Saturday, September 10, 2011

241. Arlington: Menotomy Rocks Park

I looked at the map and decided that due to the postage-stamp size of the place, I might have to walk the trails at Menotomy Rocks Park twice to get in a half hour, which would be good. It would give me extra time to figure out what a Menotomy was.

I am an idiot.

I started out by Hills Pond, and wound around its edges. Up into the woods I went, and started to realize that my eyes were deceived by the map. Menotomy Rocks Park - named for the early name of Arlington and the rocks that dominate the park - was much bigger in practice than theory. For that, I was glad.

And what a band of merry-goers was here today! Two girls played on a huge rope swing dangling from a supporting tree. Moms and dads watched over bands of kids climbing the rocks mostly for acknowledgment from their parents. A young boy fished in the pond while his mom sat nearby reading a book, supportive of her son's pusuits, but also thankful for the few moments of escape she could get from diving into frivolous fiction. Benches throughout the park offered views, of woods, of water, of rocks.
Vandals had struck here in the past, but I decided that I was just glad they weren't followed by the Goths and Visigoths (that's my second Ancient Rome joke this year, and, I promise, my last). I left with a wonderful amount of appreciation for all that the Friends of Menotomy Rocks Park had done to create and maintain this special place.

240. Watertown: Dr. Paul Dudley White Bike Path

Now that I think of it, I suppose I should have expected more from a town named Watertown, and should not have been surprised by the passage of boats on the waterway to my left as I walked.

I definitely have a blank spot in my knowledge of certain parts of the state, although I'm taking on a little project this year to try to correct that problem. Perhaps you've heard of it.
The bike path I followed followed the Charles River. I was dinged off the path by a woman on a bike with a nasty little bell she seemed to constantly be ringing annoyingly. I hadn't been thinking about boats when I saw the first one approaching me from behind out of the corner of my eye. Whoa! A boat? Out here? Say it ain't so!
It so.
The path eventually opened up to a wide vista of the river, and I could see that the lone boat was not a lone boat. There were other small cabin cruisers heading in the same direction, upriver, under Route 20. Coming out from under the bridge, kayakers and scullers slowed to deal with the wakes of the larger boats before continuing on. Soon, full rowing teams stroked into view. The Charles was alive and rocking.
Hmm, Watertown. Now I get it.

239. Brookline: Larz Anderson Park

Finally, a return to the scene of the crime.
No one was ever charged for the crime, and no one ever actually committed it. But I was definitly the victim. A few decades ago - and let me state here and now that I never thought I would be old enough to say those words in relation to my own life - my mother brought our little family to Larz Anderson Park. I had no idea where it was. I just knew it as a place of slides and baseball fields and kites and Weaver batter-dipped chicken drumsticks.
The last time we were there was the last time I was there, and it ended traumatically for a seven-year-old. I was wearing my new straw cowboy hat, purchased, I believe, at Six Gun City in New Hampshire. I was standing near the backstop of the baseball field, simply playing, being a kid, when the bees attacked. Two of them stung me simultaneously on the side my head, very close to my left eye. I dropped the hat and ran for my mom, crying uncontrollably as I went. She magically produced ice and starting the hugging and healing process.
Meanwhile, my brother, all of 5, ran toward the scene of the disaster. He returned with my hat and a story of beating up two kids who tried to walk away with it, although we were clearly the only people in the entirety of the park. No wonder he became a cop.
So here I was, back to see the park for the first time in more than 30 years. The Boston skyline loomed over the ridge in the distance, willow trees dangled over ponds with fountains tumbling and the auto museum stood atop the hill.
I didn't remember any of it.

238. Boston: Boston Nature Center

If there's one thing I enjoy about walking Mass Audubon's trails, it's spying on my colleagues. Let me explain.

Public programming for naturalists can be a challenge. Think about it! How many people do you think will come back week after week to a wildlife sanctuary or nature center to learn about the world around them if there was no pizzazz in the presentation, no hook to bring them back in? Anybody can throw together a catalog of programs and hope for the best, but it's those folks who watch trends, understand the competition and market accordingly who attract the best crowds. Even then, it's a matter of message delivery. But that's another story.

