Walking the Beaver Tail
Getting off the beaten path reveals a new view of a beautiful valley
The view of North and South Sugarloaf and the Pocumtuck Range at right look like the head, body and tail of a beaver as seen from Whately.
CORRECTION: A fire road on a hiking trail provides access for vehicles.
The hilly terrain and miles of farm land stretched before me. Deerfield Academy, the Bar-Way Farm on Mill Village Road and Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory and Gardens were minuscule from this high up.
It was breathtaking. I could only marvel at the beauty of the valley below: the wide expanse of lush green farmland splashed with bright reds, oranges and yellows of autumn, not unlike a landscape oil-on-canvas painting, and in the faraway western horizon, the Berkshire foothills.
The measuring tool on my guide’s computer-generated topographical map later told me we’d traveled 2.5 miles to get here, which made it a round trip of over 5 miles. All I can say is that when I was done, my legs that walked it and my eyes that looked up at the hills from the valley below told me it was much longer. It felt and looked much more like 8 miles.
I’m referring to the recent Saturday hike I took with my Recorder colleague Gary Sanderson — sports editor, outdoor writer, hunter and local history buff — who called our journey, which began in late morning, on a clear, cool day, “walking the Beaver Tail.”
I felt a mix of accomplishment and thrill. I had hiked a portion of the upland path that’s part of the Pocumtuck Ridge Trail, which overlooks the Connecticut River to the east. The 15-mile long trail extends from Mount Sugarloaf in South Deerfield to Greenfield’s Rocky Mountain, a route that’s severed by the Deerfield River at Cheapside.
The trail is named after the Native American tribe that lived in the Connecticut River Valley when colonists arrived in the second quarter of the 17th century and largely vanished after King Philip’s War ended in 1676. Some of the ridge trail now passes through conservation land owned by the Franklin County Land Trust, near what locals like Gary call Clapp’s Pond. But let’s go back and start from the beginning.
I had arrived at Gary’s Greenfield Meadows home shortly after 10 a.m., ready for a brisk hike through the Pioneer Valley uplands. He told me to trust him, he’d figure out a good place to take me and his two English Springer spaniel gun dogs, Lily and Chubby. I didn’t know quite what to expect; having grown up in the city, I’d never gone hiking, unless you count the time I walked Purgatory Chasm State Reservation in Sutton as a kid. I saw hiking in Deerfield as my first real attempt at getting out into the country. My first mistake? Well, how about wearing an old pair of sneakers? Yes, I have to admit, I soon found myself yearning for sturdy hiking boots.
Driving from Greenfield to Deerfield along Routes 5 and 10, Gary and I took North Hillside Road onto Stage Road, where we parked his vehicle next to a water tower by a clearing in the trees that marked a trail head for the Pocumtuck Ridge Trail. On the way to the site, pointing toward the high hills from Route 5 and 10 in Wapping, Gary said Native American legend claims that the Sugarloafs and Pocumtuck Ridge are the petrified remains of a giant beaver killed by the great mythological figure Hobomock, who bludgeoned the “pesky rascal” in Lake Hitchcock, a post-glacial body of water that submerged the Connecticut Valley from northern Vermont to southern Connecticut about 15,000 years ago, Hobomock was said to have used the trunk of an oak tree to break the beaver’s neck and the animal sank to the bottom of the lake, only to reappear as a distinctive mountain range when the lake drained.
South Sugarloaf is the beaver’s head, the gap between it and North Sugarloaf is the distorted broken neck. The rest of the beaver’s body extends from North Sugarloaf along the rest of the Pocumtuck Ridge, with its tail extending into Cheapside.
“You’d have a hard time convincing me this wasn’t an Indian trail,” said Gary, as we walked along after the two spaniels. With a camera and notebook in my hand, I had to work to keep up because Gary moved swiftly into the forest as Lily and Chubby ran forward and to both sides in pursuit of wildlife scents, probably lots of it from wild turkeys. Walking through thick fallen leaves, stepping over jutting rocks and branches wasn’t easy, either. Gary explained that because Lake Hitchcock covered the lowlands, the upland trails predate the trails in the valley. Settlers from the 1600s first settled in fertile lowlands, then followed existing trails to the uplands, many of which had been kept clear for thousands of years by Native Americans who harvested nuts and berries there and manicured the landscape to improve the yield and their hunting prospects.
