The Marshy Point Nature Center isn't exactly off the beaten track, but it's not that easy to stumble upon, either.
And that's a shame, because the Baltimore County park has much to recommend it: excellent exhibits, a dedicated staff, a gorgeous view and a slate of programs so varied that there is something to fit every nature lover's taste. It's open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, and many of the activities it offers are free.
"People down this way don't even know we're here, even though we've been here for 10 years now," said Kirk Dreier, the center's director and a longtime Baltimore County naturalist. "White Marsh Mall gets tens of thousands of people, and it's only six miles from here."
Dreier was hired last year after nearly two decades as a naturalist at the better-known Oregon Ridge Nature Center in Hunt Valley. He is trying to make the center more visible-he even figured out where to put signs along U.S. 40 and Eastern Avenue to maximize the center's traffic. But those are state roads, and he's not allowed to put them up just yet.
While he waits for permission, Dreier is busy improving the experience for visitors. When he arrived, the center only had one hiking trail, and it wasn't well-marked. Now it has three that make use of its location along Dundee and Saltpeter creeks, which are just around the corner from the Gunpowder River. On a clear winter day, when the leaves have fallen, visitors can see out to Iron Point.
They can also canoe and kayak most of the year from here, and the center offers guided paddle tours April through December. It also has a butterfly garden outside filled with native plants and flowers.
Dreier will soon post a sign, which Eagle Scout Matthew DeSimone created with his troop, that identifies the different plants in Marshy Point's wetlands.
Inside the nature center, visitors can view an extensive taxidermy collection, including a flying tundra swan, the work of a friend of Dreier's. There are also owls, Canada geese, woodpeckers and other birds native to the area.
Every fifth grader in the Baltimore County public schools visits Marshy Point. Many other schools bring in children, too, as part of the state's Green Schools Initiative.
Marshy Point also offers a weeklong Chesapeake Camp for fifth and sixth graders to study the plants and animals of the Chesapeake Bay. In Dundee Creek, for example, there are 11 species of submerged aquatic vegetation that are thriving.
Marshy Point, one of four Baltimore County Parks-the others are Oregon Ridge, Cromwell Valley Park near Towson and Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum near Catonsville-is the only one that is part of the Gateways Network. This is because it is one of the largest areas of wetlands and forest in the region. Marshy Point Park itself is only 500 acres, but when combined with the state, federal and county land around it, the area is more than 3,000 acres.
Dreier said that visitors won't get much out of their time at Marshy Point unless the experience is interactive. So, he made sure that inside the center, Debbie the Duck is ready to greet visitors. Or, when she's waddled off somewhere, Blossom does the honors. The docile possum wanders around as if she's a domesticated cat, although Dreier keeps a close eye on her to make sure she doesn't get nervous and frighten anyone. On her cage is a sign: "Don't stick fingers in my home!"
Dreier is happy to tell visitors that possums do not behave in real life the way they do in Disney movies. Blossom doesn't hang by her tail or carry her babies on it. She does, however, have a pouch for her young, a kind of fur pocket.
The center added an education wing about a year ago. Like the rest of Marshy Point's facility, it's airy and comfortable, a bit like a ski lodge, with natural woods and large windows that afford lots of good light for viewing.
There's a library here, as well as more tanks of newts, salamanders and turtles. Visitors can learn about the animal's food supply and watch the staff feed the turtles their daily worms.
In the main room, visitors can watch a rough green snake caught by a fifth grader, a tank of deer mice and an aquarium of mummichogs. The minnows may be considered the trash fish of the marsh, as Dreier says, but one of his regulars cares enough to have charted their entire life cycle and share that information with the center.
Four teachers are based at Marshy Point, and Dreier has hired another naturalist to help him get the word out about the place.
Marshy Point has an ambitious calendar of regular events. Every Monday, it hosts a pre-K nature drop-in, which features a nature-themed story hour and arts and crafts. The first Friday of the month is a movie night. Often, but not always, the movies have an animal or nature theme. The second Sunday of each month is a bird walk. The third Thursday is After-School Nature Explorers. Most months, it hosts a speaker, too. History, archaeology and ecology are among the topics.
The center is trying to have some cheeky fun with its events. On Feb. 13, it's presenting "Animals Love Valentine's Day," which teaches how animals use sight, smell and sound to attract each other. The event ends with a chocolate-making party.
Mid-January's "Cabin Fever Hike" that will be capped off with a bonfire and hot chocolate. And there is usually at least one "Owl Prowl" to figure out "Whoo Goes There"-an evening hike to find elusive nocturnal birds.
Winter is a great time to visit Marshy Point. It can get stifling hot in the summer, and parts of the park are thick with biting flies. Which is why it's a shame more people aren't coming now. On a recent rainy weekday morning, with no event planned, only one visitor came to the center, and he was a friend of Dreier's.
"I would like to see, even on a rainy day, 10 to 15 families coming in to see what's here," Dreier lamented.
He had scarcely uttered those words when a group of 15 people came in. They looked like one big extended family: grandparents, parents, teenagers and little ones, all peering into the tanks and smiling. One said it was his first visit.
Dreier smiled too. You can only talk to a possum for so long.
Marshy Point Nature Center
Marshy Point Nature Center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except on Baltimore County holidays.
It's located at 7130 Marshy Point Road, Middle River, MD, 21220.