Cross the summit, around Towners Pond

... gone hiking, climbing cliffs, through the forest ...

by SilverStringer Don Norris

...via the Rocky View Trail

This photo-essay is a little late. The time of year is right -- it takes place in late fall; in fact the photos are dated November 3, several years ago. Not much has changed, however.

Lorry and I live about four blocks from the trailhead of the Rocky View Trail, which has been formalized by the Melrose Conservation Commission. I mean, the trails, for the most part, have been there for perhaps a hundred years, but MCC brushed them out, cleaned them up, and painted markers on the trees. Nice job.

The good thing about this trail are the views to the south. Five miles away are the skyscrapers of Boston, a handsome scene, for they are visable against the pale cobalt blue of the Blue Hills, five miles further on. One overlooks the cities of Malden, Everett, Somerville and parts of Cambridge.

There are some challenges to the Rocky View Trail. Several steep, very rocky inclines press the older climbers, but younger families seem to scramble up to various 250-foot peaks. Coming back to the starting point, one has a pressing hundred-foot climb that is breath-taking, in the physical sense. The climb is from the level of Swains Pond several hundred yards north to Hoover School, where we parked our car.

But in between is a delightful walk that includes skirting the rocky shores of both Towners Pond and Swains Pond, through a lovely preserved forest -- which is so rocky that, before the Conservation Commission came about, builders had simply considered the rugged ground to be too expensive to develop.

As a result we residents of the City of Melrose -- about five square miles -- have preserved the whole southeast corner as pretty basic forestland. And on the other side of town, we have the Middlesex Fells, another 2200 acres of preserved forest.

Not bad, considering the price of land today. Quarter-acre lots go for about $100,000 and up, but the thing is, there are no more available in Melrose. Therefore you can see the value of our Southeast Conservation land and the forest of the Middlesex Fells. A billion, I'd estimate.

But back to our walk in the woods. As you can see, Lorry usually carries a plastic bag for refuse -- for young people have been known to have some pretty raucous parties among these ancient boney peaks and small hidden valleys.

According to the Friends of Middlesex Fells, there is abundant wildlife in these forests. Deer, coyotes, beaver, weasles, fox. There was a moose loose in the Fells two years ago. Park rangers shot her with a tranquilizer and carted her off to less dangerous parts.

Our trail wends its way down behind the Hoover School, where we found a fort -- obviously made by Hoover boys, who took all the brushed-out sticks and constructed a pretty good fort. Next time we went there, however, it had been dismantled. Notice how the boys had used the erratic -- that huge ball of a rock that had been dumped here as the ice sheet melted some 12,000 years ago. Is that poetic, or do you think those boys knew absolutely nothing about the history of their rock?

The man-made sheet of plywood, used as a gate, and the black rubber tire just don't seem to fit in this scene. But the fort was a natural.

Near the fort I tripped over a low stump covered with fallen oak leaves, and when I picked myself up, I found this ogre, this goblin, this prehistoric thing growing out of the ground. It was strange. When I put its photo into the computer, I added a trickle of blood from its mouth.

I mean, what would you call this thing? Don't say "a stump".

The Conservation lands are split by Swains Pond Avenue, which wends its way south into Malden. But it also means we have to leave the forest and walk along the street before re-entering Conservation land that surrounds Towners Pond.

In earlier years, perhaps 30 years ago when I was riding dirt bikes, I used these trails for an escape from suburbia. Using topo maps I was able to work my way north, practically all through woods, to Boxford State Forest, 30 miles away. But those days are gone now. The trails are now house lots. (For those of you who rode dirt bikes, my favorite was a 250cc Spanish Bultaco Alpina, which was built for such rugged country).

This of course is Towner's Pond from the north bank. It is a beautiful place of huge outcroppings of bedrock, steeply valed and forested, lush, quiet and peaceful. We modern folks really made out when growing America overlooked this place and left it just as it was thousands of years ago.

That's not to say that we humans didn't try to turn a profit on Towners and Swains Ponds. Back when sailing vessels were the norm, this idyllic place was used for a source of ice, which was sawn from the frozen pond, heisted on either a sledge or a wagon, and delivered to the docks of Charlestown. From there, covered with straw, it was shipped as a commodity, around the world.

As I think about it, it is likely that the ice was used in several ways. Obviously it was used to keep food from spoiling. Perhaps it was used as a source of fresh water on long voyages. And of course, that which remained at some foreign port was sold to a wealthy merchant, probably at a handsome profit.

There is proof of this story right on the sight -- even though all the ice houses that ringed the eastern and southern shores of Towners Pond have long been torn down. There remains a steel cable that had been wrapped around an oak tree -- obviously as a deadman -- that still exists. Over the ages the tree has grown around its confining cable; four pieces of steel now protrude from its base. Here is proof of history.

There is also a "geocache" somewhere along the northern edge of Towners. It's not the one that the SilverStringers established a month ago -- that one is in the flat land of Melrose valley -- for easy access. You can find out about the sport of geocaching by going to http://www.geocache.com.

Our Conservation Commission trail skirts the pond, crosses a few muddy areas where half-hearted brooks empty run-off from nearby Mount Hood Golf Course. And you will have to mind your step for the ground alternates between soft earth and rock outcroppings. I now bring a walking stick -- one of about 50 I have carved and finished.

And be sure to bring a camera, no matter what season. This place is just naturally beautiful, no matter in which direction you look. Off to our left are a series of massive rock ships, perhaps forty or fifty feet high. To the right is Towners, which is clear if not deep, but always reflecting that deep blue sky. Once in a while we do have a gray day, not too often in the warm months.

Around a few bends and over several bedrock exposures, we come to an area that is less regular. That is, it has humongus mogels and small hidden valleys, sharp inclines and just-as-sharp descents. The trail seems to wind and twist around these solid-rock hillocks, but we climbed several just because they were there.

One was steep enough that we had to climb laterally, grasping tough little scrub oaks for handles, searching through the fallen leaves for secure footholds. This isn't the White Mountains, but the deep bed of leaves allowed very little stable purchase. But it was fun.

At the top we had another view of Towners, and below us was clearing that the party people had created with a rather large bonfire. When we started down the steep far side, Lorry slipped, went down on her backside, and slide all the way down, about fifty feet. She bounced off several hidden outcrops before she reached the bottom, which resulted in several tender bruises here, and there. The leaf cover is treacherous.

We were now at the far eastern end of Towners Pond, which ends in a low swamp in a saddle between the hills. And there was the dike that the colonials built, about 100 feet long, segregating the pond from the marsh. The path across was overgrown with brush and midway across we had to jump a water passageway.

Here we popped out again on Swains Pond Avenue, perhaps three-quarters of a mile away from the start at Hoover School. It is at a point where the winding street separates Towners and Swains Ponds; the former appears to be perhaps fifteen feet higher. Our route took us back by the Varney place (old Melrose family) where we ducked back into the woods to find the steep climb back up to Hoover.

It is a delightful walk -- not flat and slightly challenging, especially after the oak forest has shed it leaves. The whole hike took only three hours, but then we stopped to chuck some stones in the water, to investigate the 300-million year old bedrock, to cut another walking stick and investigate things like the oak-encrusted steel cables.

It was a good day.

December 2, 2005

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