A friend of mine had gone hiking the previous day in the Harold Parker State Forest in Andover, so I decided to check it out. I got lost on the drive up and ended up at Ward Reservation, a conservation area managed by the affluent Trustees of Reservations. I knew that one of the hiking trails through the reservation was the Bay Circuit Trail, so I decided it would be cool to check it out.
I had a great hike, and then another the next day where I’d left off. Then three more hikes during the first week of 2015, finishing Section 3 of the Bay Circuit Trail (there are 14 sections).
This is my trail journal. I’ll be publishing other Section summaries as I hike the remaining sections of the Bay Circuit Trail.
- Date: 12-30-14
- Starting Location: Ward Reservation
- Designation: Skug Reservation (Old Mill)
- BCT Map: Section 3, H to just west of F
- Distance: 3 miles; 6 miles RT back to car
Ward Reservation is at the end of a small road off Rt 125. I parked in the lot and set off to find the Bay Circuit Trail, which crosses the property. I walked through the woods and came out on a vast open hill overlooking the Boston skyline in the distance. Most of Massachusetts is forested, so it’s very striking to come across land that has been purposely left treeless.
I could see the white blazes which mark the route of the BCT ahead at the bottom of the hill, so I made beeline for them and found myself walking along a swath of mowed grass. The field had been recently deforested to provide 15 acres of grassland habitat for rare species, and wood from the clearance was piled in a giant mound in the middle of the field.
The sky was blue and sunny, but the temperature was brisk. The grassland was surround by stone walls, no doubt pulled from the fields by some farmer, long ago. I ambled down the path of discovery that hikers know so well when walking someplace new.
Re-entering forest, I followed the white blazes to a road and started walking down it, only to backtrack after 100 yards when the blazes stopped. I’d missed a blaze and retraced my steps, crossing through a low stone wall.
I heard a barking dog and started seeing houses, thinking to myself “damn, I hate unleashed/unfenced dog encounters on trails that pass close to towns.” I love dogs, but I don’t like it when dogs growl and bark at me on trails, or when their owners threaten to smash my face in when I suggest that they leash them. Thankfully, my fears didn’t materialize and the vista unfolding to my left chased such thoughts from my head.
It was the first of many wetland areas that dominate the landscape on the northern BCT. Terraformed by a thriving beaver population, these areas provide a rich ecosystem in which many bird, mammal, reptile, and fish species thrive.
I think beavers are super cool animals and I love seeing their impact on the landscape, even if it can be disruptive to landowners and conservation organization. They seem unperturbed by humankinds technological advances, habitat encroachment, or population growth and will keep gnawing trees and building dams until the end of the world.
After a short road walk through a residential area, I entered the Mary French Reservation which runs over a boardwalk and through a large marsh full of cat tails, reminding me of similar sections of the Appalachian Trail that I’ve hiked up and down the east coast.
As I walked through the marsh, I remember a passage from a book I’ve been reading that recommends using cat tails as a fire starter, so I harvested some, pulling off some of the cottony fluff and stuffing it in my pant’s pocket. The fluff does take a spark and burns reasonably well, although you need to spread it out fully to give it a lot of air.
The white blazes of the BCT continued into another area called the Skug River Reservation which was much rockier, with a curious density of glacial erratics for an area characterized by low-lying bogs and marsh. I hiked until I came to the foundations of an old mill, before turning around and hiking back to my car before sunset. I knew I’d been swept off my feet – that my imagination had been sparked and that I’d have to return to hike more of the BCT the next day.
Harold Parker State Forest
- Date: 12-31-14
- Starting Location: Jenks Road Lot, Harold Parker State Forest
- Designation: Rt 114
- BCT Map: Section 3; Just west of F to D
- Distance: 4 miles; 8 miles RT back to car
I returned the next day to continue my hike, starting off in the middle of the section I wanted to hike at a parking lot along Jenks Road near the Harold Parker Campground. This is one of the few places where you can camp along the BCT, although it’s closed from October until May. From the Jenks Rd lot, I walked up a tarmac road the intersects the BCT (not marked) and then westward to the mill foundation in the Skug River Reservation where I’d left off the previous day. The blazing was a little sketchy and I took a few wrong turns down intersecting trails, but eventually found my way.
