The North of Boston region offers walkers paths to relief in troubled times.
From the soft beach sand on Plum Island and the inland meadows and hills of Andover to the paved, riverside walkways in the heart of urban Lawrence and the oceanside beauty surrounding Halibut Point in Rockport, simple spring pleasures await the venturesome and careful.
Land, sky and water invite discovery and recognition at a time when reports of threats from COVID-19 and economic decline pull our attention to monitors and screens, according to seasoned trekkers with favorite spots to divulge.
Erin LaRosa and her family of five, including three school-age kids, have been getting out daily to hike and explore parks and trails both familiar and obscure.
Their sojourns have taken them to Plum Island beaches, good old Maudslay State Park in Newburyport and Bradley Palmer State Park in Topsfield. They were hoping to head to the city forest and Moseley Woods in Newburyport this week, with a hike up Mount Monadnock in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, planned for this weekend.
“Being outdoors, even on a rainy day, is what is keeping us sane,” the Newburyport mom said.
LaRosa and others said that a walk’s sights, smells and sounds restore body and mind. Just keep 6 feet away from others.
“Getting outside and moving your body and enjoying nature and the beauty of where we live lifts our spirits and helps us get through this difficult time,” said Erin Canniff, the physical education and wellness teacher at Rockport Elementary School. “We have been spending lots of time in the woods, walking and mountain biking, surfing — and watching sunsets.”
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker this week put in place a stay-at-home advisory for Bay State residents.
The order makes exceptions for essential activities and jobs — and for walking.
“What this means is that everyone can still buy food at the grocery store, get what they need at the pharmacy, and — of course — take a walk around the block or at the park,” Baker said in an address on Monday.
Still, at least one conservation organization, The Trustees of Reservations, which owns and manages more than 100 properties in the state, has closed the sites through April 7, shutting gates (where they stand), closing parking lots and telling staff to stay home.
The decision has spurred both disappointment and support among those who frequent the natural settings, according to posts on The Trustees’ Facebook page.
Its leadership recognizes that walks in parks do not violate the governor’s restrictions on activities due to COVID-19 and urges those who choose to visit the organization’s outdoor locations — many of which are accessible regardless of the closure — to maintain social distancing.
The Massachusetts Audubon Society has also closed all of its trails and sanctuaries, with no reopening date as of yet.
Local communities have placed their own restrictions on public properties, closing their playgrounds and athletic fields. Manchester-by-the-Sea has gone one step further and closed its beaches. In neighboring Rockport and Gloucester, beaches remain open, although the Gloucester beach parking lots are now closed.
Still, the majority of natural spaces in the state remain open.
On Saturday morning in Lawrence, Tennis Lilly led his dog, Tommy — maybe the other way around — over a tree-lined path by the mighty Merrimack River.
Tommy, a rescue from New York City, sniffed the ground relentlessly as he and his owner passed red pine, white pine, birch, river birch, maple and oak.
Crows and sea gulls performed aerials above six Canada geese as still as moorings.
Tommy was on his first walk since surgery, a week ago, that removed growths from his shoulders.
He and Lilly admired a beaver’s handiwork along the path from Riverfront Park to the Bashara Boathouse. Fresh wood chips lay scattered under a thin aspen felled a few feet from the base.
Lilly, the chairman of the local Conservation Commission, said that Lawrence’s network of green spaces and riverside walks are restorative for a tightly packed city of 80,000 people inhabiting just 7 square miles.
“Especially now, when people feel confined and shut in, it’s important that — while maintaining social distancing — they get out of their home,” he said.
He also recommends Lawrence’s Spicket River Greenway and Den Rock Park as pleasing destinations.
Four hours later and 7 miles away, Colleen Mongell and her dogs, Jedi and Marley, explored a familiar trail that continues to enchant, at Mary French Reservation in Andover, near their North Andover home.
Sudden improvements or repairs seem to appear overnight on the Andover Village Improvement Society property. A large tree that fell across the trail was cut into sections stacked to the side.
Mongell pointed to a favorite place, a short stretch engineered by two Boy Scouts, identical twins, whose work earned them Eagle Scout ranks.
Sunlight made diamonds on the dark water at both sides of the low, rail-free boardwalk.
Jedi, an observant older dog, pauses; Mongell pauses; Marley, a puppy, is less discriminating, looking and sniffing everything.
“When Jedi stops and looks, I stop and look,” Mongell said.
Mongell and Jedi got quiet as a muskrat or beaver stirred the water in stands of broken cattails.
After a minute, the long dark waterborne animal revealed itself, slinking soundlessly among reeds just 10 or 20 feet away.
“Gifts” is what Mongell calls sights such as this.
The Mongell family tracks time and seasons by Mary French. The children have grown up there, giving the family a harvest of memories. The family’s youngest child, at 12, is still growing up there.
“It’s reassuring, especially times like now,” Colleen Mongell said. “When you are not sure what new thing is going to happen, you take a walk and nature is still there.”
Of late, the red-winged blackbirds have come back. New green shoots are emerging by last year’s cattails, she said.
At still another time this day, Brian and Lillian McGinty stepped out from their home in South Lawrence, bound for Andover and back, the couple chatting away over the 2.5 miles.
Their roadside amble is an invigorating ritual.
They have been walking and hiking all of their married lives, 31 years.
In 1987, they met on a trail and exchanged phone numbers. The first five or six years of marriage, they hiked each weekend in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Now, in retirement, the former postal worker, Brian, and bank teller trainer, Lillian, mostly walk nearby.
“Like today,” he said, “we will walk from where we live on Wedgewood Drive, down (Route) 28 into Andover, around the Balmoral apartment complex and come back. Walking is a stress reliever. It lifts your spirits just being in fresh air.”
“It gets you out of isolation,” Lillian agreed.
Just don’t get too close to other walkers, she said.
Over in Peabody, Mike McDonald and his wife, Alma, also walk close to home.
They like rail trails. Mike, a retired engineer, is interested in trains and trolleys, their history.
“Northeastern Massachusetts is blessed with an abundance of rail trails, and since retirement, I’ve had the time to walk a lot of them,” he said.
Methuen’s Lisa Conran and her family are also big fans of outdoor adventures — with and without the four-legged member of their clan. Some of their favorite places to explore with their dog, Luna, are Rockport’s Halibut Point and Gloucester’s Wingaersheek Beach, which allows dogs to run off leash in the offseason.
She said that she learned about Halibut Point, a former quarry, from a friend and it has become one of their favorite spots.
“It’s so cool to look beyond the quarry and see the ocean,” she said.
They also frequent Maudslay State Park in Newburyport; Den Rock Park in Lawrence; and Benson Park, at the site of the old Benson’s Wild Animal Farm, in Hudson, New Hampshire, which Conran said has a “really beautiful” 9/11 memorial to take in.
“I think that being outside is an amazing way to recharge and find peace with yourself,” she said. “I think as we search for a way to escape the fear and worry of our current reality, escaping to nature provides us new experiences, because nature is ever changing.”
Staff writer Gail McCarthy contributed to this report.
To address the current pandemic and its effect on the natural, cultural and historic resources of Essex County, Essex Heritage has launched Heritage At Home. This new website — heritageathome.org — provides a comprehensive list of online resources and outdoor walks for safely connecting with the Essex Heritage area.
Essex Heritage hopes the resources will help the public interact with the county in new and meaningful ways, while also realizing the positive effect that nature can have on physical and mental health.
“Essex Heritage understands how important it is to connect with the heritage area, even when we are being asked to maintain social distance,” Essex Heritage CEO Annie Harris said. “We hope that these resources will provide some comfort and normalcy during this challenging time.”
While there are dozens of places around Essex County to enjoy while maintaining a safe physical distance, given that the current situation is constantly evolving, Essex Heritage encourages the public to continue to check the individual websites of the various spots to make sure they are still open and accessible.
Essex Heritage will be sharing new content and highlighting special offerings on its Facebook page at facebook.com/essexheritage and using the hashtag #heritageathome. To share historic or cultural information for the Heritage at Home database, email email@example.com.
Nine in nine
These are the nine locations in nine days that the LaRosa family of Newburyport visited:
Day 1: Mount Major, Alton Bay, New Hampshire
Day 2: Old Town Hill, Newbury (now closed at least through April 7 by The Trustees of Reservations)
Day 3: Maudslay State Park, Newburyport
Day 4: Cooper North Common Pasture Nature Trail, Little River Trail System, Newburyport
Day 5: Plum Island beaches, Newbury
Day 6: Newburyport Rail Trail, by bike
Day 7: Return trip to Maudslay State Park
Day 8: Bradley Palmer State Park, Topsfield
Day 9: Martin Burns Wildlife Management Area, Newbury
A few of our readers’ favorite spots
Brian and Lillian McGinty
Kenoza Lake, Haverhill: Flat, with a beautiful view of the lake throughout the walk’s entirety.
Deer Jump Reservation, Andover: A beautiful view all along the Merrimack River, about a 45- to 55-minute walk.
Goldsmith Woodlands, Andover: A lovely woods walk; at the very end is a picnic table overlooking a pond.
Bald Hill Reservation, Andover: Woodsy, with 3.3 miles of public trails.
Stevens to Stevens Trail, Old North Andover Common: A 1-mile, off-road route from the Stevens-Coolidge Place to Weir Hill.
West Parish Meadow, Andover: Includes an esker, a ridgelike geological formation left over from the last Ice Age.
Den Rock Park, Lawrence: Offers four different trails to explore.
Halibut Point State Park, Rockport
Wingaersheek Beach, Gloucester (unleashed dogs allowed on odd-numbered days from Oct. 1 through April 30)
Maudslay State Park, Newburyport
Den Rock Park, Lawrence
Benson Park, Hudson, New Hampshire
Without the dog:
Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Plum Island
Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, Topsfield (now closed until further notice by Mass Audubon)
Michael and Alma Macdonald
Peabody’s Independence Greenway: Fully paved, 5.3-mile trek from the Northshore Mall to the Ipswich River on the Middleton line (except for a gap between Peabody Road and Lt. Ross Park necessitated by Route 1 and Interstate 95).
Unpaved, but easily walkable rail trail beginning at the Interstate 95 overpass over Lowell Street in Peabody and continuing through Danvers, Wenham and Topsfield, ending in Boxford. The Danvers Rail Trail portion is about 4.3 miles long, from which there are branches to Middleton and back to West Peabody. The Topsfield Linear Common portion is about 4 miles.
Short, paved rail trail in Salem from near the MBTA station to Fort Avenue, and another from Mill Street in Salem to the Marblehead line, where it connects to the unpaved roadbed to the site of the former Marblehead station, with a branch back to the Swampscott line.