Because the indigenous path across Pocumtuck Ridge had been widened over the years to a cart path to accommodate wheeled vehicles, Gary said he couldn’t show me what a Native American trail looked like, but that there were many nearby that he could someday point out to me, some of them on the Sugarloafs he hiked often as a boy, others over on the western horizon that looked so far away from where we hiked. Years of walking the same paths leave an easily discernible depression on the forest, explained Gary, who wasn’t sure but figured the ridge trail we were traveling was probably designated a fire road, which is a strip of cleared land that helps prevents the spread of fire.
Several times along the way, Gary pointed out rusty wire fencing embedded deep into trees and said it tells you where the old pastures were, some dating back to the early 1800s and continuing into his lifetime, when there were many working Pine Nook farms. Soon we began an uphill trek that briefly made me out of breath. Maybe a quarter of the way into our hike, Gary spotted some large stones in the distance and suggested we explore a little. He did not remember ever before seeing them. Up close, one of the large rocks had a gaping cave or furnace-like hole in the middle. Another rock looked to Gary’s eye like it had been quarried for some reason, which he didn’t elaborate on. But the huge boulder did look like pieces had been chipped off of it.
Continuing our walk, we observed a fallen oak tree trunk. Gary called it a “deadfall” or “blowdown,” and said some enterprising homeowner would likely cut it up and split if for cordwood; in his mind, a perfectly acceptable country method of cleaning up the woods and procuring free winter fuel.
The forest appeared to be young, Gary said, with none of the large hardwoods he’s used to seeing in Conway, Ashfield, Whately and Williamsburg. Also, there were also no acorns on the ground, which told Gary deer are unlikely to come through this area and also explained why we didn’t flush any turkey flocks with the help of Lily and Chub-Chub, who, by the way, is not in the least bit chubby.
“Yeah, the poor fella,” said Gary. “I hate to give him a complex, but he was chubby as a pup and I didn’t expect to keep him. When I did, I kept the name, too. He’ll get over it.”
At about the midpoint of our trek, Gary and I reached the power lines and briefly rested as we looked over Interstate-91 from high above. We could see the Bar-Way Farm on Mill Village Road and Magic Wings in Deerfield. Even farther in the distance, we spotted Shelburne and Conway and Ashfield and beyond. Despite the at-times strenuous walk, I was surprisingly full of energy. I loved the splash of color in the trees, the peace of the forest and the cool fresh air on my cheeks.
Gary got me oriented by pointing out what we were looking at and abruptly said, “Let’s go. You asked for it,” as he barreled off farther north into the forest. To be honest, I’d thought the hike was finished, but I guess Gary felt ambitious. We were headed to Red Rock, a well-known promontory overlooking Old Deerfield and made of distinctive red sandstone. “Follow me,” Gary said.
As we walked, the trees began to thicken and darken. I saw yellow crime-scene tape surrounding a swath of land we approached. Then, nailed onto several tree trucks were threatening orange signs that read: “Posted — Private property. Hunting, fishing, trapping or trespassing for any purpose is strictly forbidden. Violators will be prosecuted.”
I asked Gary what had changed? Should we turn around?
“No,” he smiled, “we’re now on the property of a notorious outlaw I grew up with. You have nothing to worry about. He’s my friend. I learned to skate and fish with the man on Bloody Brook. In my world, friendship gets no deeper than that.”
He refused to give me the mystery man’s name.
Upon reaching Red Rock, we took our longest break to observe the beauty of the rolling hills on the Connecticut Valley’s western horizon.
As I peered across southwestern Franklin County, I felt alive and invigorated by the view, so natural and untouched. I felt grateful to be living in this beautiful slice of paradise.
Gary broke the silence.
“Well, the good news is that we’ve reached our destination,” he chuckled. “The bad news is that now we have to walk back.”
As we did an about-face to embark on a return journey of nearly 3 miles back to Gary’s truck, I knew I had discovered a new love: Hiking.
For more information on the Pocumtuck Ridge Trail, go online to:
Staff reporter Kathleen McKiernan has worked at The Recorder since 2012. She covers Deerfield, Conway, Sunderland and Whately. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.