Thursday, March 24, 2011

84. Milton: Great Blue Hill

I finished my morning of walking with another old familiar trail, the hike to the top of Great Blue Hill.

It's one of the most vertical trails I've ever walked. And me, being gravitationally challenged (for those of you in the Boston area, that's fancy talk for "wicked fat"), well, I felt every foot in elevation. It's incredible how just that change in incline from a normal flatlander's path to a hillside works a completely different set of muscles, and tires one out so much quicker.

Beyond that fact, there's the trail itself. It's heavily rocky, and that's the way it should be. The hill is studded with chunks of blue rock, hence the name of the range, the Blue Hills, and if there had been an attempt in the past to clear the trail of it, it didn't take. And that's not surprising, considering that gravity thing I mentioned earlier. I'm sure the footing on the trail is constantly changing as rocks tumble and fall, pushed and pulled by the whims of rain, snow and mud. It's as nature intended.

The goal for me on this trail is always the Eliot observation tower, named for the man whose vision shaped the Massachusetts state park system. A short walk around the corner brings one to the Rotch observatory, from which come all the weather updates we hear on the radio in the Boston area.

The views are worth the walk, from the Boston city skyline to the harbor islands and beyond. A little sweat and heavy breathing? Eh, another day at the office for me.

83. Canton: Mildred Morse Allen Wildlife Sanctuary

Ha! Another trail I could walk in my sleep.

I've gotten to know Mass Audubon's Mildred Morse Allen Wildlife Sanctuary trails well over the past decade or so. You might know the property as the Visual Arts Center. By any name, it's a wonderful place.

I first met this land when working on a pictorial history of New England's largest environmental organization, Images of America: Mass Audubon. I learned about the amazing life of Ms. Allen, a woman I'm sad I never met, through her artwork, her photography, her films, and, ultimately her donation of land and funds to create this special entity we have today. At about 180 acres of open space with indoor facilities dedicated to art education, it's the perfect place to study art and its connections to the natural world.

But, like all natural places, it has its potential for moments of true individual discovery. I wasn't on the Main Loop Trail for more than five minutes when I ran into my moment. "What in the name of Mildred Morse Allen happened here?" was all I could think. There, before me, in the heart of the trail, was a classic woodlands forensics scene. Thick tufts of gray fur, some hairs pure white, the gray tipped in orangey-brown, covered a ten-foot by four-foot patch. And it was thick, and long. There had obviously been a confrontation of some kind. And it wasn't a squirrel, lest today that squirrel is today wandering around the sanctuary completely naked. My first thought was gray foxes or coyotes.

I looked for clues of a getaway, for there was no carcass, no obvious loser left on site. There was more fur snagged in the brush on both edges of the trail. This fight didn't stay on the path by any means. But I could find no more clues. I guess I'll never know. If two coyotes fight to the death in the woods and no one's around to hear it, do they make any noise?

The whole experience was one that focused my senses. I realized that rather than just ambling down a trail, I was hyper-alert, eyes darting around, mind racing. I wanted to figure the scene out.

And I wanted to thank Mildred Morse Allen for leaving this gift for all to enjoy.

81 & 82: Avon and Brockton: D.W. Field Park

It's really incredible, when one sits down to think about it (or does so while walking, which is usually what I do; sitting down in the woods during a muddy spring is no fun), how much of our open space has to do with water. I've met more town water towers this year than I ever thought I would. I'm assuming that they're on the tops of hills for their gravitational advantages, and not just because communities can paint their towns' names on them as a "you are here" indicator.

But it's also the old municipal water supplies that make up many parks today. In some instances, those places are retired, as towns have found alternative sources, or have needed larger sources of drinking water. In other instances, park infrastructure has been simply built around those active water supplies with stern warnings to stay out of the water itself. The northern half of D.W. Field Park, in Avon, is dominated by just such a body of water, called the Brockton Reservoir.

The rest of the park, extending into Brockton to the south, is defined by Waldo Lake (the donor of the land was Daniel Waldo Field, a captain of the shoe industry in Brockton), Upper and Lower Porter Ponds, Thirty-Acre Pond and Ellis Brett Pond. Field donated the land in 1925, feeling that a town needed both industry and open space to be considered a success to its inhabitants. His gift remains the crown jewel of the city today.

It's been a long time since I've seen as many dedicated walkers on the paths as I did today. There were no dogs to be seen; these folks were just out for the exercise and enjoyment of a good, solid, healthy walk. They were treated to sunshine, spring peepers, numerous species of ducks on the ponds and a snow goose, which, unfortunately, looked a little bit too much on the domesticated side, but we'll see whether or not it sticks around for the summer or flies north to breed.

I'm chalking this one up to "pleasant surprise." I knew Brockton for its excellent high school football program, Rocky Marciano, Marvelous Marvin Hagler and its fantastic late Victorian era architecture, that being the height of the shoe industry in southeastern Massachusetts. D.W. Field Park will now pop instantly to mind when someone asks me what I like most about Brockton.

80. Holbrook: Holbrook Town Forest

Holbrook Town Forest, where have you been all my life?!

Actually, we go back two years, the forest and me. I walked a portion of it during my first grand year-long walking experiment in 2009. The difference was that I entered it from a different access point the first time around. This day's adventure (March 22) was all new.

This place has everything! A cellar hole, stonewalls, little brooks that interrupt the path, smooth-barked beech trees with fading leaves, exorcised tufted titmice ranting in a witch hazel grove, and some nice, freestanding boulders. I dig glacial erratics.

If there is one drawback, it's the constant hum of the nearby electric behemoth run by NSTAR. Its presence, though, creates a powerline scrub-shrub habitat, which is actually quite beneficial to local wildlife. It's a habitat that's vanishing almost as quickly as farmland in Massachusetts, and powerline corridors are almost the only things keeping birds like prairie warblers coming back to Massachusetts to breed.

I stood at the edge of that corridor and took it all in, the grackles, the cardinals, the flickers, the blue jays, the edge of one habitat giving way to another, on the edge of one season giving way to the next.


Monday, March 21, 2011

79: Acushnet: New Bedford Reservoir

I've gotten used to the "No Trespassing" signs on the South Coast of Massachusetts. It's almost epidemic in the region. But I was disappointed when I followed the directions to the one piece of open space I could find in Acushnet and found just such a sign at the trailhead. So I headed for the nearest body of water.

The ponds of the New Bedford Reservoir are now polluted, according to a sign in the parking lot that divides the three bodies of water. Specifically, they outlaw swimming and wading. These ponds once supplied New Bedford with an emergency water supply, but that's no longer the case. New Bedford turned the ponds over to Acushnet, and the town has begun studies to determine the extent of the system's health and or lack of same. A concrete slab platform that once apparently held a small building, probably connected with the waterworks, sits surrounded by volunteer trees that have shot up around its edges.

Yet something was going right here today. Canada geese and mute swans swam on the water's surface, the latter dipping their heads low to tug on the vegetation below. Spring peepers - my first of the year - sounded off, heralding the season for which they are named. Aesthetically, these ponds are holding their own, and nature has not yet given up on them. Here's to hoping the good people of Acushnet can tackle the pollution problem and fully restore the beauty of this wonderfully natural place.

78: Fairhaven: West Island State Reservation

Back to the good stuff.

I reached Fairhaven and West Island not knowing exactly what to expect. Typically a Massachusetts state reservation on the ocean means huge parking lots and beach access. I was nonplussed (not that I've ever been plussed, to my knowledge) when reaching the end of Causeway Road and finding myself facing dense woods. Nevertheless, I dove in.

The wide trails here made for excellent walking, and probably help keep down Lyme disease in the area, if in a small way. Signs warn of deer ticks when you walk in. Staying far from the vegetation on the sides of the trails helps to keep them somewhat, if not entirely, at bay.

At one point, though, I had to pull myself over and do some inspection. I found two trees, side-by-side, surrounded by piles of freshly stripped wood. Porcupine damage! The only other thought I had was woodpeckers, but none operate like this, and there were no drill holes anywhere on the trees. If it's not porcupines, I'll eat my hat, and pick my teeth clean with a porcupine quill.

