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Take a Hike: Feeling anxious? The conservation trails are open

After yoga the other day a fellow yogi described an experience she had on the Clapp-Scorgie-Tufts-Smith conservation land. It was a clear cold day during the height of the Iraq War. She was looking through the leafless trees at a distant hillside glistening with newly fallen snow while the sound of bells from St. Benedict’s Abbey in Still River mingled with the sound of gunfire from Devens. Her absorption in a scene of pure beauty and strong conflicting emotions was memorable for her.

After hearing her story, I was inspired to explore this place. In 1969 the Harvard Conservation Commission acquired the Scorgie and Tufts land in Still River as the first purchase in its effort to preserve and protect the town’s rural nature. The now expanded Clapp-Scorgie-Tufts-Smith conservation land may be accessed from a parking lot on the left hand side of Still River Road (Route 110), just past Bellevue Cemetery as you drive toward Prospect Hill Road. The brown sign is hard to see.

The undulating trail no sooner descends than it rises again, offering views through the trees of grassy hilltops and glittering water. From a high viewpoint I could see Still River village and the Nashua River valley, that same vast sea of rural beauty viewed from Fruitlands, rimmed by the blueness of the Wachusett, Watatic, and Monadnock mountains, and the Wapack Range in the distance.

The well-worn trails meander through old apple orchards and stands of pine trees, along the edges of Bare Hill Pond, and over rocky outcrops. A trail winds through a dramatic outcrop of rock that is to a mountain trail what a bonsai tree is to a white pine. And there are many pines, thick and tall, some with distinctive branching, but shagbark hickory and cherry are also here, among other hardwoods that will be glorious in the fall. Oak leaves and acorns litter the ground. Mosses of several green colors, ferns, colorful lichens on trees are highlighted by the late winter sun. One day I went off the trail to investigate blue tree trunks where the sun was hitting the trees in such a way that they looked painted.

Criss-crossing the land are brooks that can be navigated by bridges and well-placed stones. A rusted device, a little over a foot tall with a small wheel labeled “open,” sits on a flat stone in a rushing brook, surrounded by other flat stones in the brook, as though they tumbled in or collapsed. Had a little dam been constructed here to create a watering hole? It reminds me of the larger dam that controls the water level of Bare Hill Pond, now temporarily drawn down so low that the shallow cove along the trail is just mud. Water finds its way to little swamps that the trails bypass.

Air of mild adventure

The hiking trails are lightly marked, ensuring an air of mild adventure, but observant walkers can follow the wood planks, openings in stone walls, and paths worn to dirt, merging with snowmobile and neighborhood tracks. The area is not huge, enclosed by houses and roads, but you could cover about 6 miles with little backtracking, or less if you want to walk only a mile or two.

From the Still River Road parking area, you could turn in the opposite direction from the descending trail and go through a grassy field to find yourself on a road beside Bellevue Cemetery, which is less hilly and rocky. From another parking area on Turner Lane the trails pass through old fields and orchards that are also less hilly.

All trails seem to lead to a rocky outcrop where a beautiful view overlooks Bare Hill Pond, with access to the water. The words, “All of Truth, Resides upon a Lake,” are stamped into a huge boulder. I never quite grasped the meaning of those words until I connected them to the transcendentalists at nearby Fruitlands Museum and to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in his essay, “Nature,” proposed that reality can be understood by studying nature, or at least enriched.

Worn trails and rock walls, stone benches and a hilltop folly, the rusted machinery, wooden bridges and well-placed stones, all attest to human presence, but you may find peace and quiet here anytime you need it.

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