This post originally appeared here, on the Friends of the Middlesex Fells blog:
As a working mom of two young children, the late afternoon run, especially a trail run, is a rare and luxurious treat. It is as if my very cells seize the chance to exalt in the rush of blood, oxygen, and vitamin D before the dwindling sunlight fades to black.
Whip Hill Park is 30 acres of hilly woods adjacent to the Middlesex Fells Reservation managed by the town of Stoneham. There’s a grand old turn-of-the-century manor house at the top of it, a magical pine grove, crumbling stone walls, a vernal pool, and impressive rock formations. To say the woods on Whip Hill are beautiful any time of year is putting it mildly. If you’re anything like me (and most likely you are if you’re reading this) you would think so too.
It was one of the last days of winter. With every step, my foot broke through snow like fancy restaurant creme brûlée. The light bouncing off the sheen of ice gave me the slightest feeling of dread as I imagined slipping and falling alone in the woods. I careened down the path anyway. The temperatures rose into the fifties and warm sunlight filtered through the naked branches. Spring was about to burst on the scene.
With countless things to think about I found myself thinking exclusively about my children. Alone on the trail, my little people back home felt like invisible appendages I’d haplessly taken with me.The memory of their feverish little bodies climbing on me, their silky heads in my lap, and their warm breath in my face was like a permeable barrier to the crisp fresh air.
I slowed down as I approached the section of the trail below a prominent rocky cliff. In warmer weather my kids and I had discovered a man-made lean-to of pine boughs and branches built against one side of it high up on the rock. Obscured by the abundant foliage we were amazed to stumble upon it during one of our adventures. The structure was just big enough for all three of us to huddle inside together. Inexplicably, we dubbed it the “bear cave,” and checked back on it all summer and fall. Several months had passed and from where I stood below I didn’t see our cave, so I ventured off the path and into deeper snow to investigate further. I trudged up the embankment to the spot where I thought the cave/ lean-to once stood, but it was gone. Things looked so different covered in snow, though; I couldn’t be certain if I was in the right spot. I looked around again, noticing the muffled silence so unique to a snowy landscape, and imagined the strong winds and driving snow that may have led to our bear cave’s undoing. Was that branch strewn over there once a piece of the cave? There was no telling.
Resuming my run, I entered the reservation proper, where the trail widens and splits in multiple directions. With new purpose I headed off in search of new landmarks and woodland destinations to delight my children.The massive felled tree decomposing along the edge of a trail caught my attention. It was at least as long as the goal line of a football field. The thick trunk, perched precariously off the ground, was still held up by the strength of its once mighty branches. Giant centipede? A combine on a farm? Fire breathing dragon? Before passing by the grand tree in its final resting place I paused and looked back. Sleeping brontosaurus, I thought. I imagined telling my son and daughter about this ungainly brontosaurus I met in the woods near Whip Hill, and I could almost see the familiar look of recognition in my son’s eyes when I brought him back here to see for himself.
The warm light took on a bluish hue as I made my way out of the woods and turned toward home. Mentally I made a list of what we would need for our return trip as a family adventure took shape in my mind. Magnifying glasses, minnow nets, maybe two of those compasses for kids, some zip lock bags… A book about plants?
And the bear cave. I wasn’t fully convinced it wasn’t hiding on me, the adult with insufficient powers of wonder and amazement. It very well could have been obscured in some magical way, reserving itself for my worthy little companions to uncover anew in the early days of spring.