, and didn’t know if some of this is normally marshland, and just submerged by spring flooding.  (And I think that’s the explanation.).

Standing on the road with the pond washing over it.

The pond was lapping the edge of one of the access roads, and looked like it had recently washed over it.  The access roads are dirt, and were fairly rough, with some huge puddles, and I wouldn’t recommend driving down them without AWD.


This was one of the smooth stretches:



We saw some wildflowers, but what was unusual, were huge stretches of forget-me-nots.  And I’m pretty sure, these were Chinese forget-get-me-nots – – I guess they’re not considered an invasive species, but wow they really spread.



Some of this forest was reclaimed farmland, and so, predictably, there were patches of Vinca minor (“periwinkle”) near the sites of old houses – – apparently all the old-time farmers were absolutely required to grow this in their gardens – – but I’ve never seen so many forget-me-nots before.

[Editor’s Note:  One Paragraph Rant Warning] 

And also one of the banes of my existence.  Garlic mustard, which is really getting on my nerves.  A lot of folks who normally don’t visit parks & woods, have been venturing out this spring, while the epidemic has shut down their normal haunts, but I’m guessing they don’t recognize this plant as a horrible plague of its own.  I have not taken a single walk in the past few years, without seeing it.  It spreads along the access roads, then up the trails, and at this point, it’s impossible to take a walk anywhere in the region without tripping over the smelly stuff.  The deer won’t touch it – –  the leaves are bitter and contain cyanide (just a bit, they’re still edible, but it shows what kind of an attitude this plant has), and the allelopathic roots not only kill off native plants, but also the soil fungi which are beneficial for trees.  Whenever I stop for a drink of water, I yank it out, but it would literally take an army to clear an entire woods.  You can see it in this photo, the heart-shaped leaf, and by next year, it may have killed off that flower.



I always think of swamps as low-lying, but Bear Swamp is the high point of the county.

Not culturally, I mean the land around the swamp, soars to 1860 feet (over a thousand feet higher than the county’s lowest point). OK, the Rockies it ain’t, but on the other hand, the Rockies don’t have these cute red-spotted newts.

And it turns out, the forest is indeed growing a bit. The local land trust acquired 145 acres along the creek, and it’s now been attached to the state forest. This watershed drains into Skaneateles Lake, which serves as the reservoir for the city of Syracuse.  They’ve managed to keep the water so pure, that the city essentially does no filtering. Isn’t that good to hear?





49 thoughts on “Walks Around the Finger Lakes. May. Bear Swamp State Forest

  1. We get garlic mustard here but only the odd clump. It’s not hugely invasive as far as know. Maybe it was introduced into the states and is non native?

  2. Speaking of Chinese forget-me-nots, I’d say we’re all quite willing to forget China because of the troubles it’s unleashed on us.

    Up there you have garlic-mustard. I may have told you that down here it’s a different plant in that family that’s become an unstoppable invasive:

    Like you, I occasionally pull some out, but it’s hopeless.

    That newt is so colorful, more so than any similar kind of animal I know about in Texas. What I do know is that the English word newt is an example of what linguists call resegmentation. Speakers of Middle English began hearing the noun phrase an eute as if it were a neute, and that’s how the modern form newt came to be.

    • Newt and eft are both kind of unusual words. My sister goes to a college in western Pennsylvania, and its original mascot was a hellbender, which is another fun name. One of its nicknames is Allegheny Alligator, and the college switched to an alligator mascot

  3. Wonderful photos. The red newts are delightful. I have taken a good look at the photo of the invasive garlic and will keep in eye out for it in our area. This is a wonderful time of year for a trek in the forest.

    • Thanks, Neil, I agree. The newts do, too. Last month they were swimming around in them, looking like they were having a great time, now they’re out exploring the woods. Not a bad life.

  4. Robert, every time I read your interesting nature-based posts, I am amazed that you have so many lovely nature parks so close to New York. We also have an invasive plant that has taken over much of our pasture land all the way into the alpine region where ranchers let their cattle graze in the summer. Its name is knapweed. Like your garlic mustard, it sends poison into the soil and kills the native vegetation. Best wishes, Robert!

