Friday, July 1, 2016

Norwell’s Pathway and More

The Pathway at Donovan Farm

I mentioned Norwell’s relatively new Pathway in an earlier article this year as something I was planning to investigate for a more detailed report. Investigation complete, I’m back with great news about all sorts of options for outdoor adventure and fun!

“The Pathway” in Norwell is a project that has been unfolding over the past few years. A network of paved cycling/walking trails, sidewalks and boardwalks, The Pathway provides an alternative to crossing town via Route 123. If you park near the Norwell Middle School (328 Main Street), you can travel more than a mile in either direction – west to the high school or east to the Norris Reservation. What’s more, there are a number of conservation properties along the route, offering various diversions.

Last month I had an opportunity to jog the entire length of the Pathway. If you leave your car in the lot at Gaffield Park, the playground at the corner of Forest and River Streets, you’ll be perfectly positioned for a round-trip Pathway journey. The Pathway is essentially a sidewalk along Forest Street, but it’s a nice new sidewalk!

A short distance past the playground, more or less across the street from 83 Forest Street, is Miller Woods, a 45-acre conservation area managed by the Town of Norwell. There is a small (4-car) parking area, and a network of walking trails through pine forest and red maple swamp. You could take a short walk around the first loop trail, or a longer one, going deeper into the property. All told, the average visitor could walk all of the trails in Miller Woods in about an hour.

The Pathway crosses Forest Street twice – before Miller Woods and a short distance after it. As you approach the intersection with Circuit and Pleasant Streets, you arrive at another town-managed open space parcel, the Donovan-Wildcat Conservation Area. If you travel the back roads of Norwell at all, you’re probably familiar with the Donovan property: acre upon acre of green fields, along with an historic farmhouse. The farm’s fields are leased for agricultural purposes, but there is a short trail around two sides of the perimeter – plenty of space to amble along and enjoy the view.

Just up Circuit Street, toward the Council on Aging, you’ll find an 8-car parking area on the left. This is a great starting point if you’d like to explore the larger, more diverse conservation lands around Wildcat Hill. Past the parking area and across Circuit Street, just a little farther up the road, look for two wooden posts with painted blazes in Norwell’s town colors, blue and gold. This is one of several trailheads for the Wildcat Conservation Area. 

A bench in Wildcat Conservation Area.

For Wildcat, which offers a number of intersecting loops trails, I recommend you download a brochure and map from the Town of Norwell’s website (see link below). You’ll pass along the back side of the Donovan farm, and then into the woods. Route-wise, there are numerous options, and most of them are marked with blue or white blazes. There are even a few wooden signs with arrows.

On the day of my visit, the property was a sea of green, with the trees in near-full leaf-out and ferns sprouting up everywhere. The woodlands are diverse – some pine, some maple, some beech – and at a few of the trail intersections, you’ll find a wooden bench for rest or contemplation. Eventually the trails connect with Wildcat Lane, where there is another small parking area. The trails are rough at some points. While they are relatively flat (with the exception of those that climb Wildcat Hill), they can be rocky. There’s evidence that they can be muddy at times as well.

One of many old stone walls in Wildcat Conservation Area.

Getting back to The Pathway, the intersection of Forest and Circuit Streets is where it becomes a true cycling and walking trail. Wider than the sidewalk, with marked lanes, The Pathway continues to the Middle School complex. Along the way, it skirts the edge of the Donovan fields, and then snakes through woods and wetlands, and even over streams (thanks to some beautifully-built boardwalks). 

One of the aforementioned boardwalks.
Eventually The Pathway emerges at the far edge of some of the town’s soccer and lacrosse fields, continues past the Transfer Station, and dips back into the woods for its final leg. Additional boardwalks and paved sections lead to Cushing Hill Road, a residential street that intersects with South Street. Across the road and down a short distance is Norwell’s high school/library complex.

If you have young cyclists in your family – children who are learning to ride a bike, who would enjoy the adventure of leaving the neighborhood – I recommend the middle section of The Pathway as an intermediate step before attempting larger parks like Wompatuck. Park at the Middle School.

And if you enjoy jogging (walking too!), I’m pleased to report that The Pathway is a great place to run. Starting at Gaffield Park, you’ll pretty much be going uphill the entire way, but that means on the way home, you’ll be heading downhill. It’s a pretty path, safe underfoot, and an excellent way to explore the town of Norwell.

Norwell’s Conservation Commission’s website is an excellent resource for all of the town’s open space properties. Now that I’ve found it, I’ll be exploring more of them in the months ahead. Follow this link for more information, and to download property guides and maps.

by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
June 2016

Kezia Bacon's articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 20 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Rattlesnakes in the Blue Hills!

Descending a rocky slope on the Skyline Trail in the Blue Hills.