Eventually, if you have a nose for the ocean like me, the trail will emerge onto a sandy shore. From where I stood, I could see the Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge, and therefore Bourne, where I've already been this year. I surmised then, though, that I could also see Falmouth. Grrrr...that's one that's still on my list.

But I couldn't summon the negative energy to shake a fist across the bay. It was just so beautiful.

77: Mattapoisett: Tinkham Forest

There are some things you just wish you didn't see when tackling a project like this one, but there's no hiding the facts when you do.

The Tinkham Forest came as a gift to the people of Mattapoisett in 1968, and in recent years has become quote a controversial piece of real estate. The problem mainly stems from the fact that the selectmen in Mattapoisett see the land as just that: real estate. A developer has asked, the selectmen have determined a price, and were ready to sell before a cry arose.

In my humble opinion, the notion of selling land given as a gift to a community with the intention that it would be open forever is incorrigible.

But there are deeper problems with the forest. The first I saw was the dirt bike that blasted out of it past me. I will say, though, that whether ornot that is a problem for the people of Mattapoisett depends on the community's definition of the space; if they choose to allow ORVs (off-road vehicles) in their open spaces, as long as they fall within state and federal laws, that is their choice. I can tell you, though, that if the intention is to let nature be nature, off-road vehicles have no place in the woods. Against exhaust fumes and the destructive trampling of tires, woodland creatures just don't stand a chance.

Second, there's the trash. Mattapoisett is not the only place in Massachusetts with these concerns, of course. Somebody, most likely several somebodys, is using the entry road to the forest as their personal dump. Old televisions, computer monitors, mattresses, toilet seats and other scattered junk sit in huge piles off to the sides of the road. It's disheartening to see, to say the least.

What was heartening was the call of the wood frogs I heard clucking from a small wet area just inside the woods, the first I've heard this year. Nature is persevering, for the moment.

75 & 76: Rochester and Marion: East Over Reservation

I gave myself almost two weeks off between walks, to let the snow melt and the mud dissipate, but the itch finally overwhelmed me. I guess sitting still is not something I should be putting on a resume, as I'm not very good at it.

Oh, I've been busy in between, with board meetings, work, book publishing projects, turning 40, raising my get the picture. And I even managed to do a few of my regularly scheduled walks on the South Shore, but did not get out and forge any new personal trails. That stalemate ended today.

East Over is a two-for, but not in one leg. I had to find both of the separate entrances to the tracts of the Trustees of Reservations' reservation, both of which were quite well marked. In Rochester, the trails wound back and forth through fields and woods and more fields and more woods, a system which kept me happily guessing as I went. All the signs of the old farm were there, from stone walls to wooden fences strung with barbed wire, perfect for keeping sheep or cattle in place and view. In some instances, the barbed wire had bitten into the trees, which consumed them and kept on growing right over it.

There were bluebird boxes and owl pellets, but the wind made sure I saw neither the user of the former nor the producer of the latter.

In Marion, the trails were woodsier and muddier. Long boardwalks led across wet patches and deeper into the woods. No trail map had yet been printed for use on the paths, and that was my downfall today (Saturday, March 19). I ended up spending nearly twice as much time here as I planned, as I got lost. Normally, I don't care, but I did have an afternoon appointment and wanted to be sure I was there on time. But had I not taken the wrong turn, crossed the dirt road and emerged on the far side I would never have seen the log cabin somebody is trying to build, nor the beautiful swampland from which the American black ducks emerged at my what-I-thought-was-silent approach.

I found my way out in the end. and made my appointment. I can also honestly say now that I've seen all of the Hale's Brook Tract of East Over, whether I planned to do so or not.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

74. Plympton: Land Behind the Dennett School

Sigh...I think Plympton beat me. From everything I can see, Plympton does have a town forest, but trying to find that town forest is like looking for a chicken at the bottom of the ocean. And I don't mean tuna, the chicken of the sea. I mean the feathery, clucking kind.

I chanced that the land behind the Dennett School might be it. I went for a walk around the edges of the schoolyard - on a Saturday, of course, to steer clear of the important work of the teachers and students - and found that I could not get into the woods. There is a large wooded parcel behind the school, so the open space does exist, but the best I could do was tiptoe around its edges.

Oh well, I got my half an hour in, which was the key. And Plympton should have plenty of open space in the future, if American trends away from farms continue. It certainly is a beautiful community.

73. Middleborough: Pratt Farm

Fresh out of the driver's seat, BAM! I ran into Bill, an old friend.

Bill used to join our regular Friday morning birding group, but dropped off in recent years, part of the typical ebb and flow of program participation. We chatted about common friends, how so-and-so was doing, when I last saw what's-his-face. It was wonderful catching up with him. I'll always remember the day that he handed me a copy of The Day the World Came to Gander, Newfoundland, one of the best books I've ever read. Thoughtful guy.

He told me I had two options: straight ahead down a long trail or to the left, to a pond. I chose the pond, despite the fact I knew it would still mostly be frozen. Unfortunately, it was the trail itself that was the icy hazard. Every walker I met coming from the other direction was just off the edge of the trail, where the ice had melted. I shared their strategy.

As I crossed a dam that held the pond, after weavihg through fields and orchards and thickets, I thought to myself that at one time, this all made sense. The farmer - I'm assuming it was a Pratt - who laid it out had a method to his design madness. The pond was where it was for a reason, and the field nearby was probably located based on the positioning of that pond.

Today, of course, it makes no sense, because it doesn't have to. It's open space, with many varied habitats, offering homes to innumerable species of birds, butterflies, salamanders, ants and whatever might want to make Pratt Farm its home.

Bill was gone when I got back, but I'm sure I'll run into him again someday. And I can't wait until I do.

72. Halifax: Stump Brook Wildlife Sanctuary

So I stepped from Burrage to Stumpy. The Stump Brook Wildlife Sanctuary is landlocked, with no dedicated access point of its own, but luckily one of those landlockers is Burrage. If you know where to go, you can trek from one to the other and vice versa with ease.

I had one of the most amazing natural experiences of my life at Stump Brook last spring. While there with my colleague Robert, preparing to conduct an avian study, I caught something from the corner of my eye. "Look!" I whisper-shouted. Several - five? six? - gray fox pups had spotted us, tilted their ears forward and cocked their heads to investigate. "Exhilirating" doesn't even come close to describing the moment.

Today, though, these woods were quiet. I found my rock, the one that helps me relocate the bird study spot, and set still for a few moments. I could hear nothing but the wind, and started to focus on the sights. I never realized how heavy this particular area was with holly trees, or how densely the ground was covered with princess pines.

When I emerged from the woods and went back out to Burrage, the sun slid from behind the clouds again. Weird. But what do I care, it was 50 degrees!

71. Hanson: Burrage Wildlife Management Area

I think it hit fifty. And when I set off on the trail at Burrage, the bright sun was so powerful I had to shut my eyes for a few moments. We just haven't had this kind of sunshine for a while. I'm not complaining.

I wasn't alone on the trails at Burrage, which are mostly the ridge-like dividers between the retired cranberry bogs that make up the hundreds of acres of open space here. There were dog walkers, of course, and even one other guy with binoculars. The biggest surprise was two hunters walking with their rifles casually tossed over their shoulders. It's just not a sight you see very often these days.

It was as if "All of Rome was at the Baths," which included the wildlife. While the whipping wind kept much from happening sky-wise, there was a flock of about 150 snow buntings feeding on one of the bogs, and I watched a muskrat swimming beneath the surface of one of the old channels. It ducked into its lodge, and when it did, it released a few bubbles of air that popped to the top. A great blue heron flew low over the bogs until it found a good spot from which to look for food.

I walked toward an opening in the woods that led to my nest destination, and oddly, as I did so, the clouds overtook the sun.

70. Rockland: Rockland Town Forest

I love walking here. Love, love love it.

I used to live in Rockland, attended my freshman year of high school there, and within the past decade have had the privilege of coauthoring two books on the history of the community with my talented and absurdly knowledgeable friend Don. And this spot is one of those great crossovers of history and nature, with a little bit of both in every step.

Not only that, I get to pretend I'm someone else entirely when I set foot on the trail. To quote Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, "Let me 'splain. No, is too much. Let me sum up."

The Rockland Town Forest, or at least the first few hundred yards of it, was a nursery. When it closed up shop several years ago, the plants were just where they were, free to grow and be wild. The main plant to take advantage of that fact was the spreading yew, you know, the kind we all have next to our doorways at home, the kind we trim every year to keep in check.

Well nobody's keeping these babies in check. They've grown to towering heights and even formed cavernous passages between their rows. All I can imagine when I walk through them is that I'm some small impish creature, as it's the only way this place makes sense. I've often wondered if I should paint my skin blue and call myself Big Johnny Smurf. Probably wouldn't be a good look for me, topless with a floppy white hat and footy pajama bottoms.

Beyond this fantasy land, the town forest extends into a system of trails that are becoming ever more accessible due to the pride and commitment of several local individuals. Bird boxes now peek out along the trail where they didn't even two years ago. It's a work in progress, but something of which every Rockland resident should be proud. Go Bulldogs!

Friday, March 4, 2011

69. Wellesley: Longfellow Pond

With ice still on the ground and a bite in the air, I set off for another walk in an unfamiliar place. It's amazing, though, if one knows a little New England history, how a stranger can feel at home in a place he's never visited.

Take the wildlife, for instance. Well, today, there was barely any of which to speak, besides a few red-winged blackbirds in a tree at the far end of the trail, but just take it anyway. Even without knowing specifics, the average trail walker in Massachusetts recognizes basic sounds: robins, chickadees, cardinals.

Then, take the name of the pond: Longfellow. That's a good, historical, New England-y name. If it wasn't named for that bit of history, it would have a Native American name or something flatly descriptive: long, west, halfway, mill. We, New Englanders, rarely strayed from those tenets when naming our bodies of water.

As if to corroborate my thoughts, the supports for an old ice house popped out of the water at the far end of the pond, just past the bridge over Rosemary's Brook, which I will forever remember as the turnaround point of my walk at Longfellow. Ice ponds were all the rage even just a century ago. Their crews were most productive in winter, cutting and storing ice, for summer revelers along the coast. This particular ice house was run by an outfit called the Metropolitan Ice Company, which went under only when automated home heating and cooling systems came into widespread use in the 1920s.

The story expands outwards. I've visited ice ponds in Abington, Duxbury, Hingham and more. The Wenham Ice Company provided Queen Victoria's favorite ice. The story told here in Wellesley is the same one told in small towns all over Massachusetts, all over New England.

In some ways, my visit to Longfellow was an all new adventure; in other ways, I felt right at home.

68. Newton: Cold Spring Park

Needham, I see your Fit Trail, and raise you the Exer Trail.

What were the chances that two walks in a row, in two separate towns, I would find a dedicated exercise trail set-up? Well, the chances were better than you might think.

Two years agho while walking every day for a half an hour, I made some discoveries about the hows and whys of trail walking. The one that stuck with me most was the notion of the inverse proportionality between friendliness and the proximity to Boston. The farther someone was into the sticks - sometimes literally - the nicer they were. Walk the parks surrounded by the streets of the city, and eye contact is at a premium, hellos unavailable for love or money.

Walking in places like Waltham, Needham, Dedham - you know, the ham towns - I've found that the small sections of open space that are kept for the populace have to be all things to all. Walkers, joggers, birders, dog-walkers, they all have very limited access to open space in the heart of an urban center. So they share. I was, in fact, the only person walking the trail at Cold Spring today (March 2) that did not have a dog.

