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The overlooked landscapes of North Quabbin Reservoir

Picnic tables adjacent to the boat ramp at Tully Lake provide the shade of the forest with vistas of the lake.

Patricia Harris for the Boston Globe

ORANGE — Paul Anderson was surprised when we stopped at his Trail Head outfitter’s store in the middle of town and told him we’d come from Cambridge. “This area is like a no man’s land,” the former Burlington police officer said. “Eastern Mass. doesn’t know it exists. From Concord west, nothing registers until the Berkshires.”

Anderson is a real booster for the communities and wild spaces that arc around the north rim of the Quabbin Reservoir, and he’s not alone. The nine towns of Athol, Erving, New Salem, Orange, Petersham, Phillipston, Royalston, Warwick, and Wendell have banded together in the North Quabbin Woods initiative to let the world (or at least Eastern Massachusetts) in on their secrets.

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Last year, NQW produced a “quest” to entice people to some of the natural areas. Funding for a new quest fell short this year, but the 2012 version can still be printed from the website (www.northquabbinwoods.org/quest) . It’s keyed to the North Quabbin Woods 2012/13 Recreation Map & Guide, a free publication available in Anderson’s store, among other places. The store makes a perfect place to start, especially if you concentrate, as we did, on quest sites northeast of Orange. Anderson can also sell you bug spray (an essential) and a North Quabbin baseball cap and T-shirt. Miller’s River Cafe at the back of the store can fuel you up with breakfast or lunch.

David Lyon for the Boston Globe

Young canoeists gathered at the boat ramp below the dam at Tully Lake Recreation Area.

The quest has three tracks, starting with sites reached easily by car, progressing to spots that require easy activity, and culminating with places that reward moderate to strenuous exercise with a great view or hidden waterfall. But we found much more than the destination trails and overlooks. The routes led us through a landscape where summer lives in the black-eyed susans that mark the edge of a yard and where stacks of split green wood are beginning to cure for next winter’s warmth. We came upon old graveyards with names from 150 years ago incised onto dark slates, and passed spots in the woods where only a stand of daylilies marked where a house once stood.

We started our quest at Skyfields Arboretum at the site of the circa-1800 farmstead that is now headquarters of the Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust. Surrounded by rough stone walls, the 10-acre arboretum is, to quote Robert Frost, “done with the tame.” It has been allowed to grow up as a native-species arboretum and a mown path across the former fields cuts through a profusion of milkweed and bramble canes, Indian paintbrush and wild strawberries. Butterflies flit from plant to plant in the full feeding frenzy of summer, and dragonflies whiz past, alighting to gobble small bugs. A couple of bluebird nesting boxes, a bat box, and an owl box are discreetly mounted along the arboretum trail. Trails continue into the woods, and there are plenty of tracks to suggest that deer and porcupine frequent the deep shade.

Patricia Harris for the Boston Globe

The Skyfields Arboretum in Athol is prime grazing land for dragonflies.

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We didn’t linger because Anderson had told us that 200-acre Tully Lake was the recreational centerpiece of the area. The lake was formed by a dam completed by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1949 to control floods on this tributary to the Connecticut River. Surrounded by a 1,300-acre reservoir, the lake opened to public recreational uses in 1966 and offers a great combination of woodlands trails and human-built amenities. There is even an 18-hole disc golf course on the south end of the dam and following the route makes a nice walk in the woods.

There is a boat launch area for paddle craft and low-powered motorboats nearby along with some lovely shaded picnic sites by the river. For those who didn’t pack picnic fixings, it’s only a short drive back to Johnson’s Farm Restaurant. The farm has been in the Johnson family since 1900. They tap 4,500 sugar maples for maple syrup — 500 trees on their property and another 4,000 in the Quabbin area where they bid on the rights. Breakfast naturally features pancakes and waffles. Soups and sandwiches are available at lunch time, and remote as the location may be, the parking lot can get crowded.

David Lyon for the Boston Globe

Water spilled down under the bridge at Doane's Falls.

The Tully Lake Campground a few miles beyond the dam functions as the linchpin for lake activities. In addition to more than 30 tent-only campsites, the Trustees of Reservations-managed facility features trailheads to the 7.5-mile mountain bike trail that circles Long Pond to the north, as well as the 4.5-mile easy-walking Lake Trail that hits all the woodland and shoreside highlights. There’s no need to be a camper to take advantage of the canoe, kayak, and disc golf equipment rentals or to join the free ranger programs on the weekends. Saturdays feature a guided tour of Doane’s Falls, a fishing clinic for beginning anglers, and a late-afternoon boat tour to visit the lake’s beavers. On Sundays rangers lead a boat tour of the lake and its dam.

Located a short hike east of the campground, Doane’s Falls is perhaps the most dramatic spot on the Lake Trail. You can hear it long before you see it, as it thunders down a hollow. The water pours across the top in a wide, even lip, but as it drops, the waterway twists and turns and the water gushes and splashes. It makes a long drop onto granite slabs, forms a broad pool, and then spills out below over a cascade of boulders. You would never guess that upstream from the falls, the brook making such a fuss as it empties into Tully Lake is a gentle, almost lazy waterway known as Lawrence Brook.

Doane Hill Road, Chestnut Hill Avenue, and Athol Road all converge at a bridge over the head of the falls, making it accessible for drivers as well as hikers. In fact, a small parking area (four cars maximum) where the trail emerges from the woods allows casual visitors to simply walk 100 yards down the trail to get a striking view of the falls. A streamside trail above the falls follows the Lawrence Brook upstream through mixed hardwood forest into the open clearing called Coddings Meadow, where skittish great blue herons stalk the bankside still water, hunting small fish and frogs.

We continued on to the trailhead for Jacobs Hill, said to be one of the most scenic trails in the entire Tully Lake area. The trail here is fairly strenuous and follows a two-mile ridgeline round trip. Two miles didn’t seem like much — until we got there and read the cautions at the trailhead. Then we looked down the trail, which dropped almost as precipitously as Doane’s Falls, and factored in the swarms of deer flies and the lateness of the afternoon. We knew from reading that the very dramatic Spirit Falls was a sight to behold at the bottom of the trail, but we decided Jacobs Hill would have to wait.

Besides, it’s supposed to be gorgeous in foliage season.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.
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