Connecticut River Valley eden
ASHFIELD AND CONWAY — It is one of those scenes that prompts back-road drivers to pull over for a closer look: Beyond a white farmhouse, old barns top a low hill. A light snow has dusted a mown path and revealed the lines made by tractor tires in the stubble of the sloping field. A dark edge of pine and hemlock trees enfolds the cleared expanse, like a wall enclosing a secret garden.
The Bullitt Reservation, 262 acres of fields and forest on the northwestern edge of the
At the moment, two short loop trails, each about a half-mile long, are open year-round for walking or snowshoeing. Both are accessible from the parking area beside the farmhouse on Bullitt Road, a dirt road off state Route 116 in Ashfield. The Meadow Path, the mown swath through high grass, skirts the crest of the hill in front of the barns and gives an east-facing view of low hills as it dips down the slope. Although there are no groomed tracks, cross-country skiers who don’t mind forging their own trails will find the meadow a nice spot for a pleasant jaunt.
In the pervading quiet along the old dirt road, wildlife signs and sightings are common: deer, fox, coyotes, wild turkeys, and the occasional moose and black bear. (Hunting is allowed on the reservation, so all visitors should check online for local hunting seasons — deer, bear, moose, and turkey — and wear blaze orange.) A recent morning walk revealed the tracks of a fox that had prowled the snow-covered meadow before disappearing into the woods.
The Pebble Trail, slightly longer and steeper than Meadow, winds through the woods, fields, and a beaver pond along Bullitt Road, offering a view of the surrounding hills to the northeast. The trail is named for its destination, a glacial erratic (a big boulder deposited by a glacier) called the “pebble,’’ nestled among pine trees about a third of the way up the 1,300-foot hill. For hikers, this trail is a moderate climb, but only expert cross-country skiers should attempt it.
Wendy Sweetser, director of The Trustees’ Highland Communities Initiative, says the organization hopes to have a third trail open this summer. She adds that as future trails are designed, some will eventually connect to a larger network of footpaths threading almost 3,000 acres of surrounding conservation land, including The Trustees’ Bear Swamp and Chapel Brook reservations, both in Ashfield.
The Bullitt Reservation takes its name from the previous owners, the family of William C. Bullitt, who served as the first US ambassador to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and later as ambassador to France. He and his family used the property as a country estate. Although the Bullitt family residence and about 100 acres of surrounding land were sold to a private buyer, Bullitt’s late daughter, Anne, donated the 262 acres and the farmhouse for the reservation because she wanted other people to have the same kind of country experiences she enjoyed as a child, Sweetser says. Centuries earlier, the property was sliced out of a six-square-mile tract awarded to veterans of a 1690 expedition to Canada during King William’s War. English settlers straggled out from eastern Massachusetts in the 18th century, when this region marked the colony’s western frontier.
The white farmhouse has its own story, starting with humble beginnings in 1839, when it housed Ashfield’s “townpaupers.’’ In a reversal of fortune, the building was later occupied by the Bullitt estate caretakers. Now it houses offices for Sweetser and employees of a local land trust. Outside, the building has kept its traditional New England look, but it is a far cry from the drafty wood-frame building it was a few years ago. The Trustees hired a local construction company to retrofit the farmhouse inside and out with energy-efficient technologies, including a “superinsulated’’ shell that allows the building to capture the warmth of its occupants, their computers, and so on. An air-source heat pump, which works much like an air conditioner, moves that existing heat around as needed. The house has no furnace, or even a wood stove, because no fuel of any kind is burned to generate additional heat, explains Mary Quigley, whose company, Quigley Builders, retrofitted the building.
Although the farmhouse is closed on weekends, Sweetser says she conducts tours every third Friday of the month at 3 p.m., and by appointment. In the spring, the site will start hosting workshops and programs on sustainable energy.
Meanwhile, occasional guided snowshoe hikes are on the winter docket. Visitors can warm up and rub elbows with townspeople at coffeeshops in Conway and Ashfield, where the conversation runs from chainsaw repair to poetry and will never disappoint.
Jane Roy Brown, a writer in Western Massachusetts, can be reached at email@example.com.