Tarr Trail and Swamp Border

Dogtown Common is only a little over 2.5 miles long (south to north) and about one mile wide according to the Dogtown Common Trail Map. But it probably contains 15 to 20 miles of trails, depending upon one’s definition of “trail”. They range from old roads to a “hint of a path among the rocks”. In this guide I have so far selected six circular walks for description. In doing this I have attempted to cover the various topographic and vegetative characteristics of the area as well as some of the historic features. If you own an iPhone, Blackberry, or other advanced communication device, it can be used to access this guide as you stroll (or struggle) through these walks.


This walk begins at the Babson Museum on Route 127 between Gloucester and Rockport. There is parking space at the museum and near the adjacent meadow. (In late summer, the meadow edges provide good opportunity for observing a variety of flowering perennials. A visit to the museum will acquaint one with 17th century tools used in the region.) The trail begins at the western end of a gravel E-W road south of the museum and is within 100 yards of the building. There is no trail sign and one can easily miss the narrow entrance. It proceeds through dense shrub, vine and herbaceous vegetation to the railroad track. Greenbrier, blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis), hardhack (Spirea tomentosa), sumac (Rhus glabra), black cherry, and grape (Vitis sp.) are mixed with late-summer perennials such as golden rods (Solidago sp.), bone set (Eupatorium perfoliatum), joe pie weed (Eupatorium  purpureum), and jewel weed (Impatiens biflora):



“Weed” a misnomer, annual,
the gentle plant which fills brook banks,
soft moist coves, springy places.
Eschewing the toil of hardiness,
it has selected fall’s quick death,
reliance on progeny.
We celebrate spring seedlings waist high by June
in shiny, succulent canopies
from Carolinas to Quebec.
Flowers in July
to the accompaniment of wood-thrush music.
Stinging nettles may lurk in its attractive companionship;
elderberry thrives there.
And delighted children aid in its dispersal,
disobeying “touch-me-not”.


Brush aside these plants and arrive at the railroad track about 30 yards in. On the west side of tracks the trail quickly moves into Red Maple Swamp (See Swain P.C. and J.B. Kearsley. 2001. cited above) and crosses an ancient stone bridge over a small creek connecting two sections of swamp. (According to the Map, the swamp has no name; I suggest Babson Swamp) The trail then intersects an old road which runs N-S along the border of the swamp.


Figure 1. Red maple swamp near Babson’s Museum with cinnamon fern in foreground.


Before turning south on the road you might enjoy a romp through the swamp if you have brought knee boots or better. As you can see from Figure 1, there is a rich shrub layer and lots of cinnamon fern. You will squish though sphagnum moss (Sphagnum sp.) in some places. I have noted that in Dogtown sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) is especially prominent at margins of wet areas. There’s also arrow-wood (Viburnum dentatum), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and silky dogwood (Cornus amomum).


But the main attraction is red maple, which has the rare capability (in trees) of thriving under both very wet and very dry conditions; this is well demonstrated in Dogtown Common. It has also genetically adapted itself to climates from Florida to Maine to northwestern Ontario. The abundant seed resulting from early spring flowering are dispersed in late spring and early summer. Some will germinate immediately and others (from the same tree) commonly require a period of moist chilling (i.e. overwintering) before developing into seedlings. Through this technique red maple spreads its survival bet across years. The seedlings can grow under the shade of other trees (at least for several years) which also increases its fitness for survival. No wonder it has a wider range than any other tree species in eastern North America. And there’s probably a lot more red maple in the Dogtown area now than when the first settlers arrived. You are tramping by one of the world’s most successful trees.


Follow the old-road path south (What! You forgot your compass. Go back and get it.) for about 300 yards to a point where Wine Brook crosses the path (Figure 2). (Note the jumble of large boulders on the hillside immediately west of the trail. They are on the edge of the terminal moraine on which Dogtown sits. Put yourself back about 10,000 years and listen to the glacier’s retreat, dropping its debris, now still in place.) There is a stone bridge-culvert under which Wine Brook flows into the swamp.


Figure 2. Bridge-culvert on Wine Brook in July.


The dark color of the creek results from organic matter in the swampy area from which the brook originates. Turn right (NW) at the brook and follow path up its west side for about 200 yards to the painted numeral “12” on a birch tree (Figure 3).


Note: Painted numerals refer to numbers on the Map and will be guideposts in your walks. Most of them are on trees, a few on large rocks. I am told that these markers frequently disappear or are painted over and that no definitive permanent system of trail markers exists at present. In 2010, I found that most of them were in place, but don’t totally rely on them for guidance.


Figure 3. Location 12 near Wine Brook.


