Briar Swamp Circle

Go to Rockport. Go west on Railroad Avenue. Pass Dunkin Donuts without stopping. Turn left onto Summit Avenue and go up to a town park on right where there is ample parking. Alternately, continue up Summit Avenue to the gate at the water tank and a “No Trespassing” sign. There is a small parking area beside road. Do not take the well-used trail next to the sign; it goes down past houses to an athletic field. Ignore the “No Trespassing” sign and proceed around the south edge of the field until you reach an old road. The old road is the entrance to Dogtown Common via the Town Forest Trail; you will note that there are no signs indicating this.


My wife and I began here on an overcast July morning. The old road leads one gently through modestly mesic hardwoods and past occasional wet patches of red maple. Good oak, beech and some sweet birch. The ground cover is that of a typical northern forest with wild sarsaparilla the predominant species. The walking is easy. The drizzle starts at 9 AM. Under umbrella my Boston-born wife wanders off on side paths looking for a Starbucks. Thunder and lightening greet us at the edge of Briar Swamp at about 1/3 mile from trailhead. We return to Rockport and stop at Dunkin Donuts.


Figure 14. Trail at eastern edge of Briar Swamp.


I retrace our steps the next day under a clear sky. A ten-minute walk brings me to the swamp edge where I proceed south around the swamp. Here there is lush shrub vegetation under oak, red maple, birch and beech. Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is added to my list of Dogtown shrubs, and I note the abundance of mountain laurel along the trail, almost like one would see commonly along trails in New England mountains or in the Smokies further south. High bush blueberry and huckleberries gather at water’s edge. The swamp appears impenetrable, but botanically inviting. The rough trail passes hemlock, gray with defoliation and death by Adelges, then moves southwest close by the swamp’s edge. In this edge community I greet bluebead (Clintonia borealis), starflower (Trientalis borealis), Canada mayflower and wild sarsaparilla, all key species in northern and boreal forests. Pink ladyslipper (Cypripedium acaule), and one-flowered shinleaf or wintergreen (Moneses uniflora) are there too. The abundant presence of these species is indication that with protection Dogtown Common is gradually returning botanically to a pre-settler state.


This swamp-side trail intersects with the Luce Trail at “14”. You will immediately notice a low stone dam which was apparently built to prevent overflow into the Wine Brook watershed. (Overflow now occurs at a western outlet, and one crosses a small branch near “16” which originates in the swamp.) The nearby Ultimo Toneatti Boardwalk takes one across the south end of the swamp-bog. (The late Ultima Toneatti served with distinction as member and chairman of the Gloucester Conservation Commission and had a major role in Dogtown’s preservation.)


This swamp has been classified as Highbush Blueberry Thicket by the Massachusetts Heritage and Endangered Species Program (See Swain, P.C. and J.B. Kearsley. 2001. Noted above.). The higher vegetation also includes species common to Red Maple Swamp: red maple, high-bush blue berry, sweet pepperbush, winterberry (Ilex verticillata). But here you will notice that red maple has a dwarfed aspect, relatively short and shrub-like, rather than the tall dominant tree we see in swamps with better drainage and nutrition.


Dense stands of Virginia chain fern (Woodwardia virginica) dominate in the lower vegetation. This species is very much like cinnamon fern and is sometimes mistaken for it. However, its fronds have dark stalks, a slightly coarser appearance and grow from creeping rootstocks rather than in clusters from individual crowns. Looking at the surface of the swamp you will note the predominance of sphagnum mosses. There may be several including the common ones: Sphagnum capillifolium, S. squarrosum, S. palustre. Other reported common plants which may be found if you care to wade in (Please don’t wade in from the boardwalk.) are leather leaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata), sheep laurel(Kalmia angustifolia) and the ever popular carnivorous pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea). Since I haven’t yet waded in but have plans to do so, this list is certainly incomplete. In 2011, there was a great crop of small cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos) near the boardwalk.


Figure 15. Briar Swamp looking NW from the Ultimo Toneatti Boardwalk toward swamp edge.


I used Google Earth to get satellite imagery taken on June 19, 2010. While the swamp is clearly delineated, I saw no open water. If the area was initially bog, with a typical pond in the center, it has filled in over time as bogs will do. However, the topographic characteristics of the area (and the dam) suggest that it has always been poorly drained, thus allowing acid-adapted bog plants to settle there.


Exit the boardwalk and approach “15” on a tree. Continue to the right on the Luce Trail (old road) into a black oak overstory with scattered pitch pine. In gaps there are young oak, beech and red maple. Beside the trail a great old white oak (Quercus alba) remembers open country. Blueberry persists in the understory along with a few black cherry. There are patches of retreating (?) greenbrier similar to ones seen near Dogtown Road. And under it all northern dewberry (Rubus flagellaris) creeps through occasional patches of wintergreen. One senses the maturing forest, species replacing species as the landscape changes.


Location “16” is painted on both red maple and beech near a small creek (still running in July) which crosses the trail and is a high-water outlet for Briar Swamp. Thence up past a patch of lady fern and some sumac to the Whale Jaw and “17” painted on a rock in the trail. Whale Jaw consists of a couple of erratics which when looked upon with imagination may once have had the appearance of a whale’s jaw. Probably named back when local residents were preoccupied with whales’ jaws, it remains a fond landmark and walking destination for friends of Dogtown.


Continue north on the Luce old-road trail through black oak and its understory associates huckleberry, blueberry, bracken. I am continually surprised to see sassafras here and there in this northern coastal forest. There is also trailside cow wheat (Melampyrum lineare), a boreal annual commonly found in jack pine and red pine forests. Still flowering in August, it is a hemiparasite, getting part of its nutrition from friendly neighboring host plants. After about 300 yards the trail drops slightly to a more lush community of beech, birch and oak with a strong beech understory. I notice a clump of parasitic Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) characteristic of moist woods. The slight change in quality of the site along the trail (perhaps a more loamy soil and better moisture availability) has resulted in a substantial change in community. The trail then rises to oak again before reaching “18” at a trail intersection.


Last I looked in 2010, “18” was not painted on tree or rock, though one rock appeared to have been painted over. At the “18” intersection bear right (east) on the trail leading to Squam Rd. At about 100 yards from “18” take a yellow-blazed trail south to the north edge of Briar Swamp. This junction is not well marked and easily bypassed. Once on the unnamed trail, it is easy to follow and parallels the swamp edge on a slope overlooking the swamp. It passes through a nice black oak-red maple-beech forest similar to the one along the Town Forest Trail. Before intersecting with the Town Forest Trail, it passes over a rocky knob and stone wall, then past a large erratic with a good cover of lichens, mainly Peltigera sp. and/or Umbilicaria sp. This is another good place to argue over the identification of lichens.


Figure 16. Lichened boulder on knob at east end of Briar Swamp. Trail is at right of boulder.


The trail drops down from the knob to swamp-side, then shortly to the intersection with Town Forest Trail and a return to Summit Avenue. The intersection is not well marked, but easy to find if you have left a bit of bright surveyors’ flagging tape there when you came in. Be sure to take it out; nothing clutters up the bush like old flagging tape.