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Courting legends, inspiration in Lynn Woods

At Lynn Woods, the deer population has grown to about 70. At Lynn Woods, the deer population has grown to about 70. (Meg Pier for The Boston Globe)
By Meg Pier
Globe Correspondent / January 24, 2010

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LYNN - I had lived in Nahant for more than a decade when a friend told me about the 2,200-acre park in neighboring Lynn.

“From the first day I went, I was hooked by its beauty and it’s been a sanctuary for me ever since,’’ Maria Manning said. “One of the most tranquil memories I have of winter was two years ago. My year-old son was asleep in the stroller and our dog Molly was on a leash. In the middle of our walk, it started to snow. It was so quiet we could hear a pin drop. Suddenly, Molly and I heard something off in the distance. It was two beautiful white-tailed doe. They stared at us with their sweet brown eyes, and then quickly galloped off. That was right before Christmas. It certainly put me in the spirit.’’

The ninth biggest city in the state, Lynn is largely known as home to industries like General Electric and manufacturers ranging from those that have shod Revolutionary soldiers to putting marshmallow in your sandwiches. But perhaps its best-kept secret is Lynn Woods Reservation, a forested park encompassing one-fifth of the city. Hiding in plain sight, the reserve is by some accounts the second-largest municipal park in the United States.

On an unseasonably warm Sunday in November, my husband and I made one of our now-regular visits to Lynn Woods. Arriving at midday, we set off on Great Woods Trail, a main artery among the more than 30 miles of scenic paths that wind through the woods and around three idyllic reservoirs.

We soon found other like-minded people. A pack of teenaged mountain bikers whooshed downhill on the right, while a gray-haired man loped by on the left. As we approached intersecting trails, a small herd of people gathered, heads craned back, hoping to glimpse the woodpecker hard at work above, the rat-a-tat-tat of his labor echoing off the surrounding trees, now barren of leaves.

“It’s great here during all four seasons,’’ said Eleanor Starkenberg, pausing during a walk with her daughter Karla and Springsteen, a husky-chow-wolf mix. “Cross-country skiing in the winter is really fun, if you’re willing to pave your own way; the trails are ungroomed. If you arrive early, it’s very quiet and peaceful, you see the sun glistening off the snow on the tree branches. It’s like a winter wonderland. Last winter we saw a deer on the ice on one of the ponds. When it saw us, it was very scared, slipping and sliding, trying to scurry off.’’

Deer sightings aren’t unusual: The population here numbers about 70, up from one a decade ago.

Peter Cusimano comes here every day to walk his dog Marley. A local resident for 25 years, Cusimano is known as “the mayor’’ of Lynn Woods.

“As we walk on our familiar paths it’s as if no one has been this way before,’’ he said in an e-mail. “The fresh air warms us with the scent of pine and the occasional smell of burning logs from a nearby home. Sometimes in the quiet you can hear the howling of a coyote. If you look up, you may see the familiar red-tailed hawk or a vulture flying overhead.’’

According to Dan Small, a park ranger, numerous species of birds make this place home, including cormorants, scarlet tanagers, and Cooper’s hawks. “The best time to look for owls is just after dusk in February during their courting season. I have heard great horned owls and occasionally see one, but it is usually the screech owl that I encounter.

“I like snowshoeing first thing in the morning after an overnight snow,’’ Small said. “There are no other human tracks and everything is clean and fresh. You can see what the animals have been doing all night. This is especially true of the fox and coyote and it can be very revealing to follow their tracks for a bit and see what they have been up to.’’

There is an impressive vista of Lynn’s waterfront and Boston from the 48-foot Stone Tower on Burrill Hill at the top of Cook Road. The highest point in the Lynn area, it was built in 1936 for fire observation, as a Works Progress Administration project.

Walking back down the road, we encountered George and Susan Brennan as they tried to keep up with their 5-year-old grandson.

“My father took me here as a kid,’’ said George. “Shea is the fourth generation of my family to enjoy Lynn Woods. He loves to sled here; the best sledding and tubing is found on the wide open hills of the golf course, where you can find dozens of families enjoying a sunny winter day.’’

We wandered over to Gannon Municipal Golf Course, where its 160 acres, known as “Happy Valley,’’ were filled with smiling chippers and putters, delighted to be on the links on the cusp of December. The clubhouse, also erected by the WPA, resembles an Arts & Crafts lodge.

The course offers views of Boston’s skyline that have attracted movie crews. Last spring, Ben Affleck was filmed teeing off on Gannon’s 18th hole for the upcoming movie “The Company Men.’’ Mel Gibson’s “Edge of Darkness’’ shot scenes on the fairway in 2008.

The history of Lynn Woods itself could be Tinseltown material. Founded in 1881, the park’s lore dates to 1658, with tales of buccaneers hiding here from British soldiers.

“The woods are rich with pirate history,’’ said Cusimano in the e-mail. “Reportedly their treasure is buried here. Legend has it that the nearby Saugus Iron Works provided the pirates with their cannonballs and musket balls. An annual pirates day for children is organized at Dungeon Rock by ranger Dan and the Friends of Lynn Woods.’’

Indeed, Dungeon Rock is a main attraction here. It’s said that in 1852, Hiram Marble felt that he had received a message from a pirate ghost, telling him that if he dug here, he would become rich. He purchased five acres and, with his son Edwin, began to shovel. While finding no gold, the Marbles left a legacy: a network of tunnels that can be toured today. At the top of a set of stairs, a large pink rock marks Edwin’s grave.

Still a source of inspiration, Lynn Woods offers a different kind of treasure these days.

“Lynn Woods has gotten me through some real difficult times and has been part of my spiritual journey,’’ said Manning. “I love to walk up there to sort things out, and meditate. I took each of my German shepherds there for their last walks before I had to put them down. I went when I was pregnant and talked to my unborn son. And I always talk to God when I am there. It’s one of my most spiritual places on earth.’’

Meg Pier can be reached at meg@ viewfromthepier.com.

If You Go

Detailed map of Lynn Woods is available at City Hall, or visit the Friends of Lynn Woods website: www.flw.org. The reservation is open from sunrise to sunset.

Contact the park ranger for natural and cultural history tours of the sites and trails.