Here you are in a moist, rich brookside site where there is good tree growth for beech, birch, maple, oak and a hemlock or two. There is moosewood or striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) and witch hobble (Viburnum alnifolium) in the shaded shrub layer and wild sarsaparilla everywhere in the herb layer. (To designate the height to which plants occur in a community, we refer to layers: tree, shrub, herb and sometimes “ground” for mosses and lichens.) This area is probably filled with vernals, those “wild flower” species which leaf-out and have sex in early spring, then commonly die back to root systems during summer. There are enough mosses to keep a bryologist busy for a half day. When the brook is “bold” in spring and early summer, this is a good place to linger meditatively for a while. In late summer and fall it’s a trickle.


The trail (sometimes a faint path here) divides: To the west it moves up through large rock, white pine and black oak as the Moraine Trail. There is a bit of an unnamed trail going north beside the brook. It dissolves into the forest in a few hundred yards, but presents an opportunity to further observe the community and listen to the brook. Cross the brook at “12” and make the stiff climb east up Tarr Trail over about 50 feet of elevation. (You already know this if you have looked at the map’s contour lines.) Then it tops out on a boulder field ridge supporting oak, beech and an occasional white pine. The trail follows the ridgeline NW, drops slightly into a saddle, passes a primitive wall of rocks beyond the strength of humans to lift, then enters a dense young stand of beech beneath oak. Canada mayflower, wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) and wild sarsaparilla further define this northern forest. The presence of young beech is encouraging, an indication that restoration is progressing nicely. Then in an opening, a birch with painted numeral “13”.


At this point one may decide to bear left (NNW) and take a short side trip up the Luce Trail to visit the Raccoon Ledges area.


In doing so one passes over gentle terrain on a well-trodden trail through open stands of oak and beech. In late summer, leaves on the oak have been partly shredded by defoliators such as the gypsy moth, long a New England pest. There are occasional paper birch and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), but the forest has an open aspect resulting perhaps from deer browse. The upland rock is well mossed, and Canada “mayfluers” and wintergreen are sparsely present. In this morning there is wood thrush sound off toward the wet area to the west. But we have seen little evidence of wildlife so far, not so much as a squirrel.


Figure 4. Luce Trail through oak and beech north of “13”.

Note typical trail marker on tree to left of path.

Also note that most of the oak is of sprout origin (coppice) as evidenced by multiple stems.


One reaches the Raccoon Ledges area about 1/3 mile up the trail. The pile of terminal moraine boulders (Raccoon Ledges) north of the trail has probably defied most vegetation since its deposition. Only lichens (e.g. Peltigera sp.) and the common polyplody fern (Polypodium vulgare) have managed establishment, mainly because they can withstand the severely droughty conditions on rocks. As you already know, lichens are combinations of algae and fungi living in blatant symbiosis. Many of the Peltigera lichens have a cyanobacterial symbiant which can fix atmospheric nitrogen. “So what”, you say. I say, “Every little bit counts”.


I believe this may be the spot that modernist Marsden Hartley used as subject for his famous painting titled Dogtown. His In the Moraine and Blueberry Hill also look familiar to areas I’ve seen in the Common. Last I looked Dogtown was selling for about $750,000.


Figure 5. Terminal moraine boulders near Raccoon Ledges.

Note common polyplody ferns on rock at right foreground.


Return to “13” by retracing steps. Proceed down (SE) through a dense stand of young beech. Then very steeply down through boulders to base of hill where you will be greeted by a great primitive boulder wall west of the trail. One imagines back to the 1600’s (?) when these stones were rolled into a line by oxen and men. What were they keeping in – or out - in this boulder field? If a property line, why not iron stakes?


Figure 6. Typical Dogtown rock wall southeast of “13”.


If you are too tired to proceed at this point, you may continue down the trail for 20 yards, intersect a gravel road, cross the railroad (watch out for high-speed trains) and hitch a ride down Rt. 127 to your car at the Babson Museum. Should you wish to complete the walk, step through the opening in the wall and proceed down the trail through beech and sweet birch saplings. Before reaching the swamp edge (which it parallels) the path passes through an opening being vigorously occupied by healthy white pine saplings. This is one of the many scattered openings in Dogtown which support new white pine. Foresters call it “regeneration”. While white pine seedlings may persist in shade for a few years, they ultimately require full sunlight for good growth, and this opening presents good opportunity.


The trail quickly becomes wet as we move SW through luxurious stands of cinnamon fern under red maple. It is not well marked, but generally sticks to the base of the moraine at swamp edge. At times we wade through patches of sphagnum moss. I note a relatively rare yellow birch at swamp edge. Sweet pepperbush and spice bush are again abundant in the shrub layer. Quiet in the late summer afternoon, I imagine the sound of frogs in spring. Look carefully for the side trail back to the museum – or you will go around again.


Figure 7. Luxurious cinnamon fern under red maple at edge of Babson Swamp.