So, at Mass Audubon's Boston Nature Center (on August 24), I put on my spy goggles. I reached for program catalogs and watched the way staff interacted with the kids gathered for the day's programs. I examined bilingual signs in the woods on the trail, and thought about how I would interpret this place if I was an educator here and not in Marshfield. I'll admit it. I stole some ideas from them. But that's a good thing. We're lucky, being a statewide system, to have so many fantastic, dedicated educators working together, so far apart, willing to share our best practices. I only hope they all know they can steal from me any time they want.

On the trail, on the grounds of the old state mental hospital, a muddy brook ran past me on my left as the leaves on the trees suddenly turned upwards with a gust of wind. Was rain on the way? Eh, even if it washed me out, it had already been a great day.

237. Gosnold: Penikese and Cuttyhunk

Aha, my ace in the hole.

I'm privileged in my fulltime work to have the opportunity to share a specific bank of my own personal knowledge. I lead trips - sometimes two, sometimes just one per year - to Cuttyhunk and Penikese Islands at the end of the Elizabeth Islands chain off Woods Hole and Falmouth. Since the rest of the Elizabeth Islands are privately held, it's the only way to visit the tiny town of Gosnold.

The islands are a study in contrasts. Cuttyhunk has a sizable population, relatively, numerous homes, some even year-round, and a harbor filled with boats of all sizes in summer. Penikese is a former leper colony and until very recently hosted a school for boys that was off-limits to the general public.

We visited both on August 21, my co-leader Ian and I, interpreting the histories of both islands, sharing everything we had about these two special places. We walked on Penikese to the spot where the leprosarium began, where Louis Agassiz held his naturalist training courses, where the lepers were buried; we walked on Cuttyhunk to Barges Beach, to the town center, up to the top of Lookout Hill.

For this project, it was an all-day adventure to mark off one town out of 351, but I'd do it all again. And on September 11, I will.

236. Methuen: Nevins Bird Sanctuary

I finally reached my destination for the day, the little bat-shaped town of Methuen. The library would be so happy.

I found the Nevins Bird Sanctuary pretty quickly and readily, thanks to pictures I had seen of it on the internet. To enter, I had to walk down a set of railroad tracks, over a bridge through which I could see the water below.

Unfortunately, I spent most of my time on the phone. I was double-booked for the evening, a meeting on the South Shore and a lecture on the North Shore, so I took in the former via conference call.

And so it was that I was on the phone when my fourth snake of the day decided to make a slither for it. My heart jumped when I heard the movement at my feet and knew it was definitely not a garter snake. Nope, much bigger. I high-stepped, practically dropped the phone, and watched as a water snake, easily two feet long, sprinted for the edge of the small bridge and dove into the water. It looked like someone had pushed a stick out over the edge of a cliff and let it drop when gravity deemed it was time. The snake tilted like a seesaw and dropped into the water with a loud splash. Through it all, I could not say a word. I watched as it swam away, unable to work my camera with my phone in one hand.

From what I could see of it, and sight was the main sense I could dedicate to it, the sanctuary was full of bird life, from white-breasted nuthatches to belted kingfishers. Soon, I left the meeting, left the sanctuary, remembered everything I had ever known about lighthouses, changed my clothes and went to the Nevins Memorial Library to talk before a crowd. No one there ever knew what my day had entailed. To them I looked as fresh and crisp as if I'd just stepped out of the shower and put on my fancy lecturin' clothes.

It was my reverse superhero moment. I had changed from The Wanderer back to Clark Kent, mild-mannered maritime historian, able to leap water snakes in a single bound.

235. Haverhill: Winnekenni Park

Well, all of Rome was at the baths today! I had never seen so many cars parked in one area related to an open space parcel. Not everybody was walking the woods, but many, many were. It's obvious that Winnikenni is a community gem.

Wildlife usually stays at bay during these times, opting to hide or skulk or retreat when humans overwhelm the landscape (others acclimatize and accept handouts). Chimney swifts flew overhead and a few Canada geese honked over the water of Kenoza Lake, but they were pretty well otherwise alone.

