Dogtown Road and Babson Boulder Trail

This walk begins on the west side of Dogtown Common at the official entrance (“D” on the “map”) where there is a small parking lot. Proceed along gravel road under black oak and black cherry. There are moosewood, sumac and common exotic and native herbs along roadside. Thence through the Gloucester city composting yard with its piles of organic debris. Continue NE on the old road past Trail G which cuts across it. The road- trail climbs very gradually towards Dogtown Square through a low bordering woodland of bushy red cedar, black oak, sumac, gray and paper birch, black cherry and sassafras (Figure 8). Perhaps even a trembling aspen. Most are “pioneer species” on this dry rocky upland, the first to invade open land. Here black cherry is nothing like its grand brothers in western Pennsylvania and New York, the material of fine furniture; it’s just a small tree which dies early after prolifically producing seed. Seed of these tree species are spread into open areas by birds and wind. Even oaks can move rapidly into disturbed areas via blue jays which bury caches of acorns at undisclosed locations, then forget them. There’s got to be a metaphor in there somewhere.

 

Figure 8. Dogtown Road trail.

 

The trail passes by open, rocky areas yet to be invaded by trees. Shrubs such as bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera), exotic honeysuckles (Lonicera sp), chokeberry (Aronia melanoarpa), hardhack, greenbrier, shadbush (Amelanchier sp.) and poison ivy are much in evidence. And there must be a chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) around here somewhere. In the openings there are grasses, golden rods, asters (Aster sp.), bracken fern and all manner of minor herbaceous perennials. Greenbrier, a favorite food of deer (the young tender sprouts) gives me first sign of deer presence in the area: vines pruned back by distinctive deer browse (a ragged edge at point of severance).

 

Dogtown history has it that blueberries sustained the residents at one time. There are still some open spots where there is enough sunlight to produce a crop on low sweet (Vaccinium angustifolium) bushes, which remain present in the area. But trees are moving in. Blueberries will persist under their shade, but will produce few berries. If one wants a good berry patch, one needs to burn over the place periodically.

 

There are side trails everywhere along the Dogtown Road, some on the map, some which just wander around in the bush. Explore the area. Everyone is required to visit the stone near “18” where in 1892 James Merry was killed by his bull. The postmodernist poet, Charles Olson, gives much attention to this killing in his Maximus poems, especially Maximus, From Dogtown -1. Olson spent a good part of his life in Gloucester, some of it with an apparent Dogtown obsession from which emerged much poetic reference to the area.Scattered through his postmodernist style, there is much that is lyrical and even informative. See especially The Cow of Dogtown. Elyssa East’s chapter on Olson (in her book noted above) treats his role in the Dogtown saga well I think.

 

Come back to the road trail before you get to “7” at Dogtown Square. To the north-east and adjacent to the road is the small Granny Day Swamp, a larger version of which we will encounter at Briar Swamp on another walk. Without an obvious outlet for water, Granny Day Swamp may have once been a bog, with all of a bog’s vegetative features (e.g. acid tolerating, ericaceous species). Perhaps we will thoroughly investigate this someday. At the moment we notice again the presence of sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), a Dogtown favorite common at trail-sides in shade and sun. Here it is bordering the swamp, and in late July still blooming with its terminal racemes (spikes) of white flowers. There is also a sweet pepperbush near the rock at “7” growing on drier soil where its leaves are smaller than those of its swampy neighbor. I’ve noticed this site-related difference throughout Dogtown Common. The shrub also has the capability of suckering from roots (like aspen, sumac, sassafras) which gives it advantage in areas having periodic disturbances. Root suckering also allows sweet pepperbush to develop clones of genetically identical plants. But we simply enjoy its deep summer green and autumn orange.

 

Figure 9. Dogtown Square: The center of everything.

 

Continuing north on the Wharf Road trail will get one into the northern half of the Common. We will proceed east (turn right) through the village of cellar holes (cellars that were under residents’ houses), then down the Babson Boulder Trail to the Babson Reservoir. At least thirty-four cellar holes have been identified and are listed by number, former occupancy and geographic coordinates in Mark Carlotto’s The Dogtown Guide. Some cellar holes have memorial stones bearing their carved numbers. Faint paths to cellar holes and Babson Boulders are everywhere. Continue southeast on the main trail through young “second growth” forest to “8”, high on a tree. Bear right (south) on Babson Boulder Trail which passes through the main population of “world-famous” Babson Boulders, erratics and large boulders inscribed with aphorisms. Their inscriptions and locations are given in The Dogtown Guide, and there is a good map of their locations at www.thedacrons.com/eric/dogtown.

 

The trail goes through forest that appears to be developing through the brush-wood stage. Small stems of red maple, sweet birch, oak just beginning to feel like a forest. Red cedar and gray birch in decline, ground cover beginning the appearance of a northern forest. Patches of grass hanging on in open areas. More greenbrier. Blueberries and huckleberries (Gaylussacia sp.) are prominent in the understory, a taxonomic jumble that may be confusing. Here there may be “low bush” (V. angustifolium) as the main species, but also taller species, perhaps (Vaccinium corymbosum). The taller huckleberries may include Gaylussacia baccata.

 

With a good field guide try your hand at species identification. Huckleberries are easily distinguished from blueberries by their fruit, which contains ten hardened seed, great for wildlife, but not so much for humans. Within genera, however, species probably mingle sexually to produce all manner of taxonomically confusing progeny. Horticulturists have taken advantage of this to breed hybrids that produce most of the berries we buy. But there are no substitutes for wild blueberries, picked (in competition with bears) in recent “forest burns” from northern Ontario to Rockport.

 

Figure 10. A Babson Boulder.

 

Within 100 yards down the Babson Boulder Trail a side path to the left (east) quickly leads one to the boulder carrying my grandfather’s favorite aphorism, “Use your head boy!”, which as a teenager, I often didn’t. (If you can’t find it, you are lost; go back to “8”, and try again.) Most of the 26 Babson Boulders are scattered along the trail from Dogtown Square to Babson Reservoir. All present marvelous opportunities as background for family portraits. I won’t repeat comment on them found in other publications noted above. But I do note that they become more distressing as one moves south, ending south of the Babson Reservoir with such discouraging maxims as: “WORK”, “SAVE”, “BE CLEAN”, “HELP MOTHER” and “GET A JOB”.

 

The trail moves gradually down for ¼ mile through second growth over bracken fern and blueberry, then drops steeply down to a more mesic (better moisture) forest (understory of mountain laurel and sweet pepperbush) before reaching the reservoir. After “WORK” but before “TRUTH” an un-named trail takes off to the right (NW) at “22” on an oak.

 

Figure 11. Lush interior of forest adjacent to “22”.

Note: Trail almost obscured by ferns and shrubs.

 

This un-named trail leads immediately down into a luxurious forest (for this part of the world) of oak, red maple, birch and beech (Figure 11). In addition to cinnamon fern, one may encounter lady fern and New York fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis) in this type of habitat. Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), moosewood, sweet pepperbush, and spicebush are frequently occurring shrubs. The path crosses a small wet-weather brook which invites one to “sit a spell” in this cool place before the short, stiff climb back up to the Dogtown plateau. (Don’t confuse this trail with the Old Gravel Road trail (G) which begins at the reservoir’s shore and isn’t as interesting.)

 

Figure 12. Scramble up through a boulder field. Path?

 

After relaxing, enjoy the rough ascent through boulder field (Figure 12) to a minor summit and rock wall, thence down to a small area of red maple. There is a small wooden bridge crossing a wet area dominated by red maple. False Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosa) and decaying skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) suggest a relatively rich herbaceous flora here, worth checking out on another trip. Another good place to dally if mosquitoes allow. Then up slightly to stroll through pleasant oak forest (Figure 13) for ½ mile to Dogtown Road and back west to the parking area. Before reaching the Dogtown Road the trail branches; both branches go directly to the road. It is somewhat surprising that remnants of pioneer species such as aspen and birch are in short supply here in this oak forest that was once the colony’s main farmland. However, it has been a long time since the first forest reoccupation of the field. Perhaps the early occupiers have been long shaded out by oak. Altogether this circular walk moves one through the variety of vegetation and physiographic characteristics found in the Common. This and its interesting historical features make it my favorite Dogtown hike.

 

Figure 13. Trail through typical oak forest on Dogtown plateau.