It was a bright afternoon in May. I was hiking up a steep trail near the crest of Buck Hill in Milton, noticing about how warm the rock ledge at my feet felt, having absorbed the heat of the sun all day, and musing on how nice it would be to lie down upon it. And then I remembered that snakes like to stretch themselves out over warm rocks too . . . And that I had read something recently about rattlesnakes in the Blue Hills. . . And that maybe I should watch my step.

Given the fact that there were probably a hundred other hikers on the trail to Buck Hill that day, there wasn’t any cause for concern. Snakes don’t gravitate toward well-trafficked areas. But it got me thinking that I should educate myself more thoroughly on the matter. To put it mildly, I’m not fond of snakes. It would be better to know what to expect than to ruin a hike by imagining them lurking around every corner!

We typically associate rattlesnakes with the desert, and do not expect to encounter them close to home. However about 200 timber rattlesnakes currently reside in Massachusetts. Most often they inhabit wooded mountainous areas with steep rocky ledges and ample populations of rodents . . . although they are sometimes found in fields and wetlands too. Populations in our state are concentrated in the Berkshires, the Connecticut River Valley and the Blue Hills. Nationwide, they make their home throughout much of the eastern US, as far west as central Texas in the south, and to Wisconsin in the north. While they are abundant in the southern Appalachians, here in the northeast, populations are quite small.

The timber rattlesnake hibernates for the colder half of the year, but becomes active in Massachusetts around the middle of April. After emerging from the underground crevices in which is spends the winter, it makes its way onto rock ledges where it can bask in the sun to keep warm. (Like many snakes, the timber rattler is ectothermic, meaning it cannot regulate its own body temperature.) In the spring, activity is minimal, although some mating does occur. After mating, the snakes move away from the den -- males to dense forest, where the hunting is good; females to fields and less-dense forest, where temperatures are warmer. Baby snakes are born alive after about 4-5 months. They all return to the den in September or October, depending on the weather. The average life span for a timber rattlesnake is 10-15 years.

A brown Timber Rattlesnake. (Photo credit Anne Stengle/Mass Wildlife)
 The standard description of a timber rattlesnake includes the phrase “pit viper,” which sends chills up my spine. If you’re imagining a teeming pit of angry, venomous snakes (as I first did), please take my hand and we’ll back away from that erroneous image together. A timber rattlesnake is large – three to five feet in adulthood, 8-16 inches a birth, with a broad triangular head and rough-looking scales. It can range in color from black or brown to rust or dark yellow. The underside is light in color, sometimes with dark flecks. It has bands across its back and sides, but none on its head or face. Its tail is solid black, with a rattling structure at its end that grows with each successive shedding of skin, but is sometimes lost in that same process. The term “pit viper” refers to the pits on either side of its head – super-sensitive nerve endings that can detect radiant heat.

Timber rattlesnakes don’t eat people. Not even small ones! They prefer mice, chipmunks and other warm-blooded rodents, plus sometimes birds, bugs and amphibians. They hunt by day in the spring and fall, but become nocturnal in the summer, when their prey becomes more active at night. Here the sensory pits are especially useful – they help the snake to detect warm-blooded prey in the dark. Timber rattlesnakes see pretty well, especially when an object is moving, but they can also track prey via its scent, or by sensing vibrations in the ground.

A timber rattlesnake has two large fangs at he front of its mouth, plus a number of smaller teeth along its jaw. The fangs, which fold back onto the roof of the snake’s mouth and are covered by a sheath when the jaw is closed, are conduits for venom. Hunting consists primarily of lying motionless – watching and waiting -- with intervals of prowling. Attacking prey comes first. Injecting venom, the volume of which the snake can control, is a secondary measure.

When it comes to humans, a timber rattlesnake will strike and bite only as a last resort. When disturbed or threatened, it will rattle its tail, which should be enough to send most people packing. The timber rattlesnake prefers to be left alone, and will back away from a human if possible. It will probably fight back if touched, though. It’s helpful to know that the last reported fatality from a timber rattlesnake bite in Massachusetts was in 1791.

Due to declining populations, the timber rattlesnake is now an Endangered Species in Massachusetts. Its habitat has been diminished over the years, and a lot of lives have been lost through ill-fated road crossings. Just as much of a threat, however, is hunting. Whether it’s snake collectors, or people who come upon a snake and kill it out of fear, timber rattlesnake numbers have been greatly reduced in the past 25 years.

You may have heard recent news reports about a statewide effort to protect timber rattlesnakes. They would be captured in the wild as newborns, raised in captivity (at the Roger Williams Zoo) and then released to their birth area when they are old enough to fend for themselves. (This would amount to no more than ten snakes released per year.) Nothing controversial, until the release plan changed and there was talk about designating Mt. Zion, a 1400-acre island in the Quabbin Reservoir without human access, as their new home. “Rattlesnake Island” sounds like a horror movie, so there was a fair amount of public outcry. The issue remains undecided.


by Kezia Bacon
April 2016 
Kezia Bacon's articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 20 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit