Tennant Lake Park offers glimpse of marsh life

A creek at Tennant Lake Park is covered in cattails pond lillies, and wild iris at dawn in May.
A creek at Tennant Lake Park is covered in cattails pond lillies, and wild iris at dawn in May. The Bellingham Herald

Recent rebuilding of the raised boardwalk at Tennant Lake Park and Fragrance Garden makes the 1.4-mile trail through the fields and wetlands an enjoyable stroll that’s as much a feast for the nose and ears as it is for the eyes.

Tennant Lake is a 624-acre site that includes the shallow lake, a marsh, open fields, forest, and streamside habitat along the Nooksack River. It’s a Whatcom County park, although adjacent lands are managed by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The loop trail offers a fascinating stroll through the swamp to a viewing site surrounded by water lilies at the edge of the lake. It’s a great introduction to the plants and animals of a swamp, and is perfect for schoolkids, tots and families with children in strollers. The new boardwalk was built atop the old one, which was frequently flooded by high water and often slippery.

Sit quietly along the path and watch the creatures of the marsh go about their routines. Tiny fish dart around in the shallows; water striders skim along, their slender feet riding the surface tension of the water; whirligig beetles swirl in circles; blue damselflies zoom like tiny helicopters or sun themselves on lily pads.

Listen to the plunks and splashes of waterfowl in the thickets — or was that a beaver? — and to the calls of songbirds as they cluck and trill and sing from the sweet grace shrubs on both sides of the boardwalk. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the tiny marsh wren, which clings to a cattail and chatters with the voice of a bird three times its size.

“Tennant Lake (is) so rich in wildlife, if you can sit still enough to experience it,” said Holly Roger, community programs coordinator for Wild Whatcom, an educational organization that sometimes conducts programs at the park.

On clear days — and especially so at dawn and sunset — there’s an impressive view of Mount Baker to the east. Maybe you’ll see a great blue heron rise from the field on its massive wings and flap toward the water.

Start your trek at the Fragrance Garden, which showcases more than 200 herbs and plants, including woodruff and various kinds of thyme, mint and rosemary. The raised beds are wheelchair-accessible and have a Braille system that provides plant identification for visually impaired people. Gently stroke the leaves and branches of the plants, then sniff your hand for an olfactory experience.

Just past the garden is a 50-foot observation tower that offers a stunning view of the surrounding area. A video camera on the first floor lets people who can’t climb the stairs enjoy the view, too.

Just to the right of the tower is the marsh trail, a dirt path that crosses a footbridge and leads toward the boardwalk. Along the way, look for signs of beaver activity, such as nibbled trees and branches.

Information: Whatcom County Parks and Recreation Department, 360-733-2900. The county’s website was being revamped recently, but some information about Tennant Lake was available at co.whatcom.wa.us/1957/Hovander-Homestead-Park. Check the main site periodically for updates and the possibility of summer classes and guided nature walks.

Getting there: From Interstate 5 exit 262, take West Axton Road (Main Street) west to Hovander Road, which is a sharp left turn just after the railroad bridge. Take the second right, Nielsen Avenue, and drive to the end. Free parking is on the left, near the Interpretive Center and Fragrance Garden.

Reach Robert Mittendorf at 360-756-2805 or robert.mittendorf@bellinghamherald.com. Read his columns at bellinghamherald.com/out-with-kids.