A year into the pandemic, we’re all leading a dog’s life. We’re gazing out the window, watching the world go by. Longing to run free.
If you’re an actual dog, you can in fact run free, as long as you’re a good listener and your human will take you someplace where it’s sanctioned. Given the lack of tail-wagging destinations in our lives since last March, it may take little more than a whimper by the door to get them to concede.
Local caninophiles are likely already aware of some of the enclosed dog parks around Greater Boston.
The South End’s Peters Park, for instance, includes Boston’s first city-sanctioned dog run, dedicated in 2007 with a ceremonial “unleashing.” Since 2013, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department has designated parts of the Boston Common as off-leash play areas for conscientious dogs and their owners.
Breakheart Reservation in Saugus has a fenced dog park called the Barking Lot. There are other fenced dog parks in Randolph, Salem, Gloucester, and Portsmouth, N.H., to name a few.
But the Greater Boston area also features a surprising number of open spaces where our well-behaved pooches are welcome to roam without fences. There are lots of trails and rambles where locals in the know habitually ignore the posted leash laws, including a few good ones within a five-minute drive of our house on the North Shore. We’ll steer clear of mentioning those not-so-hidden gems in favor of places where off-leash dogs are expressly permitted.
The town of Lexington has 26 conservation areas encompassing more than 50 miles of trails, and dogs are allowed off-leash as long as they are under voice control and are not disruptive. I took our two dogs — Orwell, a 4-year-old Boston terrier, and Auggie, a pandemic rescue who came to us last summer from the Deep South — to Whipple Hill, where a tiny roadside parking lot provides access to the area’s loop trails.
The dogs were overjoyed, darting ahead of me on the winding paths, stopping to turn and wait when a bend in the hike or a glacial outcrop would have put them out of sight. Low-lying areas can get muddy; there were plenty of short boardwalks installed to cross the streams and runoff. Away from the road, the recent snowfall muffled all sound, the silence broken only when another party of hikers approached or a distant plane passed overhead.
In the easternmost part of the acreage, we hiked around frozen Locke Pond, where a couple of families and their dogs skated on the ice. (The dogs were skateless.) One of the families had spilled a Thermos of hot chocolate into a snowbank, and it took some doing to get my dogs to stop snarfing up the unexpected treat.
On an especially frigid Saturday, we drove to Sheepfold Dog Park in Stoneham, a designated off-leash area of the Middlesex Fells Reservation. Despite the prohibitive chill — the meadow is a wide-open space with no cover from strong winds — dozens of dogs and their people wandered around sizing each other up. Orwell, who is usually rambunctious, spent most of the time at my side, pleading with me with his huge marble eyes. Though he was bundled in a ridiculous puffy jacket, he was still too cold on this day to capitalize on his freedom.
Auggie, on the other hand, made friends with an impressively huge and playful Cane Corso, a female Italian mastiff named Dolce. Auggie is a classic rescue mutt, a mixed bag of Labrador retriever (easygoing disposition), border collie (herding instinct), and coonhound (an insanely long, loopy tail). In the Caribbean, they call this kind of mix a “potcake.” He’s unfazed.
A couple weeks later, we took a short drive to Stratham Hill Park in southern New Hampshire. Dogs must stay on leash in the spacious parking area, where guests can access pavilions for rent, athletic fields, snack bars, and other amenities. Once on the trails, they’re free to go, galloping past old stone walls, exercise stations, and signs along a “storywalk” for young children.
Our dogs met a 10-year-old black Lab named Winnie, after Lake Winnipesaukee. Her owner said Winnie was a regular here; she showed Auggie and Orwell around the snow-packed grounds near the fire tower at the park’s peak, where you get a sprawling view of Great Bay and, to the east, the ocean.
In South Hamilton, the stewards at the Trustees of Reservations oversee the Appleton Farms Grass Rides, 5 miles of carriage paths that are a haven in the winter months for cross-country skiers. Dogs are welcome on these paths, but not on the trails of adjacent Appleton Farms; be sure to note the difference.
The old carriage paths on the Grass Rides are laid out roughly like the spokes of a wheel, with a hub known as the Roundpoint. On Round Hill, a tall granite monument salvaged from the old Harvard College Library provides a meeting spot.
Here as with most off-leash hikes, dogs are supposed to stay leashed until they get into the woods. But a family that had just arrived called after their very large sheepdog, who bounded across a wide expanse of untrodden snow to greet some distant hikers, her leash flying in the air behind her like a kite.
“Clarabelle!” they sang, trying to get her to come back.
“The leash handoff didn’t go so well,” said the dad, sheepishly.
On a glorious sunny day, no one seemed to mind.
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.