Monday, June 22, 2015

Angels on ATVs - Mount Watatic, MA

Photobombed view from the top of Mt. Watatic
When BH and I wanted to get out for a hike this past weekend, I sent a note over to my brother who has lived in Boston for the last 18 years or so. He's a hiker and an adventurer and knows the area from Maine to Connecticut extremely well. He suggested one of three mountains to hike with the 8 year old kids, the most appealing of which seemed to be Mt. Watatic.

Mt. Watatic sits between the towns of Ashby and Ashburnham in central Massachusetts. Its peak is about 1800 feet above sea level, and the "standard" hike is around 1.1 miles to the top with about 500 feet in elevation change. I say "standard" because we found ourselves on a much longer hike--but I get ahead of myself. 

Saturday was a gorgeous day with high wispy clouds and a 70ish temperature. We hopped in the car--me, BH, the twins and our 2 year old rescue dog named Coal. It was to be Coal's first hiking adventure outside our conservation woods and we were prepared with a leash, his water and lots of treats. For us and for him. 

It took us about an hour to drive to the trail head. Most of the ride was the through woods and dale, with an unfortunate 20 minutes through trafficky, construction filled Fitchburg. The trail's parking lot was full so we parked on the main street (not recommended with little darty kids), loaded up two backpacks and hiked in. 

For the number of cars, we were expecting lots of people on the trails. But given that Mt. Watatic is on the 22-mile long Midstate Trail, there were more than a few people who had clearly hiked in on days previous and taken off for New Hampshire. We were passed by one enormous backpack laden group then a few trail runners and a few hikers we met going up and down. The trail is not too challenging at first, then slowly gives way to steep root-and-rock-filled slopes--how the trail runners did that without breaking an ankle, I will never know.

About halfway up the steepest part, I noted that Coal was not making his usual happy jangling noise. His happy jangling is provided by his town rabies tag and his name tag making a pleasant bell tone that serves to warn all chipmunks and other rodents of his approach. I looked to see that the ring had broken open and both tags were gone.

The kids were surprisingly uncomplaining--they are not so patient with hiking. One wants to GET THERE RIGHT NOW and the other likes to pick flowers and make fairy houses. We finally broke free onto the summit where Coal romped and played with another black rescue dog, we picnicked on salami sandwiches and trail mix and watermelon and Coal photobombed the only photo that would propose to show the skyline of Boston, which you could indeed see in the distance.

At the top of the hill, I also noted a huge stone with beautiful inscriptions about how the mountain had been saved from development. My favorite lines were about the "mountain that lived" and now was "holding us up to meet the sky." Good stuff. And we were to learn more when our adventure continued.

Now as we are standing around on the summit, my cell phone rings with an unknown number. I pick up and the person says "Do you have a dog named Coal?" and I say, why yes, I do. And the person on the other end says that he has found Coal's name tag. I say I'm all the way up the mountain. And he says he's all the way down the mountain. And so he says that he will leave the tag for me on the great steel post in the parking lot. So I'm happy.

Since it only took us about an hour to climb the hill, I look at the book (Best Hikes with Dogs Boston and Beyond) and it shows that there is a way to do a loop back down to the parking lot rather than scrambling back the way we came. Cue suspenseful music. I admit that following directions that were exactly this "From the gravel road, watch for a trail that veers to the left, following an old stone wall," was not my finest choice. Especially because New England has a looooooooot of old stone walls. And there were no blazes or trail names.

So we load up, find what seems to be trail by a stone wall, and head down. Later, much later, at home, I now come to believe that we actually followed down one of the old ski slopes. Yes, Watatic used to be a ski mountain--more on this one soon. 

BH is following our progress with his map function on the phone. He keeps saying that we are heading too far north. Given this map in the book, I say "no, honey, we have to head north to get the trail west to loop us around back south." I generally have an excellent sense of direction. I was pretty sure I was right. BH was not going to argue any more with me.