All that said, I got what I needed, 30 minutes of trees, shrubs, white-throated sparrows, an old rairoad bed, a cold little brook, freedom to think and freedom to roam. And I met a few canines along the way. I'll take that kind of experience any day.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Two Months In

67. Needham: Ridge Hill Conservation Area

By the time I hit Needham, the rain had started to fall. I ducked into the woods to dodge most of it, and was pleasantly surprised to find a Fit Trail.

There are dozens of ways to walk a trail. A straight ahead beeline walk is, of course, very pleasurable. Just ask Henry David Thoreau. A stop-and-smell-the-roses meandering does a soul fine, too. Then there's the Story Walk, the pages of a book being posted on the trail at different intervals. There's questing, or letterboxing. There's one of my favorites, time travel. Picture yourself walking the same woods in 1900, 1800, 1700. Do you see anything different?

Then there's the Fit Trail. Twenty-seven stretches and exercises are spread out along the path on this particular trail, with instructions even on how to travel between them, walking, jogging or running. I found them all, but some components have obviously been taken away for the winter, so I couldn't compete every exercise, even if I wanted to, which I did not. Not today, not in the rain.

I walked back towards what I thought was the trail I had walked into the woods on, and was surprised to run into my second, third and fourth brown creepers of the morning. Wow! I'm usually happy with one or two per year, and here they were in a bunch, a total of 5 this week.

Perhaps I was punch drunk, or creeper happy, when I left the woods, because I missed. I came out into a field, near my goal, but definitely not on it. I plunged. This time around, it wasn't just once, or once every few steps. It was every step, and it was over my knee. With every step, to extract myself, I had to bring my knee almost to my chest. After 70 steps or so in the heavy rain, I finally reached the pavement. Now that's how you get fit.

There's also a good lesson to be learned in an exercise like this one, about making sure your pockets on your jackers are zipped so you don't have to retreat through the deep snow to find your cellphone.

Like I did.

66. Dedham: Wilson Mountain Conservation Area

The trail at Wilson Mountain, well, as far as I could see there was no trail. No one had ventured here in recent days but the wildlife, and the deer had made quite a show of themselves. Their tracks cris-crossed the path - or at least what I figured had to be the path - even intersecting at times with mouse tracks.

I decided to add my own. There would be no doubting that I, or at least a human with a size 11 1/2 boot, had been there. I plunged. I plunged with about every fifth step on average, about eight inches in depth. I never knew which leg was going down when, but they did.

Despite this obstacle, I decided to head upwards, to find out what the allure of Wilson Mountain really was. I should have known. Water tank! My unwitting quest continues.

As I plunged my way back down, I realized that my left foot was getting cold. When I could, I extracted my foot from the snow and looked. The upper on my left L.L. Bean boot - only two years old - had torn at a seam and the snow was getting through. Nothing I could do but walk on.

At one point, I decided to test something I had read about in The Book of General Ignorance. Urban legend says that water has no color, that it's clear. But that's not true. It has a faint blue tint, and one of the best ways to tell is to look deeply into a hole in the snow. My plunge-prints proved to be plenty deep to see the truth.

And there it was.

65. Westwood: Lowell Woods

Sigh...back to the snow.

It's been funny over the past few days (these walks took place on February 28). We've had several inches of snow in the Boston area, but we're at the point where unless it's eight inches or more, we don't only skip the snowblower, we don't even shovel the snow. We're resigned to walking on it and in it, knowing that collectively we fought the good fight in January, and that the major thawing is already underway.

The trail at Lowell Woods was well-packed, obviously heavily used in recent days. I could see why and by whom about halfway down the trail. I was accosted by a pair of black labs, one a puppy. Is there anything more excitable in life than a young dog trying to make new friends? The owner kept apologizing for the attack, but I loved it.

The woods here are just that, thick woods. Lots of pine, lots of beech, lots of oak and lots of noise from Route 128. The regular woodland dwellers were around, the nuthatches and the chickadees, and they had one surprise guest, a brown creeper. I'm on a creeper hot streak, having just seen one down the Cape. But this one had a bonus: it was singing. Of all the songbirds in the eastern half of the United States, the creeper has one of the shortest seasonal song windows. It could be missed very easily. Glad I got mine in for the year today.