    • Thank you, Peter. I looked up that plant, and realized we have knapweed in this region, too. I’ve seen it, and never realized what it was, or that it was an invasive species, also poisoning it’s neighbors, not a nice habit! I’m going to devote an afternoon to pulling out this stuff, we’re supposed to bag it, so it doesn’t go to seed after it’s yanked.
      I know it made people uneasy, but Cornell University distributed some small European beetles, a few years ago, to get the purple loosestrife under control, without having to resort to burning off fields, and it appears to have been a big success. When the weed’s population declined, so did the beetle’s.

      • I remember the knapweed plant as a pretty flower, somewhat similar to the cornflower. In Europe, these plants are kept in check by this special kind beetles. I am glad that the scientists had success with introducing the natural enemies of the plant. Thanks for the additional info, Robert!

  5. George says:

    Wonderfully evocative walk with great photos—the red newt especially. Have you really never seen so many forget me nots or is it that you don’t remember? (Sorry).

    Have you tried eating garlic mustard? (The cyanide concentration is trace—broccoli, kale and apple pips also contain it). I’m not sure whether I’ve ever had it, although I’m a big fan of various other mustard leaves. They all taste a bit of horseradish. Good for making pesto apparently. We get lots of wild garlic (very good for pesto) but garlic mustard is not very widespread. It has lots of natural predators over here, apparently. It struck me that if you could inspire people to eat it, it might gain one significant one over there too.

    • Thank you, George, my brain doesn’t always answer the call, or recall, but pretty sure none of us had ever seen such spreads of forget-me-nots. Last summer, I gathered up a big bowlful of garlic mustard leaves, carefully washed them, puréed them in a blender with olive oil, and set them aside to mix with basil leaves 50/50…but didn’t have any, and didn’t get to the store, so I ended up tossing it out, Pretty strong-smelling. I’ll give it another whirl this week, pesto is one of the few food crazes that I’ve really embraced.
      I probably got carried away, mentioning the cyanide in my condemnation, I knew it was just a trace amount, but I didn’t exaggerate the spread of this stuff, it’s everywhere. Last evening, I walked by the woodlot where I recently photographed some trillium, and the garlic mustard is along both sides of the trail, for miles, and beginning to encroach on the wildflowers. There’s a very successful cheesemaker not too far away, a German family, with a huge herd of goats, maybe I can interest them in a garlic-infused chevre, and they’ll bring up a tribe to graze.

      • George says:

        Yes, I’ve heard it is nasty invasive problem on your side of the Atlantic. Not sure what eats it over here, but something definitely does.

        • I was just writing a response to Peter Klopp, who lives in BC, Canada, and mentioning the success they’ve had with importing beetles to eat purple loosestrife. Some folks locally were really agitated about this importation and unintended consequences, but, knock on wood, it seems to have gone as planned. The Montezuma Refuge, a huge swamp nearby, was being taken over, but now seems almost completely free of loosestrife. Getting the phragmites reeds under control would be the next task. I had to look up the spelling of this guy, Sisyphus, that’s who I’m thinking about.

  6. I like the one-paragraph rant warning–very cool feature for writing:) We used to visit a place called Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan–we didn’t see any bears there, either. Lovely pictures!

  7. I can understand the frustration with garlic mustard. It is taking over my woods here in Michigan also. Every spring I have to pull at least 5 garbage bags full in my own yard. Interesting on the cyanide though! I didn’t know that and will have to look up more about it. Beautiful photos.

    • Thank you, Mark. The cyanide is just a trace, and I’m going to try, again, to make this into pesto, once I’ve got enough basil to mix it 50/50.
      Five bags full! That’s a lot of weeding. If this is part of your spring ritual, do you feel like you’re gaining on it, after doing it repeatedly? Or just as bad every year?

  8. melissabluefineart says:

    Your Bear Swamp looks like a treasure~thanks for taking us there! Red newts make me happy, too. 🙂
    For a long time garlic mustard was really taking over our preserves. Whole workdays were dedicated to it. Then in the past year or two it seems to mysteriously be in decline. And yes, the loosestrife beetles are a huge success. We can go back to thinking loosestrife is a pretty plant around here, because it just doesn’t get the chance to go berserk anymore. Phragmites, now. That is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish! And buckthorn. I genuinely think managers are going about buckthorn “control” all wrong and won’t succeed until they rethink their strategy but that’s just me.

    • I can’t exaggerate how bad the garlic mustard has gotten – you can walk for a mile along some roads, and see nothing but. Phragmites is also everywhere, it just continues to push out the cattails, etc.
      And multiflora rose, and buckthorn, and in some places, Japanese knotweed. Some days, I feel like that maniac in Apocalypse Now, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” a flamethrower would be kind of satisfying.

  9. Hey Robert, great work man. Enjoyed the words and the photos were excellent. Interesting about two state forests with the same name. NY also has two municipalities named Woodbury. One is in Orange County, the other’s in Nassau. The insanity doesn’t end there. NY has two Walkills. And these two rascals are located in the neighboring counties of Orange and Ulster. I know — this info is mind blowing, and your life will probably never be the same, now that you know it. 🙂

    • Didn’t know any of these, and you’re right, kind of life-altering, holy heck how does anyone know what’s real anymore?! Although, the upstate Woodbury has that huge outlet mall, that’s how we can tell them apart, and what’s more grounded & real than discounted Banana Republic?
      My dad grew up in what was originally New Hartford, NY but when they found out there was another one, outside of Utica, they had the decency to change it to Avon. Once a year though the Avon Chamber of Commerce charters a bus, and they go over and egg those guys in New Hartford, rotten copycats.

      • Woodbury Commons. The famed outlet mall. I know it well. Tourists from NYC arrive by the busload to buy some discounted Eddie Bauer cargo shorts and Gucci purses from last season. I grew up 10 minutes from there. When I was in high school, I had a girlfriend who worked at the outlet’s J. Crew – I got a sick discount on khakis and cardigans. Heaven! lol Hope all is well, bud! Have a great weekend.

  10. Darts and Letters says:

    You’d mentioned the red newts not too long ago and look at that, here’s one quite stunning with those ominous phosphorescent (or is it fluorescence I want?) spots. In the comments above just now I noted the reference to hellbenders, that’s a spectacularly cool appellation (!) and I looked some up for reference and oh boy are there ever real biggies. The boys and I found a giant newt (can’t think of the species around here off the top of my head) a few years ago, at the time I really had no idea they grew to such proportions. It was in no hurry, just sitting in the middle of the path in the forest. My favorite picture here is of the forest floor covered in Chinese forget-me-nots, that’s a dazzler.

    • You really have to watch where you’re walking sometimes, when these newts leave the ponds and start exploring, sometimes they’re only 1 inch long. I’ve never seen a hellbender in the wild, or any large salamanders. The spots do look almost glowing, I guess advertising to the birds, etc., that they’re toxic and you don’t want to eat them.
      I think they only have three toes.

  11. Oh, what a delight, Robert! The newt! Did you turn rocks over to find them? The forget-me-not-lines path is heaven, just heaven. I like seeing the Jack-in-the-pulpit. The mushrooms are great too, as is that last photo with the glow. And please feel free to rant about Garlic mustard. Ugh! It’s tedious. Pure water! A good thing! Let’s end on that note. 🙂

    • The spotted or marbled salamanders, I’ve only ever seen under rocks. The red ones, they’re always wandering around the woods! I see them in March-April, paddling around the ponds, looking pretty relaxed, and then in May, they just seem to go walkabout, and some days I really have to watch where I’m walking. If you put your hand down, they’ll usually walk onto it, just so you can get them off the road, etc. Always cold toes!

  12. I don’t think they let the public wander around our watershed area, but if they did I suspect it might be as unspoiled as yours looks. But there’s the chance it has garlic mustard, it’s a serious problem around here too. We separate our garbage, yard debris, and recyclables here, and the city says “don’t put garlic mustard plants in the yard debris!” They make mulch with it, which could make the problem even worse.

    I love the newt shoot. About the only time I see a newt is in a crossword puzzle.

    • Canadice, the smallest of the Finger Lakes, is a reservoir for Rochester, over 40 miles away – you’re allowed to canoe on it, but you have to fill out and issue yourself a permit. I’ve never been clear what that accomplishes. Sometimes I argue with myself, if the signature doesn’t seem to match my driver’s license, etc. and have to slip myself a twenty before I get the permit.

  13. We have a few bits of garlic mustard here and there and do try to rid the yard of it as best we can. I guess in Europe it is culinarily prized but here it is a big nuisance.
    We have a Bear Swamp here also in a town a few miles from here. I’ve only been in there a few times and maybe your reminder will push me back there again.
    Here in our town, one of our main aquifers is a swamp, a spot where I find a few orchids in June, and although the water is treated it is generally pretty clean.
    It’s about time for me to get out and shoot some red efts again.

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