And who could blame them? At one point I was walking on the wide trail, staying well to one side to accomodate two young women approaching from the other direction. We exchanged hellos and I was instantly hit smack in the face with a blast of fruity perfume. PHEW! My immediate thought, as I trued to regain full consciousness, was of the 8-foot, 2-second rule publishers use when designing their covers for their books. It has to catch you as you glance at the shelf walking by in a book store, from eight feet away for two seconds.

If it had that affect on me, what would it do to a chickadee? Luckily, I'll never have to know. Heck, I rarely even wear deoderant. Just ask my wife.

234. Merrimac: Lake Attitash

Hmm, there was something strange about the town logo for Merrimac, especially when placed next to the one from Amesbury. A covered carriage, faing to the left, without a horse, rimmed by the name of the town and its incorporation date.

There is, of course, an easy explanation. Amesbury and Merrimac were both once part of Salisbury, but broke away together in 1666. Then in 1876, on the one hundredth anniversary of our fight for independence from the tyranny of England, West Amesbury broke awayfrom the tyranny of Amesbury (really just an economic thing as the village had reached self-sustainability) and became Merrimac.

None of that helped me in my search for open space today. I tried to get into the Indian Head Park and Wells Site, but found a big closed sign on the way in. So, I did what I've often done in Massachusetts this year, I headed for the water. I found Lake Attitash, and walked around the neighborhood adjoining the boat launch area, which included a protected wetland. In all, it was a nice break from the humidity of the woods.

233. Amesbury: Amesbury Town Forest

Oh, the woods, the woods! Eight towns in, I didn't want this day to end.

I wandered down to a powerline that runs through the Amesbury State Forest, and immediately turned back. Been there and done that today, and numerous times in the past. Not that there's anything wrong powerlines, as I've stated before. I just knew there was more to find in the woods.

First of all, there was plenty of red squirrel scaring to do. I didn't set out to do it, I wasn't planning on making any squirrel uncomfortable, but apparently I'm just what the red squirrels think of when they tell their youngsters about monsters. But I often wonder about their senses. Gray squirrels hide on the other side of the tree at a human's approach. Red squirrels stand their ground and start squawking, and they're half the size of the grays.

As that little game played out around me, a squeak, a jump and a squawk, I moved to Char's Hillock and to the intersection of Lion's Brook, Skunk Cabbage and Ashley Brook. And I could see that Bear Wall wasn't far away. I meandered, taking them all in.
As I walked, a bug flew inches from my face, causing me to lurch, but not swat. I looked towards its destination and saw where it was going. A bald-faced hornet's nest. I stood back and looked through my binoculars, but decided not to linger. Stings are not my thing. Luckily, for me, it had rained recently. When things are dry late in the summer and bees - bald-faces are technically yellowjackets - can't find food, they get very aggressive and can sting multiple times. Believe me, I know. The lushness of the forest allowed them to concentrate on their needs, and not turning their wrath on me. I took the opportunity to escape while they were distracted.

232. West Newbury: Mill Pond Area

Well, now I have seen everything.

I had to see a few more things before I could officially make that statement. I set off down the trail, past an old building that reminded me of pictures I'd seen of old boat clubs from the 1920s and 1930s. I walked past a sign that I had to stop and read twice: "Horse & Dog Wading Area 500 ft. south." Huh? Are they serious?

So I walked, 500 feet south to the foot. And there it was, another sign telling me that I'd made it. But without horses and dogs around, I couldn't really make any call as to the sign's validity. So I walked on, knowing I'd be coming back this way.

Out on the water, a woman in a kayak had two yelping, swimming dogs sharing her day with her. She passed from my sight, briefly, as I entered the woods, though the dogs were certainly audible at all times. They were offset by eastern wood-pewees that seemed to be forming a communication chain through the woods, like one car alarm setting off another. I wandered through the beautiful little patch of forest for what seemed like hours, stopping once every few moments to admire another view.

As I headed back toward the wallowing area, I took note of a particularly well-endowed young woman with a chocolate lab (author's note: I've prided myself on my powers of observation and accurcacy in reporting, and do not see any reason to change my style now. It was definitely not a black lab). A few bounding steps, and the dog was in the water, turned to face its owner, who had a tennis ball at the ready.

Yep, that was some good wading that dog was doing.