This section of the BCT winds past a plethora of stone outcroppings and glacial erratics, and there is evidence of mountain bike use. The temperatures were in the high 20s, but I walked on forest duff, passing a few low areas that were covered with ice.
Returning back to the tarmac road, I continued eastward into the Harold Parker State Forest. The trails here are numbered and well-blazed which makes route finding easy. The ground was covered with ice in spots, but I was able to bare boot through this section at a fast clip.
- Date: 1-2-15
- Starting Location: Ward Reservation
- Designation: Rt 133
- BCT Maps: Section 3; H past western end of Section 3 to Section 4; C
- Distance: 5.2 miles; 10.4 RT back to car
I returned to Ward Reservation to hike in the opposite direction of my first hike. But first, I hiked a small section of the BCT that I’d missed on my first walk, climbing Holt Hill, with its fire tower and to check out the views of Boston.
Holt Hill has an elevation of 420 feet making it the highest hill in Essex County. As a point of comparison, my house is located at an elevation of 22 ft above sea level, about 15 miles south of here.
The hill itself is wide open and would make a perfect location for watching fireworks or star-gazing during meteor showers. I mentioned this to a dog walker I’d struck up a conversation with and she told me that while the park is closed at night, she’s heard that you can get permission to camp out on it.
After taking in the view, I headed back to the section of the BCT I wanted to hike, heading west into Section 4. This walk had a more urban feel, with a fair amount of road walking, especially through the Phillips Academy campus.
Leaving the Ward reservation, the BCT pass briefly through the woods near some houses, before crossing RT 125 and disappearing back into the trees. This being Andover, the houses are rather large and ornate with garages and barns that are larger than my two family house.
Back in the woods, the trail passes by an isolated mailbox. I checked inside to see if there were any messages for me.
Soon, the Phillips Academy track cames into view and the trail threaded its way past the tennis courts, field house, and dormitories, crossing several roads en route.
BCT blazes are nailed to utility poles through this area and relatively easy to find if you know where to look. Since much of this section was on pavement, I was able to really crank up my pace and cover some good distance.
The Trail renters the woods briefly at the Purvis Reservation because emerging in a residential area near the Shawsheen River. It runs along the road parallel to the river and railroads, before crossing under a railroad bridge. Despite the freezing weather, I saw two young fly fisherman practicing their casts on the river, which reportedly has good fishing.
The tedium of road walking soon came to an end when I entered the Indian Ridge Reservation, which has very fine walking trails and beautiful woods.
The BCT here is built on top of a geological feature called an esker, which is a raised berm like a railway embankment, only naturally made. Eskers are thought to have formed within ice-walled tunnels by streams which flowed within and under glaciers. After the ice melted away, the glacier left the sediment, which forms into long and winding ridges, several miles in length.
The BCT continues along the esker here for about a mile, passing by a memorial to Miss Alice Buck who secured the right for the people of Andover to use this woodland in 1897. It’s a serene place to sit and I passed a few minutes here to take in the woods and have a snack.
I then continued to Pooh’s House, another local landmark. Rumor has it that this will be the site of the BCT’s first hiker hostel.
The trail continues through a meadow and then enters a cemetery, passing through woods along its perimeter to Rt 133, where I turned around and retraced my steps back to my car.
Boxford State Forest
- Date: 1-3-15
- Starting Location: Rt 114 on the BCT
- Destination: Close to Bald Hill
- BCT Maps: Section 3; D to halfway between C and B
- Distance: 6 miles; 12 RT back to car
It was a cold and dreary day, just before a winter storm, and the temperature stayed at a brisk 27 degrees for my entire 5 hour walk. None of this diminished my desire to hike another section of the BCT however. I’d fully embraced the quest by this stage and was eager to press forward.
The truth is, I’ve been looking for a way to do more hiking lately because I prefer it over exercising in the gym and because it provides me with a steady stream of new ideas to write about.
I got lost twice today due to dodgy blazing. First on entry into Boxford State Park from the Andover side because the blazing vanishes for about a half mile. I had to ask a local dog walker for help in finding the spur trail which leads to the continuation of the BCT. The second time was at the end of today’s section, when I followed the blazes to a beaver pond, and couldn’t figure out which fork to get around it (right or left) because the blazes stopped at that point.
I have a feeling that the BCT is best followed continuously North to South, and that hiking it in the opposite direction is more difficult. The trail descriptions that the BCT publishes are certainly SOBO centric and trying to flip them around in my head is confusing. Of course, it probably depends on the local organization responsible for the blazing, so it’s probably too early to make this kind of sweeping generalization.
I found a place to park on the other side of Rt 114 across from the access road to the Harold Parker Forest. I don’t think it’s an official lot, but it was hard to tell because it didn’t have any signage. Its location also doesn’t jibe with the parking lot on the BCT map, which must reference the lot at the nearby recycling plant and playing fields. Finding the parking spots indicated on the BCT maps has almost proven as difficult as hiking the trail.
I left the lot and headed through the woods to Rt 114, crossing the road to the point of the BCT where I’d left off previously, crossing back again, and walking past my car to start the next section. I’m not OCD. I just wanted to hike the entire trail and not skip a 50 yard portion because I could.
There is a chained gate with yellow pylons on the other side of the parking lot where the northbound blazes pick back up. From there the trail follows old roads and trails through hardwood forest, passing by frozen low points where the water collects between trees. The surrounding area is heavily engineered by an industrious beaver population, with numerous beaver ponds and dams.
The beginning of this section passes by an artificial hill of lawn waste before entering an open area full of playing fields and passing by the Andover recycling center. The trail follows the boundary of the parking lot before turning left at the road. The road walk is about 200 yards long but nerve-wracking because the blazes peter out, and looking backwards to see if there are any in the other direction is also fruitless.
By chance, I spotted a short post with the BCT logo on it in the trees along the side of the road and decided to investigate. This led to blazes and I let out a sigh of relief. The trail looped around more frozen bogs and beaver ponds, eventually crossing underneath a powerline corridor. I passed by a few houses, crossed a road, and then walked down a pretty forest road beside a large stream. This lead to another road, with a reassuring BCT sign painted on it.
This was the start of a long road walk down Sharpner’s Road, close to a mile in length judging by the time it took to walk. There is sparse blazing nailed to utility poles along its length, enough to reassure, but sparse enough to sow the seeds of doubt. The blazes lead to a large parking lot for Boxford State Park, but end at the park boundary.
I have a few strategies for following sparsely blazed trails. The first is to turn around when you can’t find a blaze in front of you to see if there’s one behind you. If that fails, I tend to walk in a straight line from the last blaze until I find another, which often works if they’re placed far apart. The last strategy is to ask for help if there’s anyone around, which I ended up doing after walking down the trail about half a mile and back twice.
I happened to meet Paula and her new rescue dog and she walked me back to the trail junction where the BCT forks from the main trail. I was very grateful and thanked her effusively. The blaze marking the trail junction is very faint and impossible to see unless someone points it out hiding behind a tree: it’s the last right before you come to the no swimming signs at the pond.
Once, I’d found the trail, route-finding was easy in Boxford State Forest, with numbered trails and good blazing for the most part. I soon came across the remains of two old cars rusting in the woods, one that appeared to be an ancient Oldsmobile Wagon judging by the tail-light and fold out rear door laying on the ground behind in.
I continued through the forest at a fast pace. Until, I came to a dead-end in the trail at a wetland area that had been dammed by beavers, where the trail split in two, one segment heading left and the other right, but both were unblazed. I retraced my steps back up the hill, and sure enough ended up at the same destination.
I was frustrated. I had about 15 minutes of daylight left to before I had to turn around to get back to my car before sunset.
I gave up after a while and walked back to my car, knowing that I’d re-aquire the trail if I came at it from the other direction (the east, next time), one of the benefits of being a section hiker on hard to follow trails.
- Date: 1-5-15
- Starting: Bald Hill Reservation
- Destination: Rt 97
- BCT Maps: Section 3; Halfway between C and B to Section 2; H (Rt 97)
- Distance: 6.8 miles; 13,6 RT back to car
Finally, the last leg of Section 3.
I drove to Middleton Road determined to find the beaver pond where I’d lost the BCT previously. This proved easy to do, although a major section of the trail had obviously been rerouted due to beaver activity.
I discovered that the segment of trail leading down to beaver pond where the trail petered out on my last walk was a dead-end spur trail, which I suspect is the route that the BCT followed before it was rerouted. I’ve found other segments of the BCT that are still blazed, even though the trail has been rerouted elsewhere, and it’s really darn confusing. Something to be aware of, if you hike the BCT all the way through.
Having found the trail where I left it on my previous hike, I walked back past my car and headed north into the Lockwood Forest (which is the beginning of Section 2 of the BCT). This is a very pretty section of forest that is used by walkers and horseback riders. I had entered horse country, judging by the abundance of jumps along the trail, although I have yet to see a horseback rider after two weeks of walking.
Lockwood Forest gives way to a conservation trail on the outskirts of Boxford Center that passes by another old mill building and an open field for exercising horses before running through a pleasant forest next to a pond with a manmade dam. The trail is managed by BTA Bolt, which is the Boxford Trail Association and part of the Essex County Greenbelt.
The conservation trail ends at a cul-de-sac and follows a road a short way before reentering the woods. I met a young woman walking her dogs here who was familiar with the BCT and we walked together for about 10 minutes until we came to the local Boy Scout Park and a parking lot.
Leaving the parking lot, the BCT continues along a series of roads through Boxford Center. The blazing is remarkably sparse here and difficult to see, so I’ll list some of the landmarks that I saw see along the way.
- Boxford War Memorial (at intersection)
- Boxford Historical Society (on right)
- Boxford Library (on right)
- First Church (on left)
- Boxford Village Cemetery (on right)
Needless to say, this road walk is very cold and breezy in winter weather.
Immediately beyond the cemetery is a dirt road. I made a right here and followed it bearing left past an old marker for The French Family Woodlot.
The dirt road terminates at a road in a small neighborhood before passing between houses on its way to a wooden bridge over a pond.
I hesitated before crossing this bridge because I couldn’t tell if it was structurally sound, and parts of it were covered with ice. The temperature was below freezing and I didn’t want to get my boots or feet wet. I made it 90% of the way across without incident, but engulfed my right foot jumping from the bridge to the far bank. I stopped and pulled off my boot to wring out my sock, and decided to carry on and see if my foot would stay warm if I started walking, since I was wearing lightly insulated boots. It stayed warm enough, but I knew I was near my turnaround time.
Although I hike in the snow almost every weekend in New Hampshire, I can’t remember crossing a beaver dam in winter before where the threat of full immersion so imminent. This was a new experience for me and I could imagine it going not so well under different circumstances. Still, I did have a spare set of socks in my pack, so I could have changed into a dry pair if needed. However, putting dry socks into wet boots seemed pointless, so I decided to defer it until it became necessary.
The trail ran through another neighborhood before taking a slight detour past a war memorial. Then back through another neighborhood into the Kelsey Arboretum, where the trails inside the Arboretum are signed with the Bay Circuit blaze and logo. Only, I don’t think the trail runs through the Kelsey Arboretum anymore and that blazing in no longer valid. Argh!!
I puttered around looking for the BCT inside the Arboretum, before backtracking and finding a segment of trail that turns right before the Arboretum, passes under some power lines, and heads up Kelsey Road to Rt 97, which I know is on the trail. This other route is also blazed.
Calling it a day, I turned around and headed back to my car, more than a little miffed about the amount of time I’d wasted trying to figure out which set of blazes belong to the current BCT. Rather than giving up, I’m now more determined than ever to find my way along the BCT. Don’t ask me why. I guess I like challenges.
You know the bridge over that beaver pond? I fell in up to my knee with my other leg on the way back. Maybe someday, I’ll learn to avoid bridges like this.