EAST BRIDGEWATER -- There are no poisonous snakes in Massachusetts, except for the stray northern copperhead and the endangered and hydrophobic timber rattlesnake. So, crossing the Satucket River here is probably safe, though there's something about staring out over 25 feet of tea-brown water of unknown depth that makes me cringe. I have seen large snapping turtles nearby. If a 50-pounder hooks its beak into your shoe leather in deep water, you are going down like an anchor, but this is unlikely.
Really, the worst part of taking the plunge is the similarity soaked bicycle shorts have to a wet diaper.
We've been out for hours, following this last section of the Bay Circuit Trail from East Bridgewater to Duxbury, almost 200 miles from the trail's start at Plum Island. This patchwork of quiet hiking, biking, and equestrian trails loops around Boston between routes 128 and 495, and the beauty of it is that almost no one knows it exists.
Spring is an excellent time for this ride, as is fall. We do it in October, on Halloween.
It is 65 degrees and we are 30 miles south of Boston, but you'd think we were tramping around in the Maine woods. Hot and sweaty, we've spent more time pushing our mountain bikes through hanging vines and thorns than riding. Our legs are bleeding, our feet are caked in mud, but the sky is full of perfect puffy white cumulus clouds.
Earlier, I had visited Alan French, chairman of the Bay Circuit Alliance, expedition outfitter, and the trail's lone ranger. Semiretired since 1969, French runs Moor & Mountain, his outdoor store in Andover; since 1990, he has overseen the Bay Circuit Alliance. He is by all accounts a one-man army. The alliance has no paid employees, but still has found a way to mark and maintain trails, obtain grants, and save more than 4,000 acres from development. French has fought 14 years to make the Bay Circuit Trail a reality, forging coalitions with more than 100 warring land management organizations, nonprofit groups, state and federal agencies, and sometimes cranky abutters.
''Our primary mission is to get a walking trail from Ipswich to Duxbury," he said. ''I'd define Bay Circuit as adventure -- accessible moments of peace and tranquillity. . . . It's a little bit of an adventure to find your way. It's the difference between going out with a paid wilderness team and taking chances yourself. It can be something that's not life threatening."
With those words in mind, I plunge into the Satucket, pushing my bike through the muck.
The jigsaw puzzle that is the Bay Circuit Trail links national parks, state parks, haphazard green space (the errant backyard), and a lot of asphalt. Much like Boston's Emerald Necklace, a string of nine parks stretching from the Charles River to Franklin Park in Dorchester, inventors of the Bay Circuit sought to create an Outer Necklace.
Originally conceived by Benton MacKaye, father of the majestic, 2,000-mile-long Appalachian Trail, the Bay Circuit leads travelers past beautiful rivers, stone walls, beaver dams, Native American burial grounds, and birch forests as well as landfills, sewage treatment plants, and shopping malls. Zigzagging 200 miles, it cuts through panoramic vistas in eastern Massachusetts.
This is American history in the raw, the stuff you want to know and plenty that didn't make it into the history books.
Unlike the Appalachian Trail, which was cobbled together with federal money and the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Bay Circuit was never properly funded and has come to exist largely through the grit of French and his volunteers exerting their will over more than 30 towns, 50 reservations, and nearly 100 resource management organizations.
Poorly marked and often not marked at all, the trail encourages travelers to embrace the virtue of patience and a willingness to be lost.
What's irreplaceable about the trail is the way it connects time and place. Massachusetts is unusual in its natural beauty and its duration of colonization. Here, beside farmland and 17th-century architecture, battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War, and homes of early American literary stars (Henry David Thoreau and his pals), are surprises like the Crane mansion in Ipswich, Ford's Folly (a dam in Sudbury, built by Henry Ford, that never held water), and the occasional, abandoned, post-World War II
Mostly, however, the Bay Circuit is about following white plastic strips nailed to trees -- and here's where it gets tricky. Not every trail is blazed, and right now, stopped by the side of the road, I'm not sure where we enter the woods again. On the map I see a small ''Y" branch, where I believe the trail turns; then again, it could be a smudge. The trail maps, while colorful and backed by US Geological Survey data, are often wrong, making it hard to tell the difference between the Bay Circuit Trail, a shortcut to the neighborhood school, or a path to a compost pile. Then again, that's part of the fun.
We swoop down a utility road into a series of cranberry bogs. Sunken moats surround the bogs, cut into trapezoids and odd polygons. Welcome to Plymouth County, heart of Massachusetts' 14,000 acres of cranberries and home to Ocean Spray, the cooperative that harvests 65 percent of the nation's tart red berries. Many events related to King Philip's War took place here, too, but unless you grew up in a town burned to the ground by rampaging -- and some might say righteous Native Americans -- in 1675-1676, you've probably never heard of it.
Even so, Philip so scared the colonists that Massachusetts has yet to repeal the Indian Imprisonment Act of 1675, which to this day requires Native Americans entering Boston to petition the governor and be escorted by two ''Musqueteers" at all times, ''not to be suffered to lodge in Town, unless in Prison." Indeed.
The Bay Circuit Alliance is working hard to finalize the last 50 miles of trail, most of it near where we ride. This area has seen a blizzard of development, however, sprouting 3,500 new homes a year at the same time the 2004 census identified Massachusetts as the only state actually losing population. It's not all bleak, but as French said, the alliance needs more victories here.
After the bogs, the trail dumps us on a telegraph road between wetlands. We see an expanse of water and stands of cedar and maple trees beyond the brush. Far away in the distant hills, I see a water tower and to the north, a cranberry warehouse. This, I'm sure, is the Indian Crossway Dike leading over the Great Cedar Swamp. In 2002, the state purchased the swamp in Hanson and Halifax and quickly saw it incorporated into the Bay Circuit. A good place for an angler, it boasts a healthy population of bass, pickerel, and bullhead.
As we come off the Crossway Dike, we exit into the backyard of a modest house, a virtual dumping ground of smashed-up cars and trucks and an old yellow school bus missing its motor. We walk away swiftly to the tune of dogs barking.
It makes me wonder. In Thoreau's day, when people wanted some tranquillity, they just went walking. There was no need for a Bay Circuit Trail. Today, linking what's left of green space creates the illusion of wilderness, a sort of linear park. It's not perfect, but it works. When an old friend first suggested we ride this secret trail that bounds through about three dozen communities, including Medfield, our childhood hometown, I thought, ''This is an adventure that literally runs through the backyards where we rode Sting-Ray bikes 30 years ago. How can I not?"
Having now ridden the trail and pushed and pedaled the bike through dozens of backyards, I wonder what these towns would be like without even the illusion of wilderness and if those connected green spaces will be there when our children decide it would be fun to walk from Plum Island to Duxbury.
Sam Nejame is a contributing editor at The Ride magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.