Take loads of water, mix in fertile ground and you get the ideal conditions for a flower garden. Oswego County has so much of these ingredients it’s a botanist’s dream. And the best place to see its vivid landscapes is the Three Mile Bay/ Big Bay Wildlife Management Area on the northwestern shore of Oneida Lake.
Granted, my claim these WMAs are the best wild gardens is subjective…at best. But I feel I can get away with it because vast tracts of colorful flora line the roads in and around the place. You can take a color tour without ever stepping out of the car.
Toad Harbor Road (off NY 49, three miles east of Central Square’s I-81 exit 32) runs right down the middle of the WMAs, weaving through a patchwork of farms, forests, private residences, boat liveries and marshes. A squeaky-clean golf course straddles the road when you first get on, then the road dips just beyond the manicured lawns and makes a short jaunt through a painted swamp.
Late April punctuates this stretch of wetland with clusters of yellow flowers clinging to any dry land they can get a toe-hold on. Splashes of red and white trilliums wash the gentle slopes surrounding the lowland.
Climbing out of the swamp, turning left onto McCloud Road, runners of adders-tongues line the shoulders of the road up to the culvert that drains the swamp into the lake at the boat livery.
A few hundred feet beyond the boat livery and campground is the WMA’s golden gate (it’s closed at night in summer to protect the delicate habitat), where the real garden begins.
Off to the right the land dips gently towards Oneida Lake. Etched in a tangled web of rutted access roads, its wild shoreline bears the scars of heavy storms and logger’s axes. The place is littered by huge trunks and windfalls, with monster boulders strewn around like some mythological giant had a tantrum. A variety of ferns and other wetland plants thrive here. Next month, yellow iris will punctuate the mangled landscape, and later still bullhead–lilies will bob in the shallow waves just off shore.
On the high side to the left, the openings are carpeted in a sculptured rug of grape hyacinths, daffodils, adders-tongues and tiny white anemone-like wonders. As the woods gets thicker, the floor yellows in adders-tongues.
The textures and colors of the forest floor constantly change throughout the warm weather months. As summer ages, an incredible explosion of yellow and orange touch-me-nots will cover the entire area and cardinal flowers will peak out of the muddy shoreline.
The nicest thing about an area blessed with such a marvelous mix of marsh, forest, fields and water’s edge habitats is there’s always something coming up. And if you look close enough, over the skunk cabbage and through the violets, you might catch a jack-in-the-pulpit staring back at you or a lady’s-slipper in the shade.