A walk in the woods at Breakheart

... a Russian on schools, mushrooms and some history

by Stringer Don Norris

Recipe for an afternoon outing:

Gather a forest full of rich, large luscious-looking mushrooms, add one Russian-American with a taste for wild things. Make it a nice, warm day in September, and throw in a couple of super-seniors out for daily exercise.

The product: Fifteen minutes of international understanding, an hour and a half of woodsy scenes, and beautiful lakes and greenery that will knock your socks off. The end result is a healthy heart, good conversation -- and a pile of nature-photographs.

It was a gorgeous day. Lorry and I picked Breakheart Reservation in nearby Saugus for our not-so-daily outing -- Breakheart because it is one of the most beautiful small forest-parks in Greater Boston -- perhaps in the northeast corner of the U.S.A.

There was an overcast, but every few minutes there appeared a hole in the billowing clouds that sent a shaft of brilliant yellow sunlight into our forest. It was a magic thing when suddenly a patch of deep-green woods would burst into light -- then be gone as if a shade were being quickly drawn. I love such light shows.

We were only a quarter-mile into our walk along the narrow paved road that wends through the woods, when we came upon a fellow carrying a large grocery bag overflowing with wild mushrooms. We never got his name, but he was from Russia, and had come to Canada and the United States in 1978. From him we learned much about wild mushrooms.

"See those small white ones." he said with that gutteral accent of all Russians, "they are okay to cook, but they are bland, tasteless, and only good for a marinade." About mushrooms we know nothing, except that the ones from the market are great for frying.

He also told us of a test his girlfriend makes to insure a suspect mushroom is wholesome and not poisonous. Which I immediately forgot for I have yet to be convinced that nature's mushrooms are all likely to do you in.

Somehow we got to discussing the state of American education while standing there in that forest. He said that his daughter entered school in America at Brookline High, in Boston, and learned English in "three or four months". She went on to college, and he bragged that, at the end of her first year, she was the top student.

"In some ways schools in America aren't as good as those in Russia," he said. As a sophomore in Brookline she was studying material that she had had in Russia three years earlier.

"In Russia," he said, "there is a strict curricula where everybody studies the same thing, across the whole country -- but there is little choice of subjects. Everybody learns the same thing, all over Russia." He implied that the Russian children are more serious about school, and are not as frivolous as American students.

When I asked him if he lives in Lynn where there is a large Russian enclave, he said no, he is from Malden -- next to Melrose -- but that there are thousands of Russian immigrants in the greater Boston area. All over, he said.

"Most of them are successful," he offered, "for they are used to working hard." He said that there is much more opportunity here is America, to live and make a living. He bragged that he was 70 and had been retired for several years. His daughter is now a teacher and his girlfriend cooks the mushrooms.

I never remembered that Breakheart has such steep mountains. Actually there is only one summit, and it is less than our towering peak in Melrose, which is about 270 feet. But the trails become steeper and longer as we grow older. Fortunately the park rangers had provided nice benches just where we old walkers would run out of breath.

The park is 660 acres large, all rugged ancient bedrock with two high beautiful spring-fed ponds. And while there is the narrow paved road for two and a half miles, no motor vehicles are allowed. One has to hike a mile to go swimming in the rocky Pearce Lake.

The history of this picture-perfect forest only goes back to the late 1800s when the property was purchased by two wealthy businessmen, who used it as a private hunting ground. The state got the land just as the Great Depression hit America in 1930; One of Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps' troop of 100 or so men were put in barracks here with the goal to make a nice public park. They did just that in three years, cutting the circular roadway and many hiking trails, daming the two high ponds and creating a pristine park.

But, having searched records at the Saugus Library, there is virtually nothing written about its history before 1850. It is an accepted fact that Indians were here, for evidence of fish weirs along the small Saugus River have been found. The river, which drains Lake Quanapowitt in neighboring Wakefield, also supplied raw pig iron back in the 1640s for the smelter at Saugus Ironworks.

Today it is a gem. The Department of Conservation and Conservancy has recently built a beautiful log welcome center, where much of Breakheart's modern history is recorded.

As for our day's outing, we climbed the mountain, skirted Pearce Lake, gathered no mushrooms -- although there is an abundant crop -- and made it back to the lodge after our leisurely two and a half mile walk. During that time we came across some 30 other Bostonians -- all of whom were primarily there for the exercise. It is ideal, beautiful and relatively safe. There is even a "Bark Place" where one can let their pets run in a large penned area.

Nice place. Nice people. A private little gem in the explosion of metropolitan Boston.

A friendly stanger ambulates quasi-rapidly by.

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