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A watery wonderland, close to home

By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / August 28, 2011

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I PSWICH - They acted like any family enjoying a sunny summer afternoon on the Essex River estuary. Dad took one of the kids out on the marsh to fish or just cruise around. Mom and the other offspring relaxed at home, enjoying the views and sharing some seafood.

The weird thing: There were a dozen of us watching from our kayaks.

This was a family of four ospreys, you see, living in a nest atop a stand near the edge of the water. In truth, we weren’t sure which of these majestic raptors was Mom and which one was Dad, but aside from a few warning “caws’’ they didn’t seem to mind having an audience.

The Trustees of Reservations and Essex River Basin Adventures (a local company widely known as ERBA) have teamed up this year to offer a look at the Crane Wildlife Refuge, a little-traveled part of the statewide conservation organization’s Crane Estate property in Ipswich and Essex.

Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, depending on the weather, a guided kayak tour leaves from a boat launch down a dirt road near the front gate to Crane Beach. The trips are limited to 12 people, ages 10 and older, with first-time kayakers welcome. Advance reservations are required.

From a kayak, “you can see better wildlife,’’ said Chris Sandulli, a sometime Trustees of Reservations volunteer from Ipswich who came along. “We saw those osprey and that’s pretty special. You can paddle up slowly on them.’’

It was 2 p.m. and the tide was falling as guests equipped with water bottles and sunscreen slid into kayaks and pushed out into the Castle Neck River. Several thousand people sat on Crane Beach, a short distance away over the dunes, but they were out of sight and out of mind as we slipped into a channel between walls of marsh grass. The water was flat, the breeze mild, the paddling easy.

“We’ve been wanting to figure out a way to use that boat dock area for a while. We knew we needed help. We don’t know enough about the bay or how to guide, and ERBA is very good at that,’’ Ann Gisinger, visitor services coordinator at Crane Beach, said later.

The series of trips started in June and will run until Sept. 25.

The plan called for us to circle Choate Island in the marsh, best known as the place where scenes for a Hollywood movie, “The Crucible,’’ were filmed in the mid-1990s. It’s one of several islands in this area of the Essex River estuary.

Along with Castle Hill and Crane Beach, the refuge was once part of the summer estate of an early 20th-century industrialist from Chicago, Richard T. Crane Jr., now owned and managed by the Trustees of Reservations. While Crane Beach and the estate’s manor house are popular attractions, relatively few people know what’s back here - not counting the shirtless clammers who blew past us in a couple of skiffs with outboard motors.

“We really want people to see that part of our property, and they don’t get a chance to do that if they just drive in and come to the beach,’’ Gisinger said. “The real benefit for us is encouraging the use of our property.’’

ERBA owner Richard “Ozzie’’ Osborn served as guide, directing us from one side of the channel to the other as we paddled. An Essex native, he’s frequented these waters since childhood. The tide was still going down, the bottom visible, and we had to keep moving. “In half an hour, we wouldn’t be able to get through here,’’ he said.

“It’s a great little place,’’ he said later. “It’s pristine. Having that Trustees property there makes it what it is. It’s so unscathed, and the water is ocean-fed, so it’s really clean.’’

The marine life on display included what we presumed to be a striped bass that broke the surface a couple of times, and the discarded, floating shells of a pair of horseshoe crabs that Gisinger scooped up for use in educational programs.

Bird life was more abundant. We watched the family of ospreys for 10 or 15 minutes as what might have been a flying lesson was conducted over the marsh. But there were also egrets in the shallows, a heron gliding into the marsh, and a pack of turkey vultures circling high above us.

Gisinger pointed out a sand bar populated with dozens of small shorebirds feeding to prep for their long migrations. Osborn listed some of the species visible, ending with “and piping plover, like that one,’’ pointing to a small bird flying just past the bow of our kayaks.

“Mid-August to mid-September is the time when we see the biggest numbers of species,’’ Osborn said. “Another 35 to 40 species come flying through on their migration. That’s another reason to value this place, because it’s a resting-up spot, a feeding spot for those species.’’

“You’re going to learn a lot about the saltwater-marsh ecosystem, a lot about the plants and animals living there, any migratory species of birds,’’ Gisinger said of the tours. “You’re also going to learn about the property as you go around Choate Island. The guys will talk about the history of the island, talk about the historic structures on the island, and even a little about the Trustees, what kind of organization we are, what kind of work we do.’’

“That was our 39th wedding anniversary,’’ Nancy Gantz said on the phone a few days after the trip. The Plymouth resident said she and her husband, Don, are thinking Greece for their 40th, but Ipswich was good for this year’s observance, “not too far to drive.’’

“I love boats, and I know we’ll never own a sailboat, so I think kayaking is the next best thing. You get some exercise and you enjoy the beauty of the outdoors,’’ Gantz said.

“I just thought it would be a nice way to spend the afternoon. I thought it was very well done.’’

As we came full circle back to the launch and pulled our kayaks up onto shore, it was clear Osborn wasn’t kidding about the tide. The channel we’d gone out on was now a plain of mud.

Call 978-380-4319 or e-mail craneprograms@ttor.org to set up the required reservation for a kayak trip; the cost is $45 each, or $35 for Trustees members. Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.