The map. See the summit lower left? I tried for a loop. Not a great plan.
We keep hiking. I let Coal off the leash since he hasn't had a chance to do his stuff, and he disappears. Twice. The second time for ten minutes, and the kids begin to panic so we put him back on leash. Then we start hiking over biting ants and the kids start getting upset. So we go faster. And pass by another stone for Mt. Watatic that lists a whole bunch of names of people who donated to save the mountain. I of course think this is a good sign--since we MUST still be on the mountain. But we're not.

We also see some old abandoned machinery a pond, and then we are seemingly at the bottom of the hill. If you look at the map above, we are actually at the point of the triangle at the top of the page. In the end, it turns out that we are in New Hampshire.

At the bottom of the hill, we decide we would find a trail to get us back south. We are now following BH's RunKeeper app. The kids are beginning to suspect that we are lost. They are right. Another 20 minutes walking and we see a tiny seemingly abandoned cabin in the woods. As we start bushwacking through the woods, an ATV (those little four wheel drive golf carty things) comes up the trail and pulls up to the cabin.

I am elected spokesmodel to ask for help. I walk towards the woman who hops off the ATV and call out (trying not to scare her) and say "help, we are lost!" And she comes over and says "yes, you are. And the only way back is up and over Nutting Hill (at this point, the kids screw up their faces like they might cry) or I can take you back to my house which is about six minutes from here and then drive you back to the parking lot." 

The offer of rescue was so spontaneous and generous that it took me a minute to even register it. Here was a woman, in the middle of her Saturday afternoon visit to her cabin, who was going to drive two 8 year old kids in an ATV back to her real house. BH, Coal and I would follow along behind. ATVs don't go so fast. I am afraid I did not thank this New Englander quite enough.

She loaded the kids into the ATV, hopped on and talked with them all the way back to her house. We met there her slightly less talkative but just as helpful husband who mentioned that they rescue a hiker group per week. They just appear out of the woods having gotten lost on the way. Signs they put up are stolen by ne'er do wells. So they just pop the hikers in their car and take them back to the trail head, 10 minutes away by car.

Diane, as it turns out her name is, pulls out her large SUV, puts down the seat and a towel for Coal, and loads us up for the drive around the mountain. And she tells us more of the story of Mt. Watatic. Later I would find out that we were talking to one of the names on the stone--one of the people who had worked hardest to save that mountain. 

The old ski resort. Novice through Intermediate. Photo credit:

Gravel road to right. photo credit:
Mt. Watatic had indeed been a ski mountain in the early 1940s, closing in the mid-80s due to competition and its location which is rather hard to get to. It was simply abandoned with the base lodge eventually being burnt by vandals. You can read a very interesting story about it here. Later, the top of the mountain was bought by a cell phone company which were the folks who built the gravel road that we started on at the top--cutting through the slopes forever. And there was further talk of re-opening the ski mountain or making a huge adventure park at the bottom. 

That is when the towns and residents (and Diane, it turned out) sprang into action. From wikipedia: 

In 2002, prior to development of the communications tower, the mountain was purchased for $2,500,000 by the Ashby Land Trust, the Town of Ashby, the Ashburnham Conservation Trust, the Town of Ashburnham, Mass Dept of Fish and Wildlife and Mass Dept of Conservation and Recreation... The purchase resulted in the permanent protection of approximately 281 acres (1.14 km2) of the mountain, including the summit, as conservation land.

Diane dropped us back at the trail head parking lot (where I found Coal's tag waiting for me) and sent us off with a trail map that she said would keep us from the madding crowds. My son Nico gave her some wildflowers he had picked, then we thanked her again, and she drove off home, possibly to await her next lost "city folk." 

We learned more than a little on Saturday about the history of Mt. Watatic (Algonquin for "wigwam place" by the way) and the people who care for the mountain and those who get lost on it. Angels on ATV.  

No comments:

Post a Comment