231. Groveland: Veasey Memorial Park

I was only in a play once, and it wasn't even a live performance. Several members of my senior class wanted to do a taped performance based on a work by Mark Twain and they needed one more body, someone to play...Mark Twain. They dressed me up in a white suit, powdered up a white wig and slapped a droopy white mustache on my face and nudged me out on stage. I only had one line to deliver.

Those memories came back to me at Veasey park in Groveland. I walked through the woods, down a hill and into a gorgeous little pine grove, called...the Grove. There had been a recent small campfire, and out on the water of the adjoining pond I could see four men in a small boat, fishing. The sun was shining, there was no traffic noise, and the few birds that were still active - a downy woodpecker, two tufted titmice and a white-breasted nuthatch accompanying the ubiquitous chickadees - were chattering softly in the background.

It was at that moment that my line came back to me. And I did exactly what it called for.

"I set still and listened."

I love summer in Massachusetts.

230. Georgetown: Georgetown-Rowley State Forest

My frog-scaring ritual continued. As I walked into the Georgetown-Rowley forest I came across more puddles - in the middle of the trail, mind you, where I'm supposed to be, and not the frogs - and sent more and more of the little green monsters splashing into the muddy abysses.

Catching a patch of sunlight, I came across a spectacular little dragonfly, the ruby meadowhawk, or as my friend David calls it, the Sympetrum rubicundulum. No, he's not from ancient Rome. He just had the misfortune of getting to know dragonflies before anybody decided to give them easily memorable names in English. When we're out on the trails together, doing dome odes work, I'll point one out. "David - common white-tail?" And he'll shout back, "How do I know? It's Plathemis lydia, if that helps."

So I did my act-like-a-tree-and-stand-wicked-still routine and began to stalk the dragonfly. I looked around before each step to be sure I wouldn't spook any more snakes and finally grabbed my shot. Yes! My first ruby meadowhawk photograph. I figure I can file it under "R" for both ruby and rubicundulum, and keep everybody happy.

229. Ipswich: Willowdale State Forest

With Saugus, Lynn and Lynnfield out of the way, I shot to the northeast a bit to continue my quest. Ultimately, I had plans to reach Methuen. I had to. The library was expecting me. More on that later.

A few feet down the trail, I did it again, spooked another snake. A few feet beyond that, I found a dead field mouse, and wondered if they were somehow connected. I took my hat off my head and realized it weighed about a pound from sweat. The library wouldn't like that. I kept walking anyway.

There was no denying it was summer, sweat aside (I can generate that much sweat in mid-December. Just put a snow shovel in my hands and watch my smoke). No, there were other clues. Chipmunks were scooting around everywhere, and had quickly become the most dominant species of the day for me. Green frogs burped from the woods, and I spied a pond down to my left that was so thick with green scum that I had peripherally mistaken it for forest floor. A deer bounded away upon seeing me (not that that is a particularly summer phenomenon). The sweet pepperbush was in bloom everywhere, giving the forest a fragrance that would last for a few short days.

At one point I wandered around a large puddle, listening to the frogs squeak and splash upon my appearance into their glade, and found myself at the edge of an enormous swamp. To my right, a Canada warbler sang. A great blue heron flew off a branch and disappeared deeper into the swamp.

When I turned to leave, I spooked another garter snake! Geez! Sometimes, they're so big, their noise makes you jump. I was getting to that point.

228. Lynnfield: Kallenburg Quarry

As much as I enjoy a good statue or a revered piece of stone architecture, quarries make me sad. Believe it or not, I don't get heartbroken over a tree being cut down, at least not on the small scale. Yes, denude several acres, and you've lost a friend in me, but lose a tree to a storm, cut one down and replant two more, and it's all good. Trees have finite lives anyway, and can be replaced. But when we blast a ledge to create additional parking spaces at a restaurant, we're permanently altering nature. That rock isn't growing back.
The old quarry land in Lynnfield features a stand-alone fireplace, with no house around it, and then trails to a powerline that puts one almost on top of the world, at least as far as coastal Massachusetts goes. I found a rock upon which to sit atop the hill, and took in my surroundings. At my feet was a coast and geodetic survey marker. the powerlines, which looked like parallel ski lifts, reached down to a major, slow-moving highway, and for a brief moment, I felt sorry for every person in every one of those cars - and that is a remarkable achievement for a Massachusetts driver who has to share the roads with them all on a regular basis.

In the distance, I could see a bright blue pond. The green areas around it, and spreading as far as the eye could see, were covered with goldenrod. I could have sat and watched for hours.

Back in the woods, I spooked a snake, apparently out to get some sun after all the rain of the past few days. I then noticed some odd graffiti on a flat wall of rock. Someone had drawn a perfect representation of an AT-AT, one of those huge four-legged walking robots from The Empire Strikes Back. Hmm, Star Wars graffiti, three decades after the movies came out.

There's a lot I'll never understand about Lynnfield. But I sure was glad to visit.

227. Lynn: Great Woods Reservation

Another Great Woods? I thought the one down in Mansfield was the only one we had. And another Walden Pond? Ok, who came first, the chicken or Henry David Thoreau? I'm so confused.

Best way to beat that? Go for a walk! I headed up the trail at the Great Woods Reservation in Lynn, avoiding the ditches created in the gravel by the recent rains. It meant a lot of wandering the trails from side to side, but I eventually got where I wanted to go.

And that was never really a primary stated goal, having a destination. I had no idea where I was going. I was just walking until I saw a sign that said "tower." Hmm, I thought, I dig towers, as I watched a chipmunk scurry up a tree and disappear inside it.

I was not disappointed. From the top of the tower I could the Boston skyline, Revere Beach, and a half dozen water towers above the trees to the west. I also picked out an old fire tower that was obviously no longer in use, as its ladders didn't reach anywhere near the ground. That's when my phone rang. I booked a date to give a lecture, then began the walk down the hill, which was not nearly as strenuous as the one up to the tower. An idea then struck me, my next book idea: Half an Hour a Day on Foot: Just the High Points. Oh, the possibilities...

226. Saugus: Breakheart Reservation

So it's August 16th. I'm back from Montana, it's been raining for two days, and I'm on antibiotics for a virus I somehow picked up over the last weekend. Must mean it's time to go to Saugus.
I still haven't figured out how to predict my state parks experiences in Massachusetts. It seems that there have to be political pushes and pulls at work. Some parks are neglected, shut down, forgotten, perfectly delightful places where Massachusetts residents should have the right to walk, to hike, to swim, closed because of apparent budgetary issues. Then, I find places like Breakheart, uniformed staff up front and visible, open trails, frequently refreshed bulletin boards and clean facilities. Is it proximity to Boston, or is it simply proximity to large blocks of influential voters?
The constant hum of a television news truck faded into the distance as I walked away from the parking area and into the woods, and away from all thoughts of politics - thank god. I heard my favorite frying beetles again (cicadas singing, and not what my mother always told me they were; it took me until I was 40 to question her definition). The main trail, paved, wound between hills covered with loose, large rocks and under young trees that bent over the road in a reach for sunlight. Croaking green frogs called from what were obviously wet places beyond the walls of the trees.
I usually don't care for paved roads through the woods, but I have to admit, under the circumstances - the rain, the allergies, the virus - it was nice to get an easy start to what would be an eleven-town day.

225. Boxford: Boxford State Forest

For many birders on the South Shore, the Boxford State Forest is known as the first stop on the "Century Run." That's a cute name for a "Big Day," which is a cute name for trying to score 100 bird species in a single day. I always found it funny that Soth Shore birders felt they had to go to the North Shore to see that much variety, but hey, what the heck did I know.

So they stop, listening for owls in the Boxford State Forest. My first experience here was to hear not an owl, but my first ever winter wren, which, if you haven't heard one, is a breathtaking experience. And not like the Doctor at the beach house thought Elaine was breathtaking on Seinfeld, but in the literal sense. They sing for 5 to 10 seconds, and here in the east they sing approximately 16 notes per second! You have to wonder how this tiny bird, weighing no more than 2/5 of an ounce, can hold on for so long.

But that's in spring, when mates are on the loose. My walk today in Boxford featured the American goldfinches, black-capped chickadees and cedar waxwings that seem to be everywhere in Massachusetts these days. It also involved sunshine, a small pond, broken glass, "no swimming" signs and wondering where I could sign up for